Obama and Netanyahu disagree, in private and in public

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can’t agree on Iran when they meet behind closed doors — and they can’t seem to resist bringing their disagreements into the open.

Within hours of a long and private Oval Office meeting on March 5, Netanyahu suggested that Obama’s sanctions-focused approach to Iran’s nuclear program wasn’t producing results.

The next day, Obama warned that the United States would suffer repercussions if Israel struck Iran prematurely.

There also seem to have been some concessions from both sides. Netanyahu told Obama and congressional leaders that he had not yet decided to strike Iran. And Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued perhaps the most explicit warning yet of possible U.S. military action against Iran in his March 6 address to the AIPAC annual policy conference.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama meet on March 5. photo/jta-ron kampeas

“Military action is the last alternative when all else fails,” he said on the conference’s last day in a round of morning addresses, aimed at motivating the 13,000 activists in attendance before they visited Capitol Hill to lobby lawmakers. “But make no mistake, if all else fails, we will act.”

That formulation is more acute than the “no-options-off-the-table” language that has been the boilerplate for the Obama and Bush administrations.

In general, top Obama administration officials have tried to persuade Netanyahu that diplomatic options have not yet been exhausted against Iran.

Netanyahu did not seem as eager to cooperate in his hard-hitting March 5 evening speech, which repeatedly brought the American Israel Public Affairs Committee crowd to its feet. He stressed Israel’s right to act and expressed impatience with the pace of efforts to bring pressure to bear on Iran.

“I appreciate President Obama’s recent efforts to impose even tougher sanctions against Iran, and these sanctions are hurting Iran’s economy, but unfortunately Iran’s nuclear program continues to march forward,” Netanyahu said. “None of us can afford to wait much longer. As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.”

Responding to commentators who argue that military action against Iran would be ineffective or provoke a violent response, Netanyahu said, “I’ve heard these arguments before.”

He then dramatically held up correspondence from 1944 between the World Jewish Congress and the U.S. War Department in which the latter rejected the WJC’s plea to bomb Auschwitz and the railways leading to the death camp.

“2012 is not 1944, the American government today is different,” he said. “But here is my point: The Jewish people is also different today. We have a state of our own, and the purpose of a Jewish state is to defend Jewish lives and secure our future. Never again.”

Such talk appeared to frustrate Obama. At a news conference the next day, he pointedly said military action against Iran could have consequences for the United States.

“Israel is a sovereign nation that has to make its own decisions about how best to preserve its security,” he said.

But, the president added, “This is not just an issue of consequences for Israel, if action is taken prematurely. There are consequences to the United States, as well.”

Obama insisted there is still time for diplomacy to work, and in a subtle jibe at Netanyahu said Israel’s intelligence establishment agreed.

“It is my belief that we have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically,” he said. “That’s not just my view — that’s the view of our top intelligence officials, it’s the view of top Israeli intelligence officials.”

The three Republican presidential candidates who addressed AIPAC on March 6 accused the president of being soft and hesitant on the issue.

“I will bring the current policy of procrastination to an end,” Mitt Romney said via satellite.

Newt Gingrich, also speaking via satellite, said that as president he would not expect a warning from Israel should it decide to strike Iran.

Rick Santorum, who was at the conference in person, accused Obama of “turning his back” on Israel.

The evening before, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader, proposed from the podium that the U.S. should openly threaten Iran with the prospect of “overwhelming force” if its nuclear program progresses past certain thresholds.

In a news conference, Obama pushed back against this hawkish talk from his Republican critics.

“When I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I’m reminded of the costs involved in war,” he said. “This is not a game, and there’s nothing casual about it.”

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief