Israelis express relief at lack of news from Washington meetings

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 7, 2012 

TEL AVIV, Israel — Speeches given by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama that focused almost exclusively on Iran and its nuclear program broke little new ground in Washington this week. For some Israelis, that was a relief.

"If Obama had gotten up there and said that the U.S. would support Israel in a war, if he had publicly said the U.S. was drawing up plans, I would be worried. I would also have been worried if the Israelis said something about going it alone," said Shaul Nussbaum, who closely followed the events from his home in Tel Aviv. "But as it stands neither said anything new, so it doesn't seem like we're going to war anytime soon."

Not far from Nussbaum's home is a site where dozens of Grad missiles hit central Israel during the first Gulf War in 1991. Nussbaum, 32, remembers the events well.

"We're not on the periphery here, and we aren't used to rockets from Gaza or Lebanon. War would be traumatic," he said.

Netanyahu went to Washington for the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee with the explicit goal of putting the U.S. and Israel on the same page regarding Iran, his advisers said.

In previous years, Netanyahu has directly challenged Obama's Iran policy in what has become a notoriously fraught relationship. But this year, Netanyahu and Obama showed a civil, if not entirely united, front to the cameras. That was by design, a Netanyahu adviser told McClatchy before the visit. The adviser spoke only under the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

"We all know the progress Iran has made towards building a nuclear weapon," said the adviser. "This is a time where we need to be on the same page as our strongest allies."

In his speech before AIPAC, Netanyahu stressed that Israel would not wait indefinitely for the West to take action with Iran.

"Israel has patiently waited for the international community to resolve this issue. We've waited for diplomacy to work, we've waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer," Netanyahu warned, adding that, as Israeli premier, he would "never let Israel live under the shadow of annihilation."

In meetings with Obama, however, it became clear that the White House was interested in giving sanctions more time, and Netanyahu did not push.

"Perhaps Bibi (Netanyahu) has realized Obama might be the president for some time, and if there will be a war it will be with Obama that Netanyahu stands united," one Cabinet member said, asking not to be quoted by name because Netanyahu has banned his ministers from speaking publicly on Iran.

On Tuesday, the European Union announced the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, including the United States, and Germany would restart talks with Iran over its nuclear program. Iran, in what is being viewed as a conciliatory gesture to the West, also announced it would allow the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog to inspect previously hidden nuclear facilities.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said the steps being taken were positive.

"We hope that Iran will now enter into a sustained process of constructive dialogue which will deliver real progress in resolving the international community's long-standing concerns on its nuclear program," she said.

Publicly, Israel expressed cautious support for the effort.

"I'm very happy that they are opening discussions," Netanyahu's national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, told Israel Radio. "There will be no one happier than us, and the prime minister said this in his own voice, if it emerges that in these talks Iran will give up on its military nuclear capability."

Still, some Israeli politicians worried that the steps were too little too late.

"This is something Netanyahu would have wanted to see last year or two years ago," said the Cabinet minister. "He has already built himself and Israel into a frenzy over this issue. There is a feeling that action needs to happen — soon."

But Israelis don't want to push the U.S. too far too quickly.

"It has been leaked, both in the U.S. and in Israel, that Bibi and Obama can't stand each other. We don't want the most powerful man in the world to not side with Israel because the Israeli (prime minister) has too much chutzpah," said Leemor Peled, a 27-year-old student in Tel Aviv.

Her opinion was echoed in the largest Israeli daily, Yediot Ahronot, where an editorial suggested that Netanyahu purposefully sent Israeli President Shimon Peres, who has a warmer relationship with the White House, to speak with Obama and pave the way for Israel's position.

For now, he said, Israel was working hard to convince itself and the world that the relationship between Israel and the United States was closer then ever.

Liran Dan, Netanyahu's spokesman, said the U.S. had neither vetoed nor endorsed military action on Iran.

"A red light was not given," said Dan. "And if we're already talking about colors, then a green light was not given, either. If there are red lines being discussed, they are not between us and the Americans, but rather, between the international community and Iran."

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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