Netanyahu, Obama Split on How to Deter Iran

The two leaders attempt to forge a single policy to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel talks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House, Washington DC, May 18, 2009
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel talks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House, Washington DC, May 18, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

Their personal and professional relationship is defined by pundits in both Israel and the United States as “frosty,” but that could become a whole lot worse on Monday when President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sit down together for a formal meeting at the White House.

The one issue that has put a stain on the relationship the most, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will most likely receive very little attention. Instead, Iran’s nuclear ambitions are at the top of the agenda.

The president and prime minister, as witnessed in their earlier conversations, hardly have a close friendship with one another. The two men’s personalities, at least at the surface, are inherently different.

President Obama plays the part of the rational, bureaucratic and at times robotic statesmen, constantly attuned to which way the wind is blowing in international forums including the European Union and the United Nations.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, seems to care little about what other people think of him and ignores the attitudes of the international community in order to do what he thinks is the right for Israel’s national security. Whether it is his refusal to give up East Jerusalem to the Palestinians or his near obsessive catering to his right-wing allies, it at times seems as if Netanyahu likes to think of himself as a modern day David Ben-Gurion — someone who will spare no price to defend the people of Israel, even if those decisions require inflaming other parties.

Ironically, both leaders hold many of the same goals and aspirations. Both wish to see Israel secure. Both are committed to fighting terrorism in all its forms. Both are deeply concerned that Iran may come close to the building of the ultimate deterrent, a nuclear weapon.

Yet the two are far apart as to how to realize those goals, with Netanyahu far more forceful in his threats toward Iran.

In other words, it has often been the means rather than the ends that have divided the Obama and Netanyahu administrations since the two first met in 2009. Those disagreements will again come to the fore on Monday when the question of Iran looms over both of their heads.

Newspaper and magazine articles over the past week have been full of speculation and rumor about what Netanyahu will ask of the president and whether the American will be prepared to accept his proposals.

The Atlantic magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal have all run stories about what exactly the Israeli prime minister intends to bring up when the topic of Iran is finally broached. There is a near consensus that Netanyahu will press Obama on his willingness to use military force if Iran continues to conceal its nuclear program from international inspectors. The president understands how destabilizing a nuclear Iran can be but is clearly leery of launching another Middle East conflict to prevent this from happening.

These two positions have long been discussed between American and Israeli policymakers. Whichever view prevails on Monday may just set the course as to whether the Iranians can expect a preemptive military strike or a deepening of the sanctions regime.

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