The conversation President Barack Obama and prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu held Monday, Nov. 9, was the most open, productive and well-disposed of any of the three which have taken place since both were elected to office, because it focused on three subjects alone: Iran, Iran, and… more Iran.
Reporting this, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources disclosed that the widely-reported petty power games leading up to the meeting were staged by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell – until Netanyahu took matters in his own hands and called the rising man in the White House Dep. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon. He and the president quickly grasped the importance of an early meeting with the Israeli prime minister and it was soon arranged.
The usual news conference, communique and cameras were disallowed in the interests of total hush on the content of the crucial, unusually long (one hour, 20 minutes) conversation one-on-one in the Oval Office. The general impression of coldness between Obama and Netanyahu was enlisted to the same end.
Netanyahu made the trip to Washington for a scheduled address to the General Assembly of the North American Jewish Federations on Monday. But he arrived with defense minister Ehud Barak because he had decided to cash in the bond Obama gave him at their first encounter in the White House on May 18: The US president then pledged that diplomacy with Tehran on its nuclear program would be held to a deadline running to the end of December 2009, in return for which the prime minister guaranteed to refrain from military moves against the Islamic Republic and its allies until then – or even bandy Israel's military option in public statements.
Washington opposes Israeli military action but can't veto it
But now, Netanyahu needed to tell the president that while attacking Iran's nuclear installations was the worst possible option for Israel, worse still was the possibility of Iran becoming a nuclear power. He found Obama calmly realistic and accepting of the reality that Israel had no recourse for cutting short Iran's drive for a nuclear weapon other than striking its nuclear installations. As president of the Unite States, he had begun looking ahead to the repercussions.
Obama's response to the prime minister's words came in three parts:
1. Chances have dropped to nil for Tehran to accept a deal for sending its enriched uranium to a third country.
2. Tougher sanctions, especially a fuel embargo, won't work – not only because Russia and China object but because some Arab governments led by Abu Dhabi are committed to helping Iran make up the difference.
3. Although deeply averse to Israeli military action against Iran, the president saw that from Jerusalem's standpoint time was running out. He only asked that if Israel did take up its military option, the prime minister keep him fully briefed and not blindside Washington by striking out in unexpected directions. Obama said he had directed his White House team, especially the National Security Council, to begin preparing for the aftermath of an Israeli strike on Iran.
The Palestinian problem can wait
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources disclose that Obama and Netanyahu were of one mind that other issues on the table must await their turn, among them the Palestinian situation and Mahmoud Abbas' future, US relations with Turkey and Syria and where Israel stood in relation to both. They agreed that Israel's decision in principle on whether to send the IDF after Iran's nukes must take precedence over any other shared policy items. It was understood that the two leaders would get back to them after a potential Israeli attack takes place and only when its after-effects are recognizable.
Their conversation was described by both the Israeli prime minister and White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel as very positive. It was said to have “dealt with a range of subjects that are important for Israel's security and our joint efforts to advance peace.”
Our sources disclose its main headings:
1. Netanyahu filled Obama in on the latest Israeli intelligence estimates regarding the domestic situation in Tehran. Iran, he said, had completed its political and military preparations for war on the assumption that an Israel-Iran clash had become inescapable.
2. His briefing encompassed the thinking in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip and the preparations they had set in train for this conflict. (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 419 of Oct. 30 on the military understandings reached by Turkey and Iran.)
3. The Israeli prime minister enlarged on some of Israel's opening moves in the projected conflict.
4. The leaders then went into a discussion on how the US and Israel would coordinate their military and diplomatic steps in the short term.
5. They examined the outcome of the large-scale US-Israeli Juniper Cobra 10 military exercise in Israel which ended Monday Nov. 9.
(A separate article in this issue discusses results of the exercise and the picture it presented of the possible effects of an Iranian missile attack.
6. Obama agreed to send a team of high-ranking Defense Intelligence Agency and Central Intelligence Agency officials to Israel next week to discuss US-Israel interaction in the run-up to a potential Israeli attack.
Franco-Israeli relations, the barometer for Iran
From his encounter with Obama, Netanyahu returned to his hotel and closeted himself for several hours with Barak, who had previously given defense secretary Robert Gates a preview of the prime minister's appraisal to the president. After three hours' sleep, he took off for Paris to clue President Nicolas Sarkozy in on his talks with Obama and their conclusions. Their talks also ran past the 45 minutes allotted by an extra hour and took place in the president's private apartment in the Elysee to black out their content. Like the Israeli leader's White House talks, the media was not briefed on this conversation either.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly military sources observe that elite Israel officials' trips to France have become the barometer for measuring the level of military tensions between Israel and Iran. The needle shot up on April 3 when, during President Obama's visit to Europe, a specially chartered plane flew Israeli Chief of Staff Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi to Strasbourg for a conference with the Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, and again on Oct. 4, when Ashkenazi flew to Normandy to see Mullen. They met in the French War Room together with French Chief of Staff Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin.
These comings and goings and palavers were set in motion by the deal Obama and Sarkozy struck for France to join any US military actions arising from a new Middle East war. Aware of this deal, Tehran cut Paris out of any role in big power nuclear diplomacy and arrangements for reprocessing its enriched uranium.
The Iranians are not just sitting there waiting upon developments. Tuesday, November 11, the day a new unity government was installed in Beirut, they organized a leak to the Lebanese media alleging that Israel was on the point of striking Hizballah's military bases in Lebanon to disarm its ballistic capabilities for retaliation as the opening salvo of its war on Iran.
In Jerusalem, Gen. Ashkenazi told the Knesset's security and foreign relations committee that in his view, the Iranian issue should be resolved by the end of the year. “The IDF is preparing all the necessary options,” he said “and the decision-makers will have to consider which paths to take.” He added: “If the Iranians understand they will have to be a steep price, it wouldn't be illogical or unreasonable to say they may change their current direction.”