WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agree, at least in principle: Keep the talk on what to do about Iran behind closed doors. But once they’re behind those doors, they can’t agree — and they can’t seem to resist bringing their disagreements into the open.
Within hours of a long and private Oval Office meeting on Monday that aides to both leaders said was productive, Netanyahu suggested that Obama’s sanctions-focused approach to Iran’s nuclear program wasn’t producing results. The next day Obama was warning that the United States would suffer repercussions if Israel struck Iran prematurely.
There also seem to have been some concessions from both sides.
Netanyahu told Obama and congressional leaders that he had not yet decided to strike Iran. And Obama’s defense secretary, Leon Panetta, issued perhaps the most explicit warning yet of possible U.S. military action against Iran in his address Tuesday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference.
"Military action is the last alternative when all else fails," he said on the conference’s last day in a round of morning addresses aimed at motivating the 13,000 activists in attendance before they visited Capitol Hill to lobby lawmakers. "But make no mistake, if all else fails, we will act."
That formulation is more acute than the “no-options-off-the-table” language that has been the boilerplate for the Obama and Bush administrations.
Much of Panetta’s speech appeared to be a bid to persuade Netanyahu to coordinate more closely with the U.S.
“Cooperation is going to be essential to confronting the challenges of the 21st century,“ Panetta said. "The United States must always have the unshakeable trust of our ally Israel. We are stronger when we act as one."
Top Obama administration officials have tried to persuade Netanyahu that diplomatic options have not yet been exhausted in the bid to have Iran stand down from its suspected nuclear weapons program.
Netanyahu did not seem as eager to cooperate in his hard-hitting speech on Monday night, which repeatedly brought the AIPAC crowd to its feet for ovations. He stressed Israel’s right to act and expressed impatience with the pace of efforts to bring pressure to bear on Iran.
“I appreciate President Obama’s recent efforts to impose even tougher sanctions against Iran, and these sanctions are hurting Iran’s economy, but unfortunately Iran’s nuclear program continues to march forward,” Netanyahu said. “We’ve waited for diplomacy to work, we’ve waited for sanctions to work, none of us can afford to wait much longer. As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.”
Responding to commentators who argue that military action against Iran would be ineffective or provoke a violent response, Netanyahu said, "I’ve heard these arguments before." He then dramatically held up correspondence from 1944 between the World Jewish Congress and the U.S. War Department in which the latter rejected the WJC’s plea to bomb Auschwitz and the railways leading to the death camp.
“2012 is not 1944, the American government today is different. You heard that in President Obama’s speech yesterday," he said. “But here is my point: The Jewish people is also different today. We have a state of our own, and the purpose of a Jewish state is to defend Jewish lives and secure our future. Never again.”
He repeated the line that he had told Obama at the outset of their meeting earlier Monday: “When it comes to Israel’s survival, we must always remain the masters of our fate.”
Such talk appeared to frustrate Obama. The next day, in response to a question at a news conference, Obama pointedly said that military action against Iran could have consequences for the United States.
“Israel is a sovereign nation that has to make its own decisions about how best to preserve its security,” he said. “And as I said over the last several days, I am deeply mindful of the historical precedents that weigh on any prime minister of Israel when they think about the potential threats to Israel and the Jewish homeland.”
But then he added, “The argument that we’ve made to the Israelis is that we have made an unprecedented commitment to their security. There is an unbreakable bond between our two countries, but one of the functions of friends is to make sure that we provide honest and unvarnished advice in terms of what is the best approach to achieve a common goal, particularly one in which we have a stake. This is not just an issue of Israeli interests, this is an issue of U.S. interests. It’s also not just an issue of consequences for Israel, if action is taken prematurely. There are consequences to the United States as well.”
Obama circled back to Republican critics who have accused him of not making it clear to Iran that a military strike would ensue from a failure to stand down from its suspected nuclear program.
“You know, when I visit Walter Reed,” the military hospital in Washington, “when I sign letters to families that have — whose loved ones have not come home — I am reminded that there is a cost,” he said. "Sometimes we bear that cost. But we think it through. We don’t play politics with it. When we have in the past — when we haven’t thought it through and it gets wrapped up in politics, we make mistakes. And typically it’s not the folks who are popping off who pay the price. It’s these incredible men and women in uniform and their families who pay the price."
Obama insisted there was still time for diplomacy to work, and in a subtle gibe at Netanyahu said that Israel’s intelligence establishment agreed.
“It is my belief that we have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically,” he said. “That’s not just my view — that’s the view of our top intelligence officials, it’s the view of top Israeli intelligence officials.”
Both leaders appeared to be caught between wanting to make their case and keep some matters behind closed doors. Netanyahu started his Monday night speech to AIPAC’s policy conference by pledging, “I’m not going to talk to you about what Israel will do or not do — I never talk about that.”
A day earlier in his AIPAC address, Obama criticized what he called "loose talk of war."
“Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government by driving up the price of oil, which they depend on to fund their nuclear program,” he said. “For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster."
The three Republican presidential candidates who addressed AIPAC on Tuesday used the opportunity to take aim at Obama’s Iran policy, accusing the president of being soft and hesitant on the issue.
“I will bring the current policy of procrastination to an end,” Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, said via satellite.
Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives also speaking via satellite, said that as president he would not expect a warning from Israel should it decide to strike Iran.
Rick Santorum, the ex-U.S. senator who was at the conference in person, despite it being Super Tuesday, said that differences between the U.S. and Israel over what should trigger a strike were emboldening Iran.
“There is a clear and unfortunate and tragic disconnect between how the leaders of Israel and of the United States view the exigency of this situation,” Santorum said. He accused Obama of “turning his back” on Israel.
The evening before, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader, proposed from the podium that the U.S. should openly threaten Iran with the prospect of "overwhelming force" if its nuclear program progresses past certain thresholds.
"If Iran at any time begins to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels, or decides to go forward with a weapons program, then the United States will use overwhelming force to end that program," he said to applause, although his remarks do not reflect any AIPAC policy.
In the president’s news conference, which was supposed to be about the housing crisis, Obama pushed back against hawkish talk from his Republican critics.
“When I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I’m reminded of the costs involved in war,” he said. “I’m reminded of the decision that I have to make in terms of sending our young men and women into battle, and the impacts that has on their lives, the impact it has on our national security, the impact it has on our economy. This is not a game, and there’s nothing casual about it.”