On Sunday, April 1, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke by phone from London for more than half an hour with the Prime Minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu. Their topics were peace diplomacy with the Palestinians and Iran. Although it was supposed to be a mere courtesy call, to congratulate Netanyahu on his inauguration, the conversation lasted longer than is customary; Obama and Netanyahu decided to continue talking soon with the Israeli prime minister visiting the White House in late April or early May.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke on Thursday, April 2, with new Israeli foreign secretary Avigdor Lieberman; the two agreed likewise to meet as soon as feasible.
They talked a few hours after London's Financial Times published an interview with U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in which, asked if Iran would cross a nuclear red line this year, said: “I don't know, I would guess probably not. I think we have more time than that. How much more time I don't know. It is a year, two years, three years. It is somewhere in that window.”
Gates does not expect Israel – which believes the US is too sanguine in its estimate of when Iran could develop a nuclear weapon – to take military action this year. “I guess I would say I would be surprised . . . if they did act this year.”
The appraisal that Israel would not resort to arms against Iran before early 2010, unless circumstances changed drastically – an appraisal reported in the last issue of DEBKA-Net-Weekly – has emerged from the direct line of communication maintained between the US defense secretary and Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak (read previous article regarding US-Israeli cooperation in the aerial strike in Sudan), and reflects the gist of the two men's discussions.
Obama urged to precipitate a crisis with Netanyahu
But a day earlier, on Wednesday, Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee: “The Israeli government may ultimately see itself so threatened by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon that it would take pre-emptive military action to derail or delay it.”
These divergent US official utterances derive from grave concerns among broad administration and military circles that Israel might feel goaded to attack Iran without notice to Washington were the Jewish state to feel the Obama administration was using diplomatic engagement and strategic cooperation to cover up for Tehran to complete its work on a nuclear weapon. In this case, the Israelis would withhold advance warning to Washington for fear of a US leak to Tehran of the impending attack.
Because of this quandary, president Obama is being urged by his Middle East and Iran advisers – and circles around his Middle East George Mitchell – to take off the gloves and precipitate a confrontation with Binyamin Netanyahu's new government.
This advice is backed by four arguments:
1. A tough US line against Israel will give Obama leverage in negotiations with moderate Taliban factions for a settlement in Afghanistan. This argument is gaining traction in the White House.
1. It will deter Netanyahu from a decision to strike Iran. He will not risk Obama hardening his attitude toward Israel and dragging Israel's relations with the US into a rock-bottom crisis.
2. The Obama administration has faint hopes of diplomatic or military breakthroughs in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan in the next year or two. His best bet for success lies in approaching the Israeli-Palestinian peace process without delay.
Left-wing Jewish circles aim to discredit Netanyahu
3. The left-leaning segment of the American Jewish lobby, which is close to Obama, has launched a harsh anti-Netanyahu campaign unrivaled for many years. They maintain they are giving the US president the freedom to twist the arm of the discredited Israeli leader without being accused of conducting an anti-Israeli policy.
4. Turning Netanyahu's Iranian trump card against him. The Israeli prime minister claims that Middle East issues are in gridlock because Iran vetoes any Palestinian peace move and because of its nuclear drive. Obama must turn the tables by stating that the stalemate on the Palestinian front is obstructing a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue.
These circles propose three immediate steps:
– A public demand by President Obama that the Netanyahu government halt construction of new settlements and their expansion.
– Squeeze the Israeli government to accept the principle of two states, Israeli and Palestinian, coexisting side by side in peace and security.
– Ease US conditions for recognizing a Palestinian unity government shared by Fatah and Hamas.
This would entail Washington accepting Hamas' position that non-recognition of Israel should not be an obstacle to its leaders' relations with the United States or recognizing Hamas' legitimacy as partner in a Palestinian unity government.
Some of his advisers are urging president Obama to order Mitchell to help Egypt bring the Hamas-Fatah power-sharing negotiations to an early close, while publishing a peremptory US demand for the complete cession of Israel settlement building in the “occupied territories.”
President Obama has been listening, but has not yet decided what advice he will take.