Iran is biggest test for Obama's often rocky ties with Netanyahu


By Matt Spetalnick and Dan Williams

WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM, Sept 29 (Reuters) - Six months afterU.S. President Barack Obama eased a strained relationship withPrime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Israeldubbed "Operation Desert Schmooze," the two leaders now face thebiggest test of whether they can work together - and the stakesare higher than ever.

A diplomatic charm offensive by new Iranian President HassanRouhani has suddenly opened up a gap between the White House andNetanyahu's government. How they respond could have far-reachingimplications for their political legacies as well as the futurestability of the Middle East.

Coming three days after Obama and Rouhani had a historicphone call, which was the highest-level contact between the twocountries in three decades, Monday's White House meeting betweenthe U.S. and Israeli leaders is shaping up as perhaps their mostconsequential encounter.

Obama and Netanyahu will try to avoid any repeat of previousclashes as they seek to project unity. But behind closed doors,their differences over Iran may prove hard to bridge.

Unnerved by the pace of the U.S. outreach to Iran and deeplyskeptical of Rouhani, Netanyahu will push Obama for specificsteps and deadlines to prevent Tehran from using talks to "runout the clock" while it advances toward making a nuclear weapon.

"I will speak the truth. Facts must be stated in the face ofthe sweet talk and the blitz of smiles," Netanyahu said at theairport in Tel Aviv before departing for Washington on Saturdaynight.

Obama will press Netanyahu for time to test Rouhani'sintentions, while trying to reassure Israel he will not easesanctions prematurely. He is likely, however, to resist Israelipressure for a precise time limit for diplomacy with Iran toproduce a deal, according to a source close to the White House.

"American and Israeli officials like to say there's nodaylight between them on Iran," a former U.S. official said."But with his words alone, Rouhani has opened a window."

Looming large is the question of military action againstIran if diplomacy fails to prevent Tehran from pressing aheadwith what Israel and the West suspect is a drive to developnuclear weapons. Iran denies it is seeking a bomb.

Some Israeli officials doubt whether Obama has the stomachfor attacking Iran after he pulled back earlier this month froma threat to bomb Syria over its suspected use of chemicalweapons.

"It totally suggests that for the president, all options arenot on the table with Iran," said Elliott Abrams, a Middle Eastadviser under Republican former President George W. Bush, now atthe Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

Further complicating matters is Obama's reinvigorated pushfor a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians in talksthat restarted earlier this year. Middle East diplomacy isexpected to figure more prominently in Monday's meeting thanoriginally thought, after Obama listed it beside Iran as a toppriority in his address to the United Nations on Tuesday.

Netanyahu will be in anything but a conciliatory mood. OneIsraeli official suggested privately that Obama was "talking upthe Palestinian issue to keep the Sunni Arab world on his side"as he builds bridges with predominantly Shi'ite Iran.


Obama and Netanyahu have a track record of difficultencounters, including a blowup in the Oval Office when Netanyahufamously lectured the president on Jewish history. He later madeno secret of his fondness for Republican challenger Mitt Romney,who lost to Obama in last year's presidential election.

Obama made his first presidential trip to Israel in March toreset his relationship with Netanyahu, using some old-fashionedbackslapping to move beyond their confrontational past. Americanjournalist Jeffrey Goldberg, an authority on the Middle East,described it as "Operation Desert Schmooze."

Although Obama may not have won the hearts of the Israelipublic like former President Bill Clinton did in the 1990s, heappeared to make a big dent in their suspicions about him datingfrom his 2009 speech to the Muslim world in Cairo.

"He had a very dysfunctional relationship with Netanyahu andthey managed to overcome it," said Aaron David Miller, a formerState Department adviser now at the Woodrow Wilson Center inWashington. "The idea that he would now pick a fight with theIsraelis is improbable. They will look for common ground."

But all indications are that the White House talks will beless than a total meeting of the minds. Friday's phone callbetween Obama and Rouhani is sure to increase Israeli warinessover the prospects of U.S.-Iranian detente, even though theWhite House gave Israeli officials the courtesy of letting themknow in advance.

In a nod to Netanyahu's concerns, Obama insisted on Fridayhe would not do anything to endanger Israel, and a senioradministration official acknowledged that "the Israeligovernment has every right to be skeptical" of Iran.

Obama's ability to calm Israel about his engagement withIran might be limited by the influence of the pro-Israel lobbyin Washington and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who arequick to defend the Jewish state.

Robert Menendez, Democratic chairman of the Senate ForeignRelations Committee, and Lindsey Graham, a veteran Republicansenator, wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post on Fridayarguing for further oil sanctions against Iran.


Netanyahu will be looking for proof of Obama's commitment toconfront Tehran with a "credible military threat" if diplomaticefforts fall through. Obama has insisted he is not bluffing, buthas not been as explicit as Netanyahu wants.

The Obama administration official hinted that the presidentmight go further this time, at least in private, saying the twowould focus on "red lines" to prevent Iran from developing anuclear weapon. Obama has long resisted Netanyahu's demand for aclear and specific ultimatum to Iran on the U.S. use of force,and there is little reason to believe he will issue one now.

Netanyahu brandished a cartoon bomb last year in his U.N.speech to illustrate what he called Iran's progress towardnuclear arms, but Israeli sources predict he will opt for a lessflashy message when he addresses the world body on Tuesday.

Obama may prefer a more toned-down approach by the sometimesabrasive Israeli premier. But allowing Netanyahu to play "partypooper" - as Israeli media have dubbed it - may serve a purposefor Obama of keeping the heat on Iran while pressuring Europeanpartners not to break ranks on sanctions.

Some analysts believe Netanyahu's earlier threats helpedlead to Iran keeping uranium enrichment below the cartoon bomb's"red-line" threshold - enough medium-enriched uranium for asingle bomb - that he suggested would trigger Israeli strikes.

"The greater the economic and military pressure, the greaterthe chance of diplomacy succeeding," said Israeli StrategicAffairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, a Netanyahu confidant.

As Obama moves deeper into his second term, however, he maysee rapprochement with Iran after decades of estrangement aspart of his foreign policy legacy - especially at a time when hefaces criticism for his response to Syria's civil war andEgypt's military takeover.

But Obama may be mindful of the damage to his record if, asIsraeli leaders suggest, it turns out Iran is just buying time.

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