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Obama and Netanyahu bring tense history to Iran talks
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu will be in Washington Monday for talks with US President Barack Obama about Iran’s nuclear development. France24.com takes a look at the conflicting goals of two closely allied leaders with a strained relationship.
At the G20 summit in November, US President Barack Obama – unaware that his microphone was still on – said to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in a rare moment of decidedly undiplomatic candor: “I have to deal with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] even more often than you”.
The remark reflected the tense relationship between two leaders of longstanding allies that have found themselves at loggerheads over Israeli-Palestinian negotiations throughout Obama’s first term.
Now, in the shadow of their strained history, the two heads of state are preparing to meet at the White House Monday for high-stakes talks centered around another point of contention: Iran’s nuclear development and how it impacts Israel’s security.
Seeking conflicting commitments
Netanyahu will be aiming to press Obama to explain how he plans to use tougher sanctions and diplomacy on Iran -- and to define the boundaries that Iran must respect if it does not want to face US military action. “Netanyahu is going there to say that he’ll give sanctions a chance, but he wants a commitment that if they don’t work, there’s a green light for military force,” explained FRANCE 24 International Affairs Editor Robert Parsons.
Despite Iranian insistence to the contrary, Israeli officials contend that Iran is indeed on its way to building nuclear weapons, and there has been widespread speculation that Israel could carry out a unilateral pre-emptive strike against Iran.
The US is anxious to avoid that scenario. An Israeli attack on Iran would have far-reaching regional implications, making Israel a possible target for terrorist groups with ties to Iran. It would also threaten to embroil the US in another potentially bloody, internationally unpopular conflict and endanger its interests and allies in a volatile part of the world.
Obama will therefore seek to send a warning to Iran that it should halt its nuclear program and that the military option is always on the table, but also attempt to persuade Netanyahu that Israel needs to give sanctions and diplomacy a chance. “Obama will be reluctant to give Israel a commitment of possible military force,” Parsons said. “Obama himself wants a commitment that Israel will not use force as long as sanctions are the strategy.”
One of the main sticking points in the talks is likely to be what constitutes an Iranian threat to Israeli security. For the Obama administration, the real danger begins when Iran starts building nuclear weapons, and White House press secretary Jay Carney told journalists earlier this week that there is no evidence yet that Iran has started doing so. But Israel views Iran’s ability to build the weapons – and not the actual building -- as sufficient justification to consider a military strike.
Obama’s delicate pre-election position
Obama’s position is complicated by the fact that he is up for re-election this year in a race that is predicted to be extremely close and potentially bruising. Though the president’s counterterrorism successes have helped him fend off accusations from the right that he is weak on national security, the escalating standoff between Iran and Israel could leave him vulnerable to Republican arguments that he is not firm enough in his support of Israel. Senator John McCain, Obama’s opponent in 2008, recently told reporters, “There should be no daylight between America and Israel in our assessment of the threat”, and Republican presidential contenders Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have slammed Obama during debates for being a fair-weathered friend to Israel.
On the eve of the White House talks, Obama sought to reassure America's powerful pro-Israeli lobby by vowing to use force if necessary. But he also criticised what he described as "too much loose talk of war".
There has been speculation that Netanyahu could target Iran before the November election, as Obama would find himself facing great pressure to support Israel ahead of the crucial vote. But with recent polls and economic data pointing to a strong possibility that Obama could be re-elected for a second term, Netanyahu may not want to risk angering his most crucial ally with whom he already has a rocky relationship.
Trust between Netanyahu and Obama has been notably eroded by their spats over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. It looks unlikely at this point that the Iranian problem will do anything to repair their relationship.