5 Mar 2012

Obama meets Netanyahu amid tension over Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Binjamin Netanyahu meets Barack Obama at the White House, amid more warnings over Iran’s nuclear programme. But how united are Israelis over the prospect of war?

As President Obama prepares to sit down with the Israeli Prime Minister, a timely warning on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. According to Reuters, the head of the International Atomic Energy Authority has told its governing body that without ‘credible assurance’. he could not be certain that Iran’s nuclear programme was entirely peaceful.

More evidence, if it was needed, for those advocating military action to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons: more fuel too, for speculation that even without US backing, Israel might launch a strike of its own.

On Sunday, President Obama used his speech at the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC to warn against too much “loose talk” of war, arguing that tougher sanctions against Iran should be given more time to work. Furthermore, he told the Atlantic magazine that a premature strike could do more harm than good.

When the chips are down, I have Israel’s back. Barack Obama

But, and let us not forget that this is an election year, Obama has been careful to stress that in the absence of any other option, he “wouldn’t hestitate” to back a military strike, telling AIPAC: “When the chips are down, I have Israel’s back”. All music to Netanyahu’s ears, certainly, along with a reminder from his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman that US pressure would not affect Israeli action.

He told Israeli radio: “We are an independent sovereign state, and at the end of the day, the state of Israel will make the most correct decisions as we understand them.”

Fractious relationship

It is true to say that Obama and Netanyahu have not enjoyed the easiest of relationships: last May, when the two met in the Oval Office amid open disagreements about Jewish settlements on the West Bank, a fractious Netanyahu delivered a terse lecture on Israeli history, in full view of the cameras.

Officials have been keen to stress that will not be the case this time. And public opinion in both countries towards Iran is far more complicated, and divided.

Most Americans think Iran is the most serious security threat in the world right now: last month’s Pew Research poll found more than half of those asked would support a military attack on Iran, should sanctions fail. Thirty nine per cent said the US should support Israel if it launched its own attack, with 51 per cent advocating staying netural.

Republican leaders have been notably hawkish: right after Obama’s AIPAC speech, his would-be White House challenger Mitt Romney insisted that if the president was re-elected, “Iran will have a nuclear weapon, and the world will change if that’s the case.”

Israeli opinion

But it would be simplistic to assume that Israeli opinion is lined up behind a hard-line military option: indeed, Netanyahu is going into the talks with his own public divided. A poll carried out last week by the University of Maryland for Israel’s Dahaf Institute found that just 19 per cent of Israelis would support a unilateral strike on Iran, 34 per cent opposed any kind of attack on Iran, while the rest said their support was contingent on US backing.

Shibley Telhami, who oversaw the research, said “Israeli leaders may decide to strike without US support, but a detailed analysis of the poll suggests that their public wants them to follow Washington’s lead, and Israelis appear to be influenced by America’s judgement.”

The former White House adviser Amita Etzioni, just back from a visit to Iran, wrote last week: “Nothing is more likely to bring Iran to the negotiating table, not to win time, but for a true give-and-take, than if …serious preparations for a military strike take place.” The west, he said, should look like it means business, but with the aim of achieving nuclear disarmament, rather than outright regime change.

Carry a big stick

So – the diplomacy continues, in the hope of avoiding war: the grim experience of Iraq sounding alarm bells to anyone worried about the risk of sparking a wider, regional conflict. Obama’s Republican rivals might sound far more bellicose, but Israeli advisoes have been busy cautioning their prime minister that he cannott afford to alienate a US president who he might well still be dealing with, a year from now.

And as for Netanyahu’s own agenda? Iran’s nuclear programme, not the Palestinian question, has become the international community’s top concern. With little support for a full-on attack on Tehran, even within his own country, that might have to be enough.