Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday played down a rift with President Barack Obama over the timing of possible military strikes against Iran, suggesting that Israel and the United States are so united that their policies are indistinguishable.
“We are you. And you are us,” said the Prime Minister in an unexpected remark designed to underscore the closeness of the two allies as he chatted at the start of an Oval Office meeting with a smiling Obama who stressed his strong support for Israel.
“Israel and the United States share common values,” said Mr Netanyahu. “Iran’s leaders know that too. For them you are the Great Satan and we are the Little Satan. For them we are you and you are us. And on this last point, Mr President, I think they are right. We are you. And you are us. We’re together. Israel and America stand together.”
Echoing comments from his speech on Sunday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), President Obama spoke about the “rock solid” commitment to Israel. “The United States will always have Israel's back when it comes to Israel's security," he said.
The public show of unity by both leaders is clearly aimed at raising the diplomatic pressure on Iran. They want to convince the Iranian leadership that the United States is not bluffing when Obama says that military force to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability remains an option. The President specifically mentioned that a “military effort” is part of US contingency planning, in a speech to the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC on Sunday.
However, the two leaders could not conceal their policy differences. Netanyahu made it clear that Israel must remain “master of its own fate.” He picked up on a reference in President Obama’s speech in which he had appeared to accept the possibility of unilateral strikes on Iran by Israel. “It must have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat,” Netanyahu stressed. But the President repeated that America believes that “there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution.”
At AIPAC yesterday, the differences between the Obama administration and Israeli government were on display. The AIPAC executive director, Howard Kohr, evoked an Israeli government demand for Iran to freeze uranium enrichment activities before a new round of talks are held with the big powers. “This is the only way,” he said to applause. The White House, however, believes it is impractical to insist on such a condition which has been consistently rejected by Iran.
There is no love lost between Obama and Netanyahu, who subjected the American President to a humiliating lecture in May last year in front of the cameras at the White House.
Each of his visits to Washington gave have been marked by tensions with Obama which have been exploited by the President’s Republican opponents. On Sunday, Obama condemned the “loose talk of war”, a remark which seemed to be an overt criticism of Mr Netanyahu himself, although Obama aides said later he was targeting the Republican presidential candidates.
The essence of the dispute between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama concerns the timeline for possible military action – with Obama having his eye on the electoral calendar and arguing that there remains time for the “crippling” economic sanctions on Iran to have an effect. Senior US officials have said that there is no evidence the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has taken a decision to pursue a nuclear weapon, and the Iranians continue to deny that they have any such intention.
But the Israelis fear that the Iranians will only use any future talks with the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany to play for time while continuing their sensitive activities underground. The Israelis believe that the Iranians are bent on developing a nuclear weapon.