March 6, 2012

Netanyahu and Obama at AIPAC - a leader and a reader

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama

The recent American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention was an opportunity to hear senior elected Israeli and American officials speak on behalf of their countries. Representing Israel were President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and representing the United States was President Barack Obama. In Israel, the president is the head of state, but it is the prime minister who is the head of government and wields the real power. Thus, it was the remarks of Prime Minister Netanyahu that drew the most attention, as did those of President Obama.

The main topic of both the Israeli prime minister and the American president was predictably Iran and its quest for nuclear weapons. Both spoke about their countries' assessment of the Iranian nuclear program and actions they believe are required to prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. The Israelis have no doubt that the Iranians are developing a nuclear weapon; the U.S. intelligence community has surprisingly not yet made that determination.

It is important to dissect the words "nuclear weapons capability." In the past, the American intelligence community sought to distinguish between having the capability to develop nuclear weapons and actually building them. The former was deemed to be acceptable, while the latter was not. If one can believe Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's words, the Administration no longer makes that differential. Mrs. Clinton said that the Obama Administration is committed to prevent Iran from not only developing a nuclear weapon but the capability to develop a nuclear weapon. I hope she means exactly that and we don't hear a State Department spokesperson later tell us "what the Secretary really meant" is something different.

Although President Obama spoke on Monday, and Prime Minister Netanyahu on Tuesday, let me address the Prime Minister's remarks first.

Benjamin Netanyahu with the author - Jerusalem 2006

I was not particularly surprised by anything Netanyahu had to say - I have been hearing the same message from him since I discussed this with him prior to him becoming prime minister. His words as leader of the opposition carried the same message - a nuclear armed Iran constitutes an existential threat to the state of Israel and Israel will not put itself in the position of being faced with that threat. Israeli leaders often invoke the memory of the Holocaust and its resultant legacy - "never again."

Netanyahu stated that Israel has waited patiently for the international community to address the Iranian nuclear program. Many Israelis feel that the rest of the world sees Iran's nuclear ambitions as an Israeli problem and want Israel to solve it. Mr. Netanyahu believes Iran is an international issue and wants the international community to solve it. Israel has watched the United Nations and the United States try to change Iran's behavior through peaceful means, to no avail. Israel has waited for diplomacy to work, has waited for sanctions to work, but believe that the Jewish state is now running out of time.

The Prime Minister was unequivocal in his resolve - Israel reserves the right to defend itself, and will exercise that right if it believes that is in its national interest and when they believe it is in their national interest. Given their history, it's understandable.

These are the words of a leader.

Now to President Obama's remarks.

Someone listening to the President for the first time would conclude that he stands shoulder to shoulder with the Israelis, that he is willing, in the end, to use American military might to take action against Iran if all other options fail. The listener would also conclude that the United States has pursued a deliberate course of diplomacy, followed by increasing levels of sanctions and at all times has been willing to listen to the Iranians should they decide to accept the wisdom of the leader of the free world and reject a program they have been pursuing almost to the exclusion for all others at great expense for years.

That is what the ever eloquent, polished orator - President Obama - wants you to believe. The man can read a teleprompter. The words were all there, carefully chosen, probably run by a focus group or two, with just enough American bravado to appeal to the average listener here and in Israel. When all is said and done, however, the only audience that matters is the senior Israeli leadership - they are who this song and dance was written for. Mr. Obama must convince Prime Minister Netanyahu and his inner circle that the President is sincere in his proclamation that the United States - in this case the President of the United States - "has his back."

Given the parade of senior American political and military officials that have visited Israel in the recent past telling the Israelis that attacking Iran is a bad idea, the President's words are a bit puzzling. I realize he is asking the Israelis to give his endless and fruitless diplomatic efforts and the heretofore weak sanctions more time to succeed, but does he think they will buy it?

The sanctions are hurting the Iranian people, yes, but there is no indication that the nuclear weapons program has been affected at all. In fact, the program seems to have gained steam as the levels of sanctions increase. It is hard to imagine the Iranian leadership abandoning their number one priority because its people are suffering under sanctions easily blamed on the West (primarily the United States).

You can bet that Iranian political analysts were watching as well. I imagine their assessment of the speech is fairly close to mine. The remarks, although delivered very convincingly, were an attempt to delay any Israeli military action beyond the U.S presidential election in November. Forget American military action prior to that - Mr. Obama believes that another Middle East military campaign will cost him any chance he has for a second term. That's probably a fair judgement given his disastrous handling of the end of the Iraq war and his current conduct of operations in Afghanistan. (For my views on that, see my article: Mr. President, tell me again why we're in Afghanistan?)

The Obama strategy - tell the Israelis (and Americans) what they want to hear and stall any Israeli unilateral strike on Iran until the elections are over. After the elections, revert to the usual Obama Administration shoddy treatment of Israel and maintain the Iranian crisis at a level that does not require anything other than calls for diplomacy and sanctions. At some point, the Iranian program will have progressed beyond the point of no return and an Israeli military operation will no longer be a viable option.

Mr. Obama's eloquence is remarkable - he can work an audience. However, I fear his words are the words of a reader, but not a leader.

I know it, the Israelis know it, and yes, the Iranians know it.