In several hours of talks, President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to have different timelines and red lines on the issue of Iran's nuclear program: Obama said he prefers diplomacy and pressure; the Israeli leader made clear his country reserves the right to attack pre-emptively, saying Israel must remain master of its fate.
Obama tried to do a couple of things in Monday's meeting with Netanyahu at the White House. One was to reassure Israel that the U.S. is determined to keep nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands. The other was to persuade Israel to give diplomacy and sanctions some time and not rush to military action.
"When I say all options are at the table, I mean it," he said. "Having said that, I know that both the prime minister and I prefer to resolve this diplomatically. We understand the costs of any military action."
Cost Of War
Obama also said there is a "window" that allows for a diplomatic resolution. But Netanyahu didn't sound very patient Monday night when he addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby. He said he has been warning the world about the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran for the past 15 years.
"My friends, Israel has waited, 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," he said to applause. "As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation."
Netanyahu dismissed those who worry about the costs of striking Iran. He says it is time to talk about the costs of not stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.
"I want you to think about what it would mean to have nuclear weapons in the hands of these radicals — in chants of death to America and death to Israel," he said.
Netanyahu won loud cheers at AIPAC, as did Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who called for "overwhelming force" against Iran if it begins to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels.
Obama told that same audience Sunday that it would be wise for the U.S. to speak softly and carry a big stick. The loose talk of war, he warned, is only benefiting Iran by driving up oil prices.
Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation says Obama played it well, reassuring Israelis that the U.S. has Israel's back, while not giving into his Republican critics or Netanyahu's calls for clear red lines.
"President Obama domestically has come out of this very well," he said. "I think vis-a-vis the Israeli mainstream, he has scored a lot of points. He may have boxed himself in a little more on Iran, but I don't think to a degree that doesn't allow still significant wiggle room down the line."
Levy says Netanyahu will likely play up the commitments he got on Iran and the fact that another key issue — stalled peace talks with the Palestinians — was hardly mentioned.
"The president inserted it in his talking points, but Benjamin Netanyahu was able to largely ignore the issue," he said. "And he'll turn to his right-wing coalition and say, 'Look what I've achieved. I made sure Iran is the only issue on the agenda.' The Palestinian issue has been absolutely de-prioritized, and he will get a lot of credit with that with his home base."
A brief White House statement lists Middle East peace as one of a range of regional issues the two men discussed during several hours of talks. The statement says they spoke at length about the threat from Iran.