Israel Trip

03.17.13

Obama and Netanyahu Have Reached Detente in Time for Israel Visit

Their relationship may be icy, but the president and prime minister won’t antagonize each other during Obama’s trip to Israel this week. They’ve quietly moved closer on Iran’s nuclear program, Eli Lake reports.

When President Obama arrives in Israel this week, he will be greeted with a lot of unhappy people.

Settlers say they will protest Obama’s address to university students because of a U.S. Embassy snub to students from a university in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. The Palestinian Authority’s foreign minister wants the U.S. government to coordinate his Jerusalem visit with the Palestinian side. Average Israelis are complaining the visit will make traffic a nightmare in the days before the Passover holiday. And the labor union that represents Israeli diplomats and foreign ministry workers has threatened a strike the week that he is coming, potentially disrupting the protocol for the meetings, the drivers, and the joint press appearances.

Welcome to Israel, Mr. President. But for all the pre-trip tumult in Israel, one person who is unlikely to cause Obama any problems is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Despite the icy personal relationship between the two leaders, Israel and the United States have quietly moved much closer on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program.

Six months ago, Netanyahu declined repeatedly to assure Obama that he would not attack Iran before the U.S. election. Obama sent a procession of senior officials from his own administration in the summer of 2012 to persuade Netanyahu to hold off.

Today the tension between the two leaders on Iran has diminished, according to U.S. and Israeli officials. No more does Netanyahu hint Israel will take matters into its own hands over Iran’s nuclear program. When Vice President Biden announced earlier this year the resumption of negotiations with Iran, Netanyahu’s government offered no public criticism. Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the director of military intelligence for the Israel Defense Forces, told the annual conference here at Herzliya that he assesses “Iran’s nuclear program is advancing slower then they planned.”

That should be good news for Obama. Speaking this week to Israel’s Channel 2, the only Israeli news channel to get an exclusive interview with him, the president reiterated that all options were on the table. But he also seemed to imply he would rather come to Israel as a tourist. He told the news channel he wished he could “sit at a cafe and just hang out, wear a mustache, wander through Tel Aviv, meet with students at a university in an informal setting."

During his visit, Obama also will attend a state dinner where one of the guests will be the first Miss Israel of African descent. He intends to address the nation’s students in Jerusalem. He will lay a wreath on the grave site of Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and he will tour the Israel Museum. He’ll visit the Church of the Nativity, but he will not visit the remains of the outer wall of the second Jewish temple or, for that matter, al-Aqsa Mosque.

Diplomatically, though, the big news is that Obama and Netanyahu will not antagonize each other. Obama last week told Jewish leaders, according to two sources in the meeting, that he would not be bringing a peace plan to Israel but that he may present a peace proposal later this year if the opportunity arose.

The prime minster at first agreed to freeze some construction of buildings at settlements, but he did not continue the freeze after 2010, when Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas declined to start formal negotiations with Israel.

Netanyahu, for his part, has backed away from his Iran red line. Speaking at the Herzliya conference last week, U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro said, “There has been a very rigorous exchange between the analysts and the experts that have informed the policy and public utterances between the two leaders.”

“The process of the intelligence picture getting closer has been going on for some time,”  said Shmuel Bar, the director of studies for the Institute of Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya and a former senior Israeli intelligence official.

Netanyahu’s implicit threat to attack Iran was withdrawn at the end of September. At a speech before the U.N. General Assembly, he presented a graphic of a cartoon-style bomb with a red line right before the fuse marked 90 percent. The U.N. address and the cartoonish graphic signaled the Israeli prime minister would not be attacking Iran before the election, according to U.S. and Israeli officials. A spoof of the cartoon with an actor dressed as the Israeli leader is now a popular billboard hawking a cell-phone plan.

The speech signaled a significant change for the Israeli government on the trigger, or “red line,” for attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. For much of 2012, Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister at the time, said the red line for attacking Iran would be based on preventing Iran from installing the advanced centrifuges in the underground facility discovered by U.S. intelligence in 2009 known as Fordow.

Netanyahu’s U.N. address made clear that his new red line would be based on how much uranium Iran enriched to 20 percent purity. The highly enriched uranium needed for a weapon is easier to produce from stock material enriched to 20 percent as opposed to the lower enriched uranium at around 3.5 percent.

Israeli experts today say the exact amount of 20 percent enriched uranium to produce a bomb is around 250 kilograms. The latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran has enriched more than 250 kilograms of uranium to 20 percent levels, but much of this material has been diverted to metal rods and other kinds of storage that would not be suitable for bomb making. “The Iranians understand our red line, and for now they are respecting it,” said one former senior Israeli diplomat. Kochavi told the Herzliya conference that “Iran is making sure not to cross any international red lines because the survival of the regime is the biggest priority.”

Barak, who stepped down this month as defense minister, acknowledged at the end of October that Iran had begun diverting the uranium enriched to 20 percent levels, a factor he said led Israel to conclude it had more time before a potential attack on the facilities.

The diversion has given Western diplomats a second chance at negotiations with Iran. As Obama prepares for his trip to Israel, Netanyahu for now appears to be giving those negotiations the time they would need.