Washington · Analysis
President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not meet, but they ended up sounding not so far apart.
Netanyahu's address to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 27 in many ways echoed Obama's speech there two days earlier, with both ratcheting up the heat on Iran over its nuclear program. The themes that echoed in each speech suggest that despite the bickering between the two leaders, they may be converging on policy.
Obama reiterated that "containment" of a nuclear-armed Iran is not an option, a stance that is in accord with Israel's position.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, articulated a red line — something Obama has been reluctant to do, beyond saying that Iran should not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. But the Israeli prime minister set that red line in a spot that allows the United States some more time to give diplomacy and sanctions a chance to work.
The speeches reflected a joint effort to see if a coordinated strategy is possible which, if successful, could make clear to the Iranians that the United States and Israel are aligned, said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The key is that the United States and Israel eventually arrive at common thresholds, Makovsky said. "If that is conveyed to Iran publicly, that would be effective," he said. "What I saw was effective in Netanyahu's speech was that he was able to sharpen the focus on the Iranian nuclear program while not sharpening the conflict with the president."
Netanyahu in his speech suggested that the United States and Israel were working to get on the same page. "Israel is in discussions with the United States over this issue, and I am confident that we can chart a path forward together," he said.
For all of the focus on the details of the difficult relationship between the two leaders — punctuated by the fact that they were not meeting during Netanyahu's U.S. visit — the speeches sounded similarly tough notes on Iran's nuclear program.
"Make no mistake, a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained," Obama said. "It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy."
Obama has explicitly rejected containment since he spoke to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in May. During his U.N. address on Sept. 25, the president used blunt language at a venue not as receptive to tough talk on the issue.
And he characterized Iran's nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel. The latter statement is the sort of warning that Netanyahu has been repeating since being elected to his second term as prime minister in 2009.
Obama concluded the Iran portion of his speech with a clear commitment to prevent a nuclear Iran: "And that's why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
Netanyahu's speech, like Obama's, was a no-holds-barred warning about the prospect of a nuclear Iran.
Photos of Netanyahu holding up a simple drawing of a bomb with the fuse burning down made front pages. Of greater significance than the Israeli prime minister's stern demeanor and dramatic delivery was the red line he drew on the cartoon — more precisely, where he drew it.
The bomb represented the three stages Netanyahu says are required for Iran to achieve a nuclear weapon: Low-enriched uranium, medium-enriched uranium and high-enriched uranium. Iran is already enriching uranium to the medium levels of 20 percent.
The spot between medium-enriched and high-enriched uranium is where Netanyahu drew the red line, suggesting that Iran's arrival at the cusp between medium- and high-enriched uranium is what should trigger a military intervention by the United States or Israel.
Making the cusp between medium- and high-enriched uranium is a major concession for Israel. Israeli officials over the summer pushed back against proposed U.S.-initiated compromises that would allow Iran to enrich at 3.5 percent to 5 percent, insisting that Iran end all uranium enrichment.
Netanyahu's red line conceivably would accommodate compromises third parties have suggested that would allow Iran to enrich at 20 percent, or medium level.
Furthermore, Netanyahu's prediction of when the cusp between medium and high enrichment would arrive, based on International Atomic Energy Agency reports, ended speculation that Israel would go it alone with a military strike before the U.S. presidential election. This has been a key request of an array of Obama administration officials, who have been journeying to Israel each week over the past several months.
"And by next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage," Netanyahu said. "From there, it's only a few months — possibly a few weeks — before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb."
Another overlap between the two speeches had to do with each leader's call on the Muslim world to reject radicalism.
"It is time to marginalize those who — even when not directly resorting to violence — use hatred of America, or the West, or Israel, as the central organizing principle of politics," Obama said. "For that only gives cover, and sometimes makes an excuse, for those who do resort to violence."
Netanyahu echoed the concern about extremism: "That intolerance is directed first to their fellow Muslims and then to Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, secular people — anyone who doesn't submit to their unforgiving creed. They want to drag humanity back to an age of unquestioning dogma, unrelenting conflict."
Significantly, Obama also focused on the extremist ideology of the Iranian regime, and its ties with terrorist groups in the region — also themes that Netanyahu has emphasized.
"In Iran, we see where the path of a violent and unaccountable ideology leads," Obama said.
During his visit, Netanyahu met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Sept. 27 and spoke with Obama by phone the next day. A White House readout of the phone call said,"The two leaders underscored that they are in full agreement on the shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
The comity between the two leaders might not last, Makovsky, the analyst said, but the effort is critical. "I'm not saying the U.S. and Israel have found common ground, I'm saying there's an effort to find common ground," he said.
"Netanyahu's calculation is that it's better to make that effort."
In case Israel goes it alone against Iran, he said, Netanyahu "will be able to look into the eyes of the mothers of Israel and say, 'I left no stone unturned.' "