Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left Washington early Wednesday with assurances that the United States is prepared to use force to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, just not yet.
Netanyahu, who met with President Barack Obama on Monday and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, put the world on notice that his patience was wearing thin and, if necessary, he would launch unilateral strikes.
“As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation,” he told 13,000 delegates in a keynote speech on Monday night at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, according to AFP.
“Unfortunately, Iran’s nuclear program has continued to march forward. Israel has waited... for diplomacy to work, we’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer.”
Sitting alongside the president at the White House before going into talks on Monday, Netanyahu told Obama that Israel must remain the “master of its fate,” in a firm defense of its right to mount a unilateral strike.
Obama, who assured Netanyahu that he has Israel’s “back,” stressed that he sees a “window” for diplomacy with Iran, despite rampant speculation that Israel could soon mount a risky go-it-alone military operation.
What happened behind closed doors?
“Netanyahu does not believe that the international sanctions against Iran or the dialogue with Iran will prevent the country from procuring nuclear weapons,” Israel’s Haaretz daily quoted a senior Israeli official as saying on Tuesday. “That is why Netanyahu thinks the damage and casualties from a missile attack on Tel Aviv in response to an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities will be small change compared to the consequences of the Iranian government attaining nuclear capability.”
While no one knows exactly what was said behind closed doors in the Oval Office, Obama publicly kept to a far more dovish line and appeared notably at odds with Netanyahu over just how immediate the Iranian threat is.
“This notion that somehow we have a choice to make in the next week or two weeks or month or two months is not borne out by the facts,” he told a press conference Tuesday.
But addressing AIPAC on Sunday, Obama recognized Israel’s right to take action on its own and said he was prepared to use force if necessary to snuff out an Iranian nuclear threat.
According to Haaretz report, Netanyahu said the Iranian regime has reached an official policy decision to destroy Israel. Therefore, in Netanyahu’s view the debates on the matter are incorrectly focusing on the number of missiles that will be fired at Israel or the number of dead after an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities and the Iranian counterattack. In Netanyahu’s view, the Israeli home front will absorb a blow even if the U.S. attacks Iran, so the real issue is the dangers of Iranian nuclear missiles, and not conventional ones.
Obama acknowledged “Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs.”
“I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he said. “As I’ve made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”
Iran is feeling the bite
World powers on Tuesday responded to Iran’s new willingness to discuss the nuclear issue with an offer of talks, which Obama said would “quickly” show whether the Islamic republic was serious about avoiding war.
Obama, seeking a second term in November, argued that Iran was now feeling the “bite” of tightening sanctions though cautioned he did not expect a breakthrough in a first set of negotiations.
He also slammed Republican candidates for their statements demanding military action on Iran, after leading candidate Mitt Romney earlier said “thugs and tyrants” only understood American readiness to use power.
“This is not a game, and there's nothing casual about it,” Obama said.
After meeting Clinton, Netanyahu held talks Tuesday with congressional leaders before flying home.
“We’ve had a very good visit in Washington, first in our discussion with the president in the Oval Office... and now culminating in this remarkable display of solidarity here in the Congress of the United States,” he said.
“I go back to Israel feeling that we have great friends in Washington.”
Their divergent comments on Tuesday -- Obama at a news conference and Netanyahu on Capitol Hill -- highlighted the differences that remain between the two leaders over the need for military action against Iran a day after they presented a unified front at the White House.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other Israeli officials have warned that Iran may be only months away from reaching a zone of immunity where its nuclear activities in deep underground facilities would be invulnerable to Israeli air strikes.
The Obama administration says it does not believe Iran has taken a decision to develop a nuclear weapon, or that the time is right for military action, preferring to give biting new sanctions time to work.
But Israel, which sees a possible Iranian nuclear weapon as a threat to its very existence, claims Iran may be on the cusp of “breakout” capability -- when it could quickly build a nuclear weapon.
In his speech to AIPAC, Netanyahu sought to minimize the differences between himself and the U.S. president.
Obama “stated clearly that all options are on the table and that American policy is not containment,” Netanyahu said. “Israel has exactly the same policy.”