…our argument [to Prime Minister Netanyahu] is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily. And the only way, historically, that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table. That's what happened in Libya, that's what happened in South Africa. And we think that, without in any way being under an illusion about Iranian intentions, without in any way being naive about the nature of that regime, they are self-interested. They recognize that they are in a bad, bad place right now. It is possible for them to make a strategic calculation that, at minimum, pushes much further to the right whatever potential breakout capacity they may have, and that may turn out to be the best decision for Israel's security.I don’t understand “pushes much further to the right” and suspect that it is Obama’s one verbal slip in the published interview. The sense of it seems to be “pushes off” or “pushes into the future.”
But, whatever that phrase was intended to mean, the overall meaning is clear: Obama plans to to argue to Netanyahu that the only way to solve the problem of Israel’s fear of Iran is not to attack, but to persuade Iran to give up any quest for nuclear weapons peacefully. That is the implication of “permanently, as opposed to temporarily.” All of the previous discussion of a potential attack on Iran by US government officials and by many Israeli former officials has been that an attack would delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons “temporarily” while hardening its intent.
Early in the interview Obama states his criterion: “Does the problem get solved?” The last sentence of the published interview is “My message will be much more specific, about how do we solve this problem.” Those two references prepare for and emphasize the message.
And Obama has something concrete to bolster his argument. Last week an agreement was reached with North Korea about its nuclear program. North Korea has been as difficult to deal with as Iran, so progress there in diplomacy implies that diplomacy may succeed with Iran. This weakens the calls for war from Israel, whether intended as bluff or genuine, so there was rapid pushback from senior Israeli officials that there was no analogy between North Korea and Iran.
Obama has his say in this interview. Jeffrey Goldberg was a good choice for interviewer, someone who can hardly be charged with being too critical of Israel or pulling his punches. Obama and his people knew what Goldberg would ask; he has been asking those questions for some time in his blog. So the answers were fully prepared.
Obama sets the stage to make it easy for Netanyahu to agree that now is not the time for a strike on Iran. That sentence could also read “Obama is boxing Netanyahu in so that he can’t declare war on Iran.” Some of both are operative, and Netanyahu can take it one way or the other. An early indication that he is taking it in the first sense comes from Barukh Binah the Deputy Chief of Mission for the Israeli Embassy to the United States. “Israel can rely on the US, full stop,” he said at a reception by the American Jewish Committee in his honor. He would not have said that without approval from Netanyahu.
There are still ways that Netanyahu might insist on war sooner rather than later in his meeting with Obama, and he has upset expectations before.
But let’s look at what Obama said, and why I say it boxes Netanyahu in.
Throughout the interview, Obama emphasizes that Israel’s actions are their choice and that there are better and worse choices, a reasonable thing for one head of state to say to another, and in contrast to some recent Israeli commentary that insists that Obama say or do particular things.
I think it has to do with a legitimate concern on the part of Israel that they are a small country in a tough neighborhood, and as a consequence, even though the U.S. and Israel very much share assessments of how quickly Iran could obtain breakout capacity, and even though there is constant consultation and intelligence coordination around that question, Israel feels more vulnerable. And I think the prime minister and the defense minister, [Ehud Barak,] feel a profound, historic obligation not to put Israel in a position where it cannot act decisively and unilaterally to protect the state of Israel. I understand those concerns....Goldberg agrees that that is a fair restatement of his question.
I think the prime minister has a profound responsibility to protect the Israeli people in a hostile neighborhood, and I am certain that the history of the Holocaust and of anti-Semitism and brutality directed against the Jewish people for more than a millennium weighs on him when he thinks about these questions.
I think it's important to recognize, though, that the prime minister is also head of a modern state that is mindful of the profound costs of any military action, and in our consultations with the Israeli government, I think they take those costs, and potential unintended consequences, very seriously.
In my discussions with Israel, the key question that I ask is: How does this impact their own security environment? I've said it publicly and I say it privately: ultimately, the Israeli prime minister and the defense minister and others in the government have to make their decisions about what they think is best for Israel's security, and I don't presume to tell them what is best for them.
But as Israel's closest friend and ally, and as one that has devoted the last three years to making sure that Israel has additional security capabilities, and has worked to manage a series of difficult problems and questions over the past three years, I do point out to them that we have a sanctions architecture that is far more effective than anybody anticipated; that we have a world that is about as united as you get behind the sanctions; that our assessment, which is shared by the Israelis, is that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon and is not yet in a position to obtain a nuclear weapon without us having a pretty long lead time in which we will know that they are making that attempt.
In that context, our argument is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily. And the only way, historically, that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table.
I think that in the end, Israel's leaders will make determinations based on what they believe is best for the security of Israel, and that is entirely appropriate.
When we present our views and our strategy approach, we try to put all our cards on the table, to describe how we are thinking about these issues. We try to back those up with facts and evidence. We compare their assessments with ours, and where there are gaps, we try to narrow those gaps. And what I also try to do is to underscore the seriousness with which the United States takes this issue. And I think that Ehud Barak understands it. I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu, hopefully when he sees me next week, will understand it.
And one of the things that I like to remind them of is that every single commitment I have made to the state of Israel and its security, I have kept. I mean, part of your -- not to put words in your mouth -- but part of the underlying question is: Why is it that despite me never failing to support Israel on every single problem that they've had over the last three years, that there are still questions about that?
Obama has imposed an impressive structure on the interview, very difficult for an interviewee to do. He builds up to his statement of his position for the Monday meeting. He alludes to the severity of war and its likely ineffectuality in persuading Iran to give up its nuclear program without saying much of that explicitly. Israel and the United States are partners and should continue to work together.
At the extreme, Obama is laying a basis for cutting Israel loose if it chooses to attack Iran. It’s unlikely that Obama would do this, but he needs that flexibility. His representatives have put the arguments for attack and diplomacy on the table over the past few weeks. Obama says in this interview he will come down on the side of diplomacy.
There is more to the interview, of course. There are those macho statements that have been getting all the news coverage. More about them to come.
Update: The text of President Obama's speech to AIPAC is very similar, emphasizing diplomacy over war.
Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner and The Agonist.