As part of a week-long diplomatic mission to the United States on Monday, Sept. 30, 2013 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House, where they primarily discussed Iran's nuclear weapons program and the progress of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which was followed by a brief oval office press conference.
Netanyahu has been warning the U.S. that Iran's overtures to end their nuclear weapons programs is just a "smokescreen" to get both the international economic sanctions lifted and to stall while their complete the process of creating nuclear weapons under the guise of engaging in diplomatic negotiations, which would thwart suspicions on their actions.
Since Hassan Rouhani was elected President of Iran in June and took over Iranian leadership in August, he has taken subtle steps, mostly rhetorical to ingratiate himself with the U.S. Among those steps include; a willingness to rid Iran of their nuclear weapons program through diplomatic negotiations, a speech at the United General Assembly emphasizing peace, and allowing his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to meet direct with Secretary of State John Kerry at the UNGA. The ultimate step towards a thaw was the 15-minute phone conversation between Presidents Obama and Rouhani on Friday, Sept. 27; the first of this sort in 34 years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The U.S. is taking the rapprochement seriously. Israel views Iran and their growing nuclear threat as their number one enemy; and Netanyahu has often vowed that Israel would go ahead alone and take military action against Iran if they obtain nuclear weapons. America's new thaw with Iran is a step bound to alienate the U.S. with Israel, and come between the countries special relationship in the long run.
Netanyahu spent four hours at the White House meeting with Obama and then having a lunch with the President, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry. Afterwards the Israeli Prime Minister met individually with Biden and then with Kerry at the State Department.
Meeting only three days after Obama's call with Rouhani, Obama and Netanyahu were cordial representing the closer ties between the two leaders established when Obama visited Israel in March. Both leaders in their post meetings remarks reaffirmed their appreciation of Israel and the U.S's close bond.
The two leaders spoke primarily about Iran, and their press remarks reflected that. Netanyahu warned the U.S. President about Iran's true intentions, while Obama promised that the U.S. would not lift any sanctions from Iran until their actions back up their words on ending their nuclear weapons program and the military threat would remain on the table.
Obama explained that he and Netanyahu share the same view that Iran should not have nuclear capability, stating; "it is imperative that Iran not possess a nuclear weapon… given the statements and actions from the Iranian regime in the past -- the threats against Israel, the acts against Israel -- it is absolutely clear that words are not sufficient, that we have to have actions that give the international community confidence that, in fact, they are meeting their international obligations fully, and that they are not in a position to have a nuclear weapon."
The U.S. President believes now is the opportunity to rid Iran of their nuclear program and halt any progress that have made towards obtaining nuclear weapons, and to accomplish this all through diplomacy, not forceful military action. President Obama described the U.S's position; "because of the extraordinary sanctions that we have been able to put in place over the last several years, the Iranians are now prepared, it appears, to negotiate. We have to test diplomacy. We have to see if, in fact, they are serious about their willingness to abide by international norms and international law and international requirements and resolutions. And we in good faith will approach them, indicating that it is our preference to resolve these issues diplomatically."
Obama reassured Netanyahu that; "we enter into these negotiations very clear-eyed. They will not be easy. And anything that we do will require the highest standards of verification in order for us to provide the sort of sanctions relief that I think they are looking for."
The President concluded that if the diplomatic option fails, the threat of military intervention remains; "But as President of the United States, I've said before and I will repeat that we take no options off the table, including military options, in terms of making sure that we do not have nuclear weapons in Iran that would destabilize the region and potentially threaten the United States of America."
Netanyahu comments to the press after their meeting were far more restrained that what he indicated he would tell Obama last week after the Iranian president's speech at the UNGA, when he claimed he intends "tell the truth in the face of the sweet talk and the onslaught of smiles." In the end Netanyahu seemed far more agreeable towards Obama's resolve for diplomacy.
No matter how much in accord the two leaders seem to be about Iran, Netanyahu however, still remained firm that Iran remains fiercely against Israel, that there should more sanctions imposed on the country, and Israel holds the right still to proceed with a military strike should Iran not comply and dismantle their nuclear program.
Netanyahu focused on his remarks on Iran on the importance of economic sanctions and maintaining a military threat, saying; "Iran's conciliatory words have to be matched by real actions -- transparent, verifiable, meaningful actions. Concluding on the topic Netanyahu said; "the enormous work that's been done to have a sanctions regime in place to thwart Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. I believe that it's the combination of a credible military threat and the pressure of those sanctions that has brought Iran to the negotiating table." Despite Netanyahu's emphasis on tighter sanctions, Obama did not promise anything ore on that front.
Netanyahu reiterated his longtime stance about Iran's opinion of Israel, stating; "Iran is committed to Israel's destruction. So for Israel, the ultimate test of a future agreement with Iran is whether or not Iran dismantles its military nuclear program. We have a saying in Hebrew, we call it mivchan hatotza'a -- you would say it in English, what's the bottom line? And the bottom line, again, is that Iran fully dismantles its military nuclear program."
Other issues Netanyahu and Obama discussed during their meeting were the various insurrections and instabilities in the Middle East including, Egypt and Syria's nuclear weapons agreement and process for their destruction.
The second most pressing topic the leaders discussed was the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, that are apparently not advancing as far and fast as President Obama would like. According a close Israeli official, Obama wants to Netanyahu to speed up the process and focus on important issues such as defining the borders, worried time will run out without coming to a peace agreement. Although the U.S. wants the talks essentially based on the 1967 Six-Day war borders, Israel has not agreed on it. Obama also briefed Netanyahu on his meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas held at the UNGA. The leaders' public comments on the talks gave little away about their true status, except praise to each other for their involvement in advancing the peace process.
Obama stated; "I commended him for entering into good-faith negotiations with the Palestinian Authority in discussing how we can resolve what has been, obviously, one of the biggest challenges for a very long time in the region. And both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas have assigned outstanding negotiators. They have been engaging in serious conversations. And our goal continues to be to help facilitate -- not dictate, but facilitate -- the kinds of genuine negotiations that will result in two states living side-by-side in peace and security. And we have a limited amount of time to achieve that goal, and I appreciate the Prime Minister's courage in being willing to step forward on behalf of that goal.
While Netanyahu limited his remarks about the progress of the peace talks mostly to express his commitment to peace in the region, saying; "I want to use this opportunity to thank you, Secretary of State Kerry and others in your administration for helping to advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians. I remain committed to that peace. And I hope that our efforts -- our common efforts -- would lead to a secure and lasting peace."
Still Netanyahu insisted any peace agreement is contingent on Israel maintaining its right to a military defense, and to strike when and if it is necessary for Israel's national security, confirming; "We know that for peace to endure, it must be based on Israel's capacity to defend itself, by itself. And I hope that we can achieve an historic transformation that will give a better future for us and our Palestinian neighbors, and, who knows, one day with our other neighbors as well."
The Israeli Prime Minister concluded his day in Washington by attending a "farewell event" in honor of outgoing Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, who is retiring with members of Congress at the Capitol. He then had an evening meeting with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, before embarking on his day in the spotlight at the UNGA in New York.
Although Netanyahu was not as forceful with President Obama as he promised, instead like Obama he chose a more subtle diplomatic route to maintain a unified front, not willing to alienate his American ally and give in to Iran's hope to drive a wedge between the two countries. Netanyahu made his message clear in the Israeli media enough his distrust of the new Iranian President last week in his response to Rouhani's U.N. address. The oval office, Obama's domain was not place to argue about Iran, Netanyahu would keep his best arguments for the main event, the United Nations General Assembly on the world's stage with all eyes and ears on the Israeli Prime Minister.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.