President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel constituted a welcome, long overdue outreach to the Israeli people, who have received him warmly and enthusiastically.
The bond that ties Israelis and Americans is deep, and encompasses shared values, common strategic challenges, and the closest military and intelligence cooperation to date.
The visit’s timing, however, was directly linked to Iran’s continued march towards a nuclear weapon, and Obama’s concern over potential Israeli military action, despite attempts by the U.S. president and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to present a united front on the Iranian threat.
The U.S. President used the visit to speak directly to Israelis, and tried to set up a channel of communication with them over the head of Netanyahu.
This is why he declined to speak at the Israeli Knesset, and urged the Israeli public to pressure Netanyahu to restart the diplomatic process with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
During the visit, Obama and Netanyahu worked hard to generate an image of warmth and friendship among one another, and tried to undo years of public and damaging clashes.
Yet it remains apparent that the two leaders remain out of sync on the most urgent and serious threat to global security: Iran’s nuclear program.
The disagreement does not stem, as it once did, from differences in intelligence assessments of Iran’s nuclear progress. Today, the intelligence communities of both counties agree that Iran is close to a nuclear breakout phase.
A glance at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s February report reveals the disturbing fact that Iran continues to make good progress in its uranium enrichment project, while stalling for time through round after round of fruitless discussions with the international community.
Although sanctions are causing real harm to Iran’s economy, and stirring up resentment among ordinary Iranians, they have not yet managed to cause Tehran to change its mind on its nuclear program.
Iran currently possesses just under 170 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent (medium enriched uranium) according to the IAEA, meaning that it needs between 60 to 90 more kilograms to have enough for its first atomic weapon.
Israeli defense observers note that that final enrichment process, from medium to high enriched uranium, is the easiest and fastest phase.
Meanwhile, Iran has recently installed faster centrifuges at its Natanz uranium facility, a factor that will speed up the enrichment process. IAEA inspectors seeking access to Iran’s classified Parchin military site, where a suspected nuclear trigger is being developed, have been blocked at every turn.
These developments lie at the heart of Obama’s visit. Behind closed doors, it seems reasonable to assume, Obama sought to ascertain how close a potential Israeli strike might be.
He may also have sought to dissuade Netanyahu from acting alone.
Publicly, at least, Netanyahu and Obama agreed on a way to present their differences in a useful way.
During Obama’s three-day visit, both leaders stressed the right of their respective countries to take military action.
Obama acknowledged Israel’s right to “make its own decisions when it comes to the awesome decision to engage in any kind of military action, and Israel is differently situated than the United States.”
Going even further, Obama implicitly recognized that Washington’s red line for action was significantly behind that of Israel’s. “I would not expect that the prime minister would make a decision about his country’s security and defer that to any other country, any more than the United States would defer our decisions about what was important for our national security,” he said.
This, then, is the new public American-Israeli stance. The U.S. will not let Iran go nuclear, but is willing to let its sanctions experiment play out, while Israel, because of its more limited strike capabilities, cannot wait much longer before it loses the ability to act.
Because Israel’s core defense doctrine is based on the principle of never entrusting the Jewish people’s fate to others – even the best of allies – Israel may go it alone, with American approval, if Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei does not freeze his nuclear program soon.
It is far from clear whether these public stances are reflections of the positions privately held by Netanyahu and Obama.
Khamenei, for his part, wasted little time in responding to the messages coming out of Jerusalem, threatening to “annihilate Tel Aviv and Haifa” if Israel attacked his country.