Despite pledges from both Israeli and U.S. officials that the White House meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday would offer “no fireworks,” fundamental differences on how to deal with the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran divide the two men and their administrations.
Last week, the Obama administration reportedly dispatched senior State Department adviser Vali Nasr as a special envoy to Tehran in the hope of persuading Iran to resume high-level talks between the two countries.
Although Netanyahu does not oppose a diplomatic approach, he believes tougher measures will be needed to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program, starting with tougher economic sanctions, which Obama has rejected.
During an interview with Newsweek that appeared just hours before the White House meeting with Netanyahu, President Obama called his approach toward Iran “superior” to anything that has been tried before, even though his strategy of offering talks and trade in exchange for concessions on Iran’s nuclear program is virtually identical to the approach of the Bush White House.
Senior U.S. government officials met with their Iranian counterparts 22 times during the Bush administration, with little to show for the meetings.
The last high-level talks, led by undersecretary of state William Burns, who has maintained his position in the Obama administration, led to a frustrating stalemate in Geneva in June.
Nevertheless, Obama explained in the Newsweek interview that “the approach we are taking is one that has to be given a chance and offers the prospect of security, not just for the United States but also for Israel, that is superior to some of the other alternatives."
Top advisers to Netanyahu told Newsmax last month in Jerusalem that his administration saw the entire region through the prism of Iran.
The possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons “is an issue that dwarfs all others,” a Netanyahu confidant told Newsmax. If Iran’s nuclear ambitions are left unchecked, “this could be a turning point that is irreversible.”
For more on this, read “ Prime Minister Netanyahu: Iran Is New Focus.”
Although Obama said in the Newsweek interview that he understands Israel’s fears, his administration has insisted that it wants to see Israeli concessions on the creation of a Palestinian state before the U.S. would help Israel on Iran.
During a closed-door meeting with 300 top donors to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) this month, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel made that linkage explicit.
Emmanuel “told us point blank that the U.S. would do nothing to put pressure on Iran unless [Netanyahu] accepted a Palestinian state,” one participant in the meeting told Newsmax.
“So Israel first has to make concessions, without any idea of what “help” on Iran will mean. This is delusional. It’s a drug trip,” he said.
Vice President Joe Biden delivered that message in public on May 5, when he told AIPAC that Israel “has to work for a two state-solution,” code words for a Palestinian state.
CIA Director Leon Panetta delivered the message even more bluntly during a previously unpublicized trip to Israel in late April, the Jerusalem Post reported Sunday.
Panetta reportedly asked Israel to “tone down” its rhetoric on Iran and warned that the U.S. would not approve an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites at this time.
Just days after Panetta’s meetings in Jerusalem with Netanyahu and his intelligence chiefs, the Israeli Air Force conducted another long-range operational exercise over the Mediterranean Sea to practice an eventual bombing run on Iran.
The Obama administration has enlisted moderate Arab leaders, including King Abdallah of Jordan, to pressure Israel to make concessions toward the creation of a Palestinian state before tackling the issue of a nuclear Iran.
King Abdallah said last week during the Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Jordan that, if Israel embraced a Palestinian state, it would have immediate peace with the entire Muslim world. “That is not a two-state solution; it is a 57-state solution,” he said.
But Netanyahu also has been engaged in diplomacy. In a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on May 11, the two leaders focused almost exclusively on how to create a common Israeli-Arab front against Iran.
Netanyahu also will press Obama to increase economic pressure on Iran but is unlikely to win any concessions.
New sanctions legislation, introduced by Reps. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., last month, has been bottled up by the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the request of Obama himself.
“I have no intentions of moving this bill through the legislative process in the near future,” said committee chairman Howard Berman, even though he is co-sponsoring the bill.
Despite massive oil and gas exports, Iran lacks refinery capacity and continues to import around 40 percent of its gasoline. The new bill would punish companies engaged in the sale, shipment, financing, or insurance of refined petroleum products Iran imports.
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