President Barack Obama appealed to Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday to give sanctions time to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but the Israeli prime minister offered no sign of backing away from possible military action, saying his country must be the “master of its fate.”
The two men, who have had a strained relationship, sought to present a united front in the Iranian nuclear standoff as they held White House talks. But their public statements revealed differences over how to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Behind closed doors, however, Netanyahu confirmed to Obama what the president has already stated publicly – that Israel has yet to decide whether to hit Iran’s nuclear sites but retains the right to resort to military action, a source close to the talks said.
Friction from the beginning
The two leaders were elected within months of each other at the end of 2008 and early 2009; there was friction almost immediately.
Israelis felt snubbed when Obama passed over Jerusalem to visit Muslim capitals around theMiddle East. They were also uncomfortable with the new US president’s embrace of Arab public opinion while distancing himself from the policies of President George W. Bush, who was seen as an emphatically pro-Israel president.
But they were even more put out when Obama administration officials began pushing Netanyahu for a freeze in Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank, putting him into a political hot seat at home and emboldening Palestinian leaders to boost their demands of Israel.
Within months, Netanyahu was forced to declare support for a two-state solution and announce a moratorium on settlement building, something no Israeli prime minister had ever done. The Israeli press reported that some in Netanyahu’s circles became convinced that Obama was trying to sway public opinion in Israel against him to undermine Israel’s governing coalition.
“[Obama] put the Palestinian-Israeli issue on the top early on,” says Mitchell Barak, a former aide to Netanyahu who also cited the ideological divide between the two leaders. “He made Netanyahu do what he didn’t want to do, which is to say, ‘I believe in a two-state solution.’ ”
“Most people” in the prime minister’s right-wing party don’t believe in the two-state solution, Mr. Barak adds.
Two years ago, Netanyahu was reportedly snubbed at the White House by Obama, who abruptly left the Israeli leader and his entourage, stoking speculation that the president was still fuming over a poorly timed announcement of new settlement construction in East Jerusalem that had upended a visit by Vice President Joe Biden a few weeks earlier.
And Obama had to sit through an Oval Office lecture in May 2011 by Netanyahu about how returning to the 1967 border of the West Bank, which Obama had advocated as a baseline for border negotiations, would leave Israel with “indefensible” borders.
And just a few weeks ago, Netanyahu used Republican senators John McCain of Arizona andLindsey Graham of South Carolina to broadcast his frustration with the administrations failure to get tougher with Iran – venturing into the US political sphere.
“Israel must have the ability always to defend itself, by itself, against any threat,” Netanyahu said sitting alongside Obama before their closed-door consultations. “Israel has the right, the sovereign right, to make its own decisions.”
Channel 2 in Israel, sourcing a “senior American official”, says that the decision has already been made by the Israeli government to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
“All U.S. intelligence officials are confident the Israeli leadership has already decided to attack Iran, unless a significant change happens in the coming weeks or months with the Iranian nuclear program,” Channel 2 reports.
The report comes just hours ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to AIPAC in Washington.
AIPAC is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and is widely considered the most powerful pro-Israel lobby group in the United States.
“A senior official stressed in a conversation with News 2 there is a dispute between Israel and the United States on the question of ‘day after’, which means the price of attacking Iranian nuclear facilities,” Channel 2′s report says.
American officials have warned their Israeli counterparts about a regional war in the region following an attack on Iran, along with the collapse of Israel’s stock market and an arms race in the Middle East, according to the report.
In response to the American official’s statement to Channel 2, “sources close to Netanyahu” said the U.S. is doing what it can to “handcuff” the Israelis and to “frighten the Israeli public”.