In his first conversation of three hours with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Day One, March 20, of US President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel, the two leaders finally put to rest their long dispute over a unilateral Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear sites.
In their news conference that night, both reiterated the principle that Israel has the right to independently defend itself against a perceived palpable threat from Iran – even if Washington does not share that perception.
The practical application of this principle was rather different: Obama and Netanyahu spoke highly and repeatedly of the close military and intelligence cooperation their governments had developed and which they would hate above all to jeopardize.
Obama: “There’s not much daylight between us on where Iran is at. Israel is differently situated than us. I would not expect Israel to defer to anyone in its decisions on this.” Netanyahu: “We do have a common intelligence assessment on this. Although the US and Israel have different vulnerabilities and capabilities… there is no argument… I am absolutely convinced that Obama is committed to preventing Iran obtaining a nuclear bomb.”
He added: “Iran has not yet reached the red line I defined in my UN speech, but it is getting closer all the time.”
The impression they both conveyed was that Israel’s right to strike Iran would be respected but not pursued without prior consultation with Washington.
In return for this concession, the US president pledged to deepen US military assistance – hardware, funding and technology – for maintaining its qualitative military edge so as to be able to defend itself in the future as well as the present: He disclosed he had set up a team to work on extending the US military assistance program to Israel for a further 10-year period beyond the date of its expiry in 2017.
Following the reports of a chemical attack in Syria and a Syrian air strike inside Lebanon this week, neither Obama nor Netanyahu showed any inclination toward possible military intervention for containing the expansion of the civil conflict raging there, although the US president did use some strong words.
Having ordered a thorough inquiry into the reported chemical attack, he said: “If true, it would be a game changer and there will be consequences,” adding: “When you let that genie out of the bottle – a weapon that can cause mass devastation and death – you have to act on the information. I would be deeply skeptical of any claim that the Syrian opposition used chemical weapons.”
By the time the experts determine the nature of the chemical attack and who was responsible, the dust will have settled, say DEBKAfile’s military sources.
Facing the two leaders from the press seats were also top US and Israeli officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. Kerry will be handling the Palestinian side of the Obama visit after the president’s side trip to Ramallah Thursday to meet Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Referring to peace talks with the Palestinians, the president stressed that “Israel’s security is non-negotiable” and must be assured in any peace settlement that established a sovereign Palestinian state. Netanyahu reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution based on mutual recognition and called on the Palestinians to set aside their preconditions and sit down to discuss ending their conflict once and for all.
The Obama visit has evidently not generated any major moves on the Palestinian issue but will result in small Israeli-Palestinian steps for strengthening stable Palestinian Authority rule over the West Bank under Mahmoud Abbas’s leadership. The PA’s institutions and security institutions will be strengthened and US funds directed to pulling the Palestinian economy out of its hole. Abbas is expected to reciprocate by suspending anti-Israeli actions at the UN and international institutions.
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