From THE ECONOMIST
“MAKE no mistake about it,” said a senior Israeli official preparing for the arrival on March 20th of Barack Obama on a three-day visit. “Iran will be front and centre of the discussions between the president and Mr Netanyahu.” The dangers to the region from the bloody Syrian civil war and the need to revive the comatose peace process with the Palestinians were also high on the agenda during five hours of talks between Mr Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. But, in different ways, Iran loomed over both those issues too.
Without the money (about $10 billion so far), weapons and expertise that Iran is pouring into Syria in an effort to prop up its strategically vital ally, Bashar Assad, the regime in Damascus might have fallen already. Iran also finances and controls Hizbullah, the Shia militia-cum-political party that runs southern Lebanon and now has an arsenal of around 60,000 mainly Iranian-supplied missiles aimed at Israel. According to Israeli intelligence sources, Hizbullah is also working to forge militias loyal to the regime in Syria into a 100,000-strong irregular army to fight alongside Mr Assad’s conventional forces.
A growing worry for Israeli military commanders is that, as a quid pro quo for Iranian help, Mr Assad is trying to get sophisticated Russian weapons into Hizbullah’s hands for use against Israel in the event of another war in Lebanon. These include mobile SA-17 ground-to-air missiles and the Yakhont, a supersonic anti-ship cruise missile with a range of up to 300km. Israeli jets destroyed a convoy taking SA-17s to Lebanon in late January. They will take similar action again if they need to, but help from America would be appreciated. Just before Mr Obama’s arrival, a senior military official mused: “Maybe it would be better if Israel doesn’t do it [alone]…these missiles are not just a problem for Israel. Who has the biggest navy in the Mediterranean?”
As for the peace process with the Palestinians, a clear link exists with Mr Obama’s ability to cast himself in the mould of his predecessors as an utterly reliable guarantor of Israel’s ultimate security. Some Israelis, egged on by the president’s domestic opponents, have questioned his support. The frosty personal relationship between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu has also been a hindrance (the former aloof, the latter prickly and close to rooting for Mitt Romney in November’s presidential election).
When Bill Clinton, a former president, delivered home truths to Israel about the need to engage with the Palestinians, he succeeded because most Israelis trusted that he would always be there for them. The carefully constructed language of Mr Obama’s speech to Israeli university students on March 21st (as The Economist went to press) suggests that this is something he now understands. His visit alone has improved Israeli perceptions of Mr Obama, buoyed further by gratitude for the American-financed Iron Dome missile-defence system that did so well during last year’s conflict with Hamas in Gaza.
Although differences remain between the two men on how to deal with the threat from Iran’s nuclear programme, they have narrowed. At a joint press conference, Mr Netanyahu declared himself “absolutely convinced” that Mr Obama was determined to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. For his part, Mr Obama indicated that he understood why Israel might feel more urgently than America the need for military action—perhaps a warning to Tehran that he would not hold Israel back. Mr Netanyahu has consistently argued that Iran must be prevented from having the capability to build a nuclear weapon. But until recently Mr Obama had talked only about stopping Iran from having such a device, as if he were prepared to allow Iran to assemble the pieces so long as it did not actually choose to make a bomb. Israel’s position is that, because of the existential threat posed by a nuclear Iran, it cannot risk allowing such a “breakout” capability.
Mr Netanyahu sees thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions as the overriding task of his government. He has often seemed frustrated by the Americans’ insistence on giving sanctions and diplomacy more time to work. A further source of tension has been Israel’s concern that—given its inferior military resources compared with America’s if it came to inflicting serious damage on Iranian nuclear facilities—it would have to strike before Iran entered what the previous defence minister, Ehud Barak, called a “zone of immunity” (probably when it has installed enough centrifuges to produce a bomb at Fordow, a uranium-enrichment plant that is buried under a mountain).
Mr Netanyahu made a strongly worded speech at the United Nations last September (complete with a cartoon bomb as a prop) declaring that he would not allow Iran to acquire enough 20% enriched uranium—about 240kg—to move quickly to make a single nuclear weapon. He expected that to be early this summer.
Several things have since changed to bring Israeli and American positions closer together. Iran has been careful to stay well below the 240kg mark by tactically diverting about 40% of its stockpile of medium-enriched fuel into oxide form for a research reactor in Tehran. Yet at the same time it has been introducing a new generation of centrifuges that can enrich four to five times as fast as the old ones.
Consequently, Israel feels able to stay its hand for a bit longer (moreover, Mr Barak’s successor, Moshe Ya’alon, a former head of the army, is a sceptic about the zone-of-immunity concept). Meanwhile America has become more worried about the risk of Iran being able to sprint to a bomb in between inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog. This week Mr Obama declared: “There is not a lot of daylight between our countries’ assessment of where Iran is right now.” Mr Netanyahu agreed, saying that Iran was about a year from being able to make a nuclear weapon. Whatever time is left, he added, Israel and America now “have a common assessment on the schedules, on intelligence; we don’t have any argument about it.”
Mr Obama has not given Mr Netanyahu what he would most like—an ultimatum to Iran that it must reach a deal on halting enrichment within months or face military action. But he has told him that America is now closer to the threshold for taking such a step; and that he is not prepared to allow diplomatic negotiations to run beyond this year without a big change in Iran’s attitude. The two allies may not quite be in lockstep, but they are now marching in time. That is quite an achievement for Mr Netanyahu, but one for which Mr Obama will want something in return—above all a new attempt to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians.