Netanyahu, Obama Split on How to Deter Iran

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

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with American president Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, May 18, 2009
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with American president Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in 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 at the White House.

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

Different personalities

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

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

Netanyahu seems to care little about what other people think 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.

Same goals

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 building the ultimate deterrent: a nuclear weapon.

Yet they are far apart on to how to realize these 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.

What will Netanyahu ask?

The media have been full of speculation and rumors about what Netanyahu will ask of the president and if the American will be prepared to accept his proposals.

The Atlantic, 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 he is leery of launching another Middle Eastern 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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