Reading the Tea Leaves at Obama and Netanyahu’s Meetings

BY Larisa Epatko  March 5, 2012 at 4:59 PM EST


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama at the White House on Monday. Photo by Amos Ben Gershom/Israeli Government Press Office via Getty Images.

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meetings this week were interesting to regional watchers as much as for what they didn’t say as what they did.

The NewsHour spoke to two analysts, Foreign Policy Initiative Executive Director Jamie Fly and Tufts University professor Vali Nasr, about what the two leaders hope to get out of the sessions. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

What did Netanyahu hope to accomplish?

Jamie Fly: I don’t think he accomplished what he wanted to. He wanted President Obama to be more vocal about his red lines with Iran, and I don’t think the speech fully resolved Prime Minister Netanyahu’s concerns. The problem is that Obama keeps talking about the Iranian nuclear threat as if we have plenty of time to deal with it. From an Israeli perspective, that’s not very reassuring, so the president’s repeated statements about how he has Israel’s back and he doesn’t bluff — those aren’t the sorts of reassurances that the prime minister is comfortable with bringing back to his government at home. He may well decide that he has to take matters into his own hands and go it alone.

Vali Nasr: Prime Minister Netanyahu’s line from the beginning is that the red line (on Iran) should be zero enrichment, not nuke possession. President Obama says that if Iran gets weapons, that’s the red line. Netanyahu wants Obama to give a narrow timeline for success or failure of negotiations, and Obama hasn’t given that. He says give diplomacy a chance. So Obama sounded tough, but he really put forward an approach that undermined Netanyahu … he didn’t make a commitment to zero enrichment. He even made it sound as if Iran could go into a zone of immunity, and he’d let them. He said nothing about pre-emption. It was a direct rebuff to Netanyahu. He basically said, “No war now.”

What did President Obama want out of the meetings?

Jamie Fly: My guess is it was more of political move on his part. He was more interested in assuring American Jews that he’s pro-Israel and supports Israel. My guess is, it’s more geared toward a domestic audience. Did he do what he wanted in that sense? Well, it’s an easier sell with the American Jews, and he has been supportive of Israel here and there, but a lot of his record will be difficult for him to whitewash with people that follow this closely. Certainly the Israeli government won’t buy it.

Vali Nasr: President Obama was trying to push back against the Republicans and take away the Netanyahu, evangelical, Mitt Romney argument that he’s weak on Iran and has no plan. So he sounded tough, but he pushed back the red line much farther. On the other side, the Iranians have said that nukes are a great sin. So you have the president saying no to war and Iranians saying they aren’t pursuing nukes, so I think war is just not in the cards.

Judging from these meetings, is Israel more or less likely to attack Iran’s nuclear program?

Jamie Fly: It’s hard to say. We’ll know more when we see Netanyahu’s speech this evening, but from his perspective, I doubt that he’s taking anything from this trip that will convince him that Obama will take care of the Iranian problem next year if it comes to that. There are enough caveats built into Obama’s message that he can get out of these commitments. So it’s just as likely if not more so that Netanyahu takes matters into his own hands.

Vali Nasr: I don’t think it’s likely at all. It’s rhetoric designed to force the U.S.’s hand. The Obama administration actually likes it because it puts pressure on Iran. It’s like good cop-bad cop. It allows Obama to say, ‘you can either deal with me, or you can deal with Israel, which has made very clear that they want to attack you.’ It’s not a given that Netanyahu would attack or not attack, but if they do, they could conceivably look as bad as that Turkish flotilla debacle.

What is the source of the perceived distrust between the U.S. and Israel?

Jamie Fly: Some of it is clearly political, and Obama referenced this in his Atlantic interview. I think a lot of it is ideological. President Obama approaches Israeli problems from a different perspective than do Netanyahu and other Israelis. The president has shifted the U.S.’s Israel policy and has not been as consistently supportive as other presidents and that has forced Israel’s leaders to question his support for their nation. They have to work through it, I guess, but on the question of Iran, the Israelis are facing a key moment in their thought process. My guess is that if Israel takes action, Obama will support them. The broad structure of their relationship will force them to work through these issues.

Vali Nasr: It is personal because the Israelis don’t believe that Obama is a fighter. They think he’s trying to get out of wars. He didn’t want to go into Libya. He doesn’t want to go to Syria. And again in the Atlantic interview he said the same thing about using all elements of the U.S.’s national power. But even if Mitt Romney was the president, any country that wants 100 percent trust that another nation will go to war for it — that’s never money in the bank. You can’t count on that. Israel’s leaders will only feel comfortable when Obama says that it’s in our national interest to go to war with Iran.

On Monday’s NewsHour, we get the perspectives of Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic magazine, Jamie Fly of the Foreign Policy Initiative, and James Dobbins, director of the RAND Corporation. View all of our World coverage and follow us on Twitter.