President Barack Obama’s refusal Tuesday Sept. 11 to see Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu because “the president’s schedule will not permit that,” left Jerusalem thunderstruck – and Washington too.
At one stroke, round after round of delicate negotiations on Iran between the White House, Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, the US National Security Council, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta collapsed. They had aimed at an agreement on a starting point for the meeting that had been fixed between the two leaders for Sept. 28 in New York to bridge their differences over an attack on Iran’s nuclear program.
By calling off the meeting, the US president has put paid to those hopes and publicly humiliated the Israel prime minister, turning the clock back to the nadir of their relations brought about by the comment by Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Aug. 30: “I don’t want to be complicit if they [Israel] choose to do it” – meaning attack Iran.
By rebuffing Netanyahu, the president demonstrated that the top US soldier was not just talking off the cuff but representing the president’s final position on a possible Israel strike to preempt Iran’s nuclear program.
Tuesday, the US Defense Secretary said: “If Iran decides to make a nuclear weapon, the US would have a little more than a year to stop it.” He added that the United States has “pretty good intelligence” on Iran.
"It's roughly about a year right now. A little more than a year. And so … we think we will have the opportunity once we know that they've made that decision, take the action necessary to stop (Iran)," Panetta said on CBS's "This Morning" program.
Panetta said the United States has the capability to prevent Iran from building an atomic bomb. "We have the forces in place to be able to not only defend ourselves, but to do what we have to do to try to stop them from developing nuclear weapons," he said.
Some optimists in Jerusalem took these comments to indicate that the crisis had become manageable now that the Obama administration was finally prepared to discuss a timeline and red lines for holding Iran back from making a bomb. This hope was soon dashed by word that the US president would rather confront Israel than Iran.
The White House may also have been incensed by the orders given by Netanyahu and Barak to the IDF to keep going on preparations for attacking Iran alongside the forthcoming meeting between the two leaders.
Netanyahu's comments to a news conference earlier Tuesday are unlikely to have salved angry administration spirits in Washington.
He said that with every passing day, Iran comes closer to a nuclear bomb, heedless of sanctions and diplomacy. The world tells Israel 'wait, there's still time'. And I say, 'Wait for what? Wait until when?' Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel," said Netanyahu on a note of frustration against the Obama administration.
debkafile reported earlier Tuesday:
The wrangling over Iran between the offices of the US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu Monday, has been reduced essentially to a battle for the agenda of their meeting in New York on Sept. 28: Netanyahu will be pressing for a US commitment to military action if Iran crosses still-to-be-agreed red lines, while the White House rejects red lines – or any other commitment for action – as neither necessary nor useful.
Israel’s latest rebuttal came Monday, Sept. 10 from former Military Intelligence chief, Amos Yadlin, who argued that even without agreed red lines, Israel was quite capable of coping with its enemies without the United States.
The sparring appeared to have reached a point of no return, leaving Obama and Netanyahu nothing more to discuss. However, just the opposite is true. For both leaders their upcoming tête-à-tête is vital. It is the US president’s last chance to prevent an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program before he faces the American voter on Nov. 6, while the prime minister will not forego any opportunity to harness the US to this attack. He needs to prove – not just to the anti-war camp ranged against him at home, but also to assure the military – which has been falsely reported as against an attack – that he bent over backward to procure US backing.
Netanyahu does not feel that even if he fails to talk Obama around (more likely than not), he has lost American support; he counts on the US Congress to line up behind Israel’s case for cutting down a nuclear Iran which is sworn to destroy the Jewish state, as well as sections of the US public and media and some of he president’s Jewish backers, including contributors to his campaign chest.
Those are only some of the reasons why the last-ditch US-Israeli summit cannot be avoided and indeed may be pivotal – both for their participants’ personal political destinies,and for the Middle East at large.
debkafile’s Washington and political sources disclose that their dialogue will have two levels according to current planning:
1. In New York, Obama and Netanyahu will try and negotiate a common framework;
2. At the Pentagon in Washington, defense chiefs Leon Panetta and Ehud Barak will be standing by to render any agreements reached in New York into practical, detailed plans which would then be referred back to the two leaders for endorsement.
The heated dispute between US and Israeli officials over “red lines” was therefore no more than sparring over each of the leaders’ starting-points for their New York dialogue and therefore their agenda and final understandings. Behind the clash of swords, US and Israeli diplomats are working hard to negotiate an agreed starting point. They are putting just as much effort into preventing the row deteriorating into a total rupture before Sept. 28.
Netanyahu discussed another red line Monday when he interviewed President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, their first meeting in three months. Although the Israeli presidency is a largely titular function, Peres has elected himself senior spokesman for the opponents of an Israeli military operation against Iran.
While their advisers sought to establish agreed lines between them ahead of Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama, debkafile reports that the confrontation between the two Israeli politicians ended inconclusively, because Peres kept on demanding that the prime minister bend to the will of the White House.