Carol E. Lee and Jay Solomon – Wall Street Journal February 28, 2012
Complaints from Israel about the U.S.’s public engagement with Iran have pushed the White House to consider more forcefully outlining potential military actions, and the “red lines” Iran must not cross, as soon as this weekend, according to people familiar with the discussions.
President Barack Obama could use a speech on Sunday before a powerful pro-Israel lobby to more clearly define U.S. policy on military action against Iran in advance of his meeting on Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, these people said.
Israeli officials have been fuming over what they perceive as deliberate attempts by the Obama administration to undermine the deterrent effect of the Jewish state’s threat to use force against Tehran by publicly questioning the utility and timing of such strikes.
The Israeli leader has told U.S. officials that he wants Mr. Obama to outline specifically what Washington views as the “red lines” that Iran cannot cross, something the administration is considering as it drafts the president’s speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and sets the agenda for his meeting with Mr. Netanyahu.
Some administration officials said that if Mr. Obama decides to more clearly define his red lines, he is likely to do it in private with Mr. Netanyahu, rather than state it in his AIPAC speech.
Mr. Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials also are pressing for Mr. Obama to publicly clarify his insistence that “all options are on the table” in addressing the Iranian nuclear threat.
Mr. Netanyahu recently conveyed his displeasure with the administration in separate meetings in Jerusalem with National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and a group of U.S. senators, said people involved in the meetings.
He complained that comments by senior U.S. officials have cast Israel as the problem, not Iran, and only encouraged Tehran to press ahead with its nuclear program by casting doubt over the West’s willingness to use force.
Israeli officials were particularly alarmed when Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described Iran as a “rational actor” in a CNN interview after a recent visit to Israel.
The Israelis made clear in these meetings that Mr. Netanyahu intends to press Mr. Obama on the two points as the two allies more closely try to align their strategies to contain Tehran’s nuclear threat.
“The Israelis are unnerved,” said Sen. Lindsay Graham (R., S.C.), who was one of five U.S. senators who had lunch with Mr. Netanyahu last Tuesday in Jerusalem. “They think the administration is sending the wrong signal, and I do too.”
Mr. Graham, a staunch Israel supporter, added: “The president needs to be reassuring to the Israelis that the policy of the United States is etched in stone: we will do everything, including military action, to stop a nuclear-armed Iran. I hope the administration when they talk about ‘all options’ will better define what those options are. We’re getting too far into the game to be overly nuanced now.”
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), who also was in the meeting with Mr. Netanyahu last week, said he had never seen an Israeli leader “that unhappy.”
“He was angry,” Sen. McCain said. “And, frankly, I’ve never seen U.S.-Israel relations at this point.”
The March 5 meeting between Messrs. Netanyahu and Obama is part of a critical week of diplomacy and politicking in Washington that could affect not only the standoff with Iran, but also Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign. U.S-Israel relations have been rocky since both leaders took office in 2009. Mr. Obama’s often frosty relationship with Mr. Netanyahu has degenerated at times into public spats between the two sides, raising concerns among the president’s Jewish supporters.
The annual AIPAC conference, which comes just days before a series of state votes on Tuesday in Republican primaries, is seen as a crucial venue through which to win Jewish support. Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have all been invited to address the group, and Mr. Netanyahu will speak the day after his meeting with Mr. Obama.
Mr. Obama will use his AIPAC speech to stress that his administration has developed deeper defense and intelligence-sharing ties with Israel than any other U.S. president, administration officials said. Seeking to build on his speech at the United Nations General Assembly last September, as one senior administration official put it, Mr. Obama will also remind Jewish voters at AIPAC that the U.S. stood up for Israel when the Palestinians sought to unilaterally claim statehood through a vote at the U.N. Security Council last fall.
The president also will outline the significant steps Washington has taken in recent months to increase Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation through sanctions, officials said, and stress both the need to give those efforts time to work and the administration’s belief that there still is room for diplomacy.
Mr. Obama will repeat that his policy of also leaving all options on the table, including military force, remains, officials said. Aides are discussing what it would mean to go into greater detail. They are expected to make a decision later this week.
Administration officials acknowledge that Republican candidates believe they have an opening to attack Mr. Obama as weak in support of Israel as well as soft on confronting Iran. And because of the recent tensions in U.S.-Israel relations, the president’s aides are approaching this moment carefully.
“We have more to prove,” said one senior administration official.
Iran has proven to be a divisive issue for the two allies for months. Mr. Netanyahu was skeptical about Mr. Obama’s initial efforts to engage Iran’s theocratic government diplomatically in a bid to contain its nuclear program. And the U.S. and Israel have developed differing red lines to gauge the nuclear threat.
Israel has defined its red line as Iran’s development of a nuclear weapons “capability,” rather than the actual assembly of an atomic weapon. The U.S. has cited the latter and American officials continue to argue that the West still has a few years to dissuade Tehran from developing a bomb.
Last week, the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog announced that Tehran had more than tripled its monthly production of the purer form of enriched uranium that is closer to weapons grade.