Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is waiting and watching when it comes to Iran—although for how long, no one knows.
Analysts and Jewish organizational officials who speak with Israeli and U.S. government say Netanyahu came away from his meeting last week with President Obama feeling that he has a strategic partner in seeking to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But, they say, he has yet to decide whether Obama’s tactics will do the job or if Israel must strike.
Critical Israeli conclusions from Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama have yet to be revealed in part because Israeli officials may still be considering their course of action, suggested Jason Isaacson, international relations director for the American Jewish Committee.
“We don’t yet know the crucial decisions,” or if there are any, he said.
“It was a worthwhile visit,” Isaacson said. “There is greater understanding than existed before, and there had been pretty considerable understanding before.”
David Makovsky, a senior analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, outlined a number of theories that have cropped up in the wake of the meeting: That Netanyahu will wait until after European oil sanctions kick in this summer to decide on a course of action, or that he would launch a strike before the American elections in order not to be locked in by the powers of a newly elected president to set an international agenda. Or that he would not act at all.
“There were a lot of convergences between the president and the prime minister, but timing wasn’t one of them,” Makovsky said. “Obama said we have plenty of time in his speech” to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, “and that is not the Israeli perception.”
It was hard to pin down how much time Israel believes it has, in part because its calculations are based on Western intelligence, which may not be entirely reliable. A key factor, Makovsky said, was when and whether Iran developed the capability to enrich uranium to weapons grade levels, 93 percent.
“Israel has two questions: Will conversion to highly enriched uranium be detected in real time, and will the United States be able to act in real time,” he said.
A consensus is that the main takeaway of the meeting last week between the two leaders is that they had moved toward one another: Obama in making explicit the possibility of a U.S. military strike on Iran, in underscoring Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself, and in rejecting a strategy of containing Iran; and Netanyahu in ratcheting down threats of military action.
“For now the chances of an Israeli attack against Iran have receded,” said Alireza Nader, an expert on Iran-Israel relations at the Rand Corp., an independent think tank that often consults with the U.S. government. “I wouldn’t say the military option is off the table. We’ll have to see what Netanyahu says in the next few days or weeks.”
What precisely is the time frame for a make-or-break decision by Netanyahu on whether to strike is a matter of conjecture?
Some suggest that Netanyahu cannot act before the consequences are clear of tough oil sanctions that the European Union is set to impose on Iran, if only because Netanyahu has pressed so hard for the sanctions. The sanctions are set to kick in on June 1, and it will take weeks to see if they have had an effect on Iran’s considerations of whether to advance its suspected nuclear program.
“More than ever the idea that the sanctions could lead to a change in behavior of the Iranians is guiding us,” a senior European diplomat said, speaking of the mood on the continent.
Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said it was his impression that Netanyahu would not decide to act at least until the American elections in November. The backlash of a strike before then would not serve Israel well, he said, noting the uncertainty it would inject into the American political sphere and economy, particularly regarding oil prices.
“Israel will not act for the time being, from my perspective, until the elections because of the unforeseen consequences, the impact on the economy,” he said.
Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli analyst, says the chances of a unilateral Israeli attack against American wishes are “tiny.”
“If Americans are dragged into war and oil shoots up, it would damage our position,” he said. “Our relationship with the United States is a very valuable strategic asset.”
In the immediate wake of the meetings, news reports surfaced that Israel had asked the Obama administration for weaponry that would help in a strike against Iran. The White House denied a report in the Israeli daily Maariv that Obama had promised bunker-buster bombs and other equipment that could help Israel to hit Iran on the condition that it not attack this year.
Unnamed Israeli and U.S. officials were later quoted confirming that a request for such assistance was made by Israel. The unnamed U.S. official told Reuters that a request was made during Netanyahu’s meeting with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta but that no agreement was reached.
One prominent critic of the notion that Israel could successfully attack Iran’s nuclear facilities is former Mossad chief Meir Dagan. Appearing on the CBS news program “60 Minutes” that was broadcast Sunday night, Dagan warned that an Israeli strike on Iran could result in a war that has “devastating impact on our ability to continue with our daily life.”
Dagan, who has clashed with Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak over the issue, said if there is a strike, he would “always prefer that Americans will do it.”
However, it is not clear whether Israeli leaders are content to rely upon the U.S. to do what they feel is necessary if push comes to shove.
Makovsky outlined three areas of tension between the Israeli and American approaches: What would constitute the trigger, an Iranian capability to make a weapon, which is Israel’s red line, or Iran’s decision to weaponize, the U.S. red line; the utility of diplomacy; and Israel’s sense of urgency regarding when Iran’s nuclear program becomes impenetrable—what Barak calls a “zone of immunity.”
“The Israeli fear is that Iran will try to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Israel, and offer the U.S. enough to stay at the table and not strike,” Makovsky said.
But Foxman said the fact that Netanyahu and Obama reinforced the perception of alignment mattered more than differences over timing.
“Trigger mechanisms, weaponizing, capability, this is all pilpul,” he said, using to the term for Talmudic disputes. “What does zone of immunity even mean?”
Aaron David Miller, a former top Middle East negotiator under a number of presidents, wrote that despite the differences, the Iranians would understand after the meeting that Obama and Netanyahu were united in a determination to prevent the Islamic Republic from going nuclear.
“Perhaps the most important development to emerge from the meeting last week was Obama’s clear reset of the frame of reference within which American policy toward Iran will now play out,” he wrote on CNN’s website. “He gave very little away to the prime minister in terms of assurances, let alone guarantees, of American military action against Iran. But he did highlight the new vocabulary: Containment of Iran and its nuclear program won’t do anymore. Prevention of an Iranian nuclear weapon is now the strategic objective.”