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Obama set for charm offensive in Israel

US president's visit aims to deter any chance of a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear programme.
Last Modified: 20 Mar 2013 09:26
Barack Obama still banks on diplomatic negotiations to dissuade Iran from building nuclear weapons [Reuters]

Jerusalem - US President Barack Obama is not bringing any new policies to Israel. Instead, officials and analysts say, the next three days will be a charm offensive, an effort to win over a sceptical Israeli public and a sometimes antagonistic prime minister - and to convince both not to move unilaterally to attack Iran's nuclear programme.

The last few summers have been filled with speculation about whether Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would order an attack. Obama's visit starting on Wednesday comes just weeks before Netanyahu's latest putative deadline: during a speech at the UN General Assembly last September, the Israeli prime minister set a "red line" which many analysts believed would be reached by the spring or early summer of 2013.

The latest report from the UN's nuclear watchdog, however, found that Iran has slowed its stockpiling of 20 percent enriched uranium. Netanyahu has not publicly revised his deadline, but analysts here say the slowdown has postponed it by several months, if not indefinitely.

Meanwhile, a weakened Netanyahu now presides over an Israeli government filled with political neophytes. Senior members of Israel's security establishment remain opposed to a unilateral attack, and - contrary to the government's frequent warnings about crazed mullahs - top officials have stated in recent weeks that they believe the Iranian government to be composed of rational actors who have not actually decided to build a nuclear weapon.

All of this suggests that there will be less drama this week than during past meetings, which often took place amidst loud warnings of an imminent Israeli attack.

"To be honest, I think 2013 will look a lot like 2012, in that nothing will happen," said retired general Shlomo Brom, now an analyst at Israel's Institute of National Security Studies.

'More than a year'

"It is in all of our interests - Israel, the United States, the world and Iran's - if we can resolve this diplomatically."

- US President Barack Obama

The question of "red lines" remains a key difference between the United States and Israel when it comes to Iran. Netanyahu suggested at the UN that Israel would attack if Iran accumulated 90 percent of the enriched uranium needed to build a nuclear weapon.

The latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, released in February, found that Iran was about 70 percent of the way there. Some of its stockpile had been converted into solid reactor fuel, which is much more difficult to convert into weapons-grade uranium.

The agency has raised concerns about the "possible military dimensions" of Iran's nuclear programme, but has found no conclusive evidence that Iran is pursuing an atomic bomb. Tehran denies that it is, saying that its nuclear progamme has purely civilian aims.

Obama has pointedly refused to set his own red line, despite pressure from the Israeli government and from Republicans in Congress. In an interview with Israel's Channel 2 earlier this week, the president said it would take Iran "more than a year" to develop a nuclear weapon - assuming it decides to do so - suggesting that the deadline for an attack is hardly imminent.

"It is in all of our interests - Israel, the United States, the world and Iran's - if we can resolve this diplomatically," he said. "But obviously we don't want to cut it too close."

Israeli domestic politics also seem to augur against any immediate decision. The "security cabinet", the inner forum of ministers which could ultimately decide on whether to launch an attack, includes two newcomers, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett. It could take them months simply to review the available intelligence and meet with security officials, implying that Netanyahu's deadline would inevitably be delayed.

And gone is the former defence minister, Ehud Barak, consistently one of the most hawkish voices on Iran.

Still, this new cabinet is hardly dovish. Two "no" votes on attacking Iran, Dan Meridor and Eli Yishai, have also left the government. And while the new defence minister, Moshe Ya'alon, is often described as a contrary voice on Iran, his past statements indicate only that he would prefer Israel not act unilaterally.

He has warned that sanctions will not deter Iran's nuclear programme, and often quips that Iran must choose between "a bomb and survival".

A former Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Bennett, the head of a right-wing party who once served as an elite army commando, would not hesitate to green-light an attack. "Lapid is no peacenik either," the official said, referring to the head of the centrist Yesh Atid party.

'They want to keep ruling'

But officials say that current and former members of the Israeli security establishment have become even more sceptical of a unilateral attack. They do not hold a vote in the security cabinet, but their voices carry weight, both internally and in public.

"He shouldn't be too nice to the Israeli government. My impression, from the message that he's giving, [is that] it will be all motherhood and apple pie."

- Shlomo Brom, retired general

Major General Aviv Kochavi, the head of Israel's military intelligence, said at the annual Herzliya Conference last week that sanctions were beginning to sway some Iranian officials' commitment to their nuclear programme.

And he described the country's rulers as rational actors. "The main goal that animates any action is that they want to keep ruling," Kochavi said. Perhaps more importantly, he added that Iran "has not yet decided" to build a bomb, implying that the leadership in Tehran will not take any action to trip Israel's "red line".

Adding to the Israeli military's scepticism, officials say, is the realisation that a unilateral attack would have limited efficacy. Iran produces an increasing amount of enriched uranium in the heavily reinforced underground facility at Fordow, which Israeli warplanes probably cannot breach.

Public opinion also remains divided: A Jerusalem Post poll released this week found that 55 percent of Israelis would support a unilateral attack if "sanctions did not work and the US and Europe refused to attack". Obama will use part of his speech to the Israeli public on Thursday to urge more time for diplomacy and economic sanctions.

"Israeli public opinion likes the president as a person, but has disapproved of its policies and actions, and his attitude towards Netanyahu," said Eytan Gilboa, a professor at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on the US-Israeli relationship.

And Obama will make the same argument in his private meetings with Netanyahu, who seems unlikely to air any differences with the US president in public.

Brom, the retired general, said that the shift in Iran's nuclear programme and Netanyahu's relative political weakness could give Obama leverage in negotiations.

"He shouldn't be too nice to the Israeli government. My impression, from the message that he's giving, [is that] it will be all motherhood and apple pie," he said. "A little bit of tension will not harm."

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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