Israel: Obama's Meeting with Netanyahu

Some things will change for Israel and its chief ally, the United States, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigns. But most things won't—especially the big things. Israel still faces at least four major strategic choices: how to resolve the faltering peace talks with the Palestinians, how to deal with the growing power of Hizbullah in Lebanon, whether to maintain the fragmentary ceasefire with Hamas, and above all whether take military action against Iran. And it doesn't much matter who the next prime minister is—or even the next U.S. president: the choices that Israel makes will likely be the same.

Perhaps that sounds like a bold prediction. But it may be the safest one. One substantial piece of evidence is the conversation that occurred earlier last week at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem between two men some might think are on opposite sides of the spectrum: the supposedly diplomatic Barack Obama and the uber-hawkish Bibi Netanyahu, head of the Likud Party and a fair bet to return to the prime minister's office. According to Netanyahu adviser Uzi Arad—a former Mossad official who was present at the 45-minute talk—Obama agreed with Netanyahu that "the paramount and most urgent issue is Iran," and that "a nuclear Iran is unacceptable not only to Israel but to the United States." Netanyahu "also made it clear to him that on the Iranian threat there is no dissension in Israel; this is a national attitude." In a telephone interview Thursday, Arad told me that he believed that the Democratic candidate for president concurred with Netanyahu as well about the sequence of events that must occur: On Iran "the clocks and centrifuges are clicking and spinning, and not only is time of the essence but the order of things is, as well. Should one fail to neutralize that Iranian threat now, it would undercut anything that would be achieved with the Palestinians, Syria or Lebanon."

As Arad put it: "If you follow that logic, the current efforts to move on the Palestinian issue are pathetic, because they would not be worth the paper they're written on if Iran is not contained. If Iran became nuclear it would mean the victory of the militants in Hamas and Hizbullah and undercut the moderates." Obama, for his part, said he was for the use of "more carrots and sticks" and wanted to have dialogue and engagement policy with Iran before taking any other action, according to Arad. "Netanyahu reacted by saying that what is essential here are not means but the ends … They are in agreement about the overall objective. Then Netanyahu added his considered judgment that the more credible the military option, the more likely it is that diplomacy with sanction will succeed." Obama's "body language conveyed" that he agreed with that as well, Arad said. He added that the two did not discuss whether a President Obama would support Israel if the Jewish state came to think it necessary to strike Iran.

Asked about Arad's account, one member of the Obama team present at the meeting—a senior adviser to the candidate—said he could not recall the discussion about sequencing. But this source, who requested anonymity in discussing private conversations, said that Obama and Netanyahu "were in complete agreement on the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon ... They certainly agreed that the Iran threat is the paramount concern and that a nuclear bomb is unacceptable to both countries." Another top adviser who accompanied Obama on the Mideast trip, former U.S. envoy Dennis Ross, said that the candidate met with senior officials from the major Israeli parties, and "I would say that among those within the government the one issue on which there was absolute unanimity was Iran." Obama, Ross added, "basically made it very clear that this was a ... critical national-security interest of the United States."

The various contenders to replace Olmert, who announced Wednesday that he would resign in September in the face of a criminal probe of his finances, take different foreign-policy stands. Tzipi Livni of the Kadima Party, the current foreign minister, is more dovish; her rival, Shaul Mofaz, is center-right, and former prime minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party, another top contender, has grown notably more hawkish over the years. On the Palestinian-Israeli issue, a Prime Minister Livni would probably try to reach an overall "final-status" agreement on statehood; Arad says Netanyahu would revert back to a much slower, more incremental approach. There is also a lingering sense of doubt in Israeli security circles about Obama's firmness on Iran; if it looks like he'll win the presidency, Israel could decide to strike Iran before he's sworn in to assure the necessary support of the Pentagon. But the Democratic candidate seems to be working hard to address those doubts. The most Israel could expect would be marginal U.S. support, even from George W. Bush. The current Defense secretary, Robert Gates, recently wrote that a war with Iran would be "disastrous on a number of levels."

Other wild cards could come into play in the next few months. There's every chance that Olmert, besmirched both by his feeble performance in the 2006 Lebanon War and his alleged corruption, might try to make a desperate play for the history books and cut a deal with the Palestinians before he leaves office in disgrace. But even in the best case, that is likely to be a fuzzy framework agreement that leaves the hardest issues—Jerusalem, borders and a Palestinian right of return—unaddressed. According to former U.S. negotiator Aaron David Miller, author of "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace," any such pact would be "half-baked" and would likely fail because of Olmert's lame-duck status. "There's a big difference between a piece of paper and the capacity to sell it," he says.

On the other issues, though, Israel's security establishment is already in the process of deciding things collectively. And it's fairly clear that across the political spectrum in the United States and Israel, there is agreement that Iran poses the greatest threat—and that the Jewish state's other options are limited. "Whatever the different [Israeli] candidates say in advance of the campaign, the choices that are going to face them are pretty much the same: 40,000 rockets in the north, military options in Gaza that are limited, the overriding threat that Iran presents and the question of what's possible with the Palestinians," says Ross.

As Ron Tira, an Israeli security expert, puts it: "If you look at the really big picture, there's not only an Iranian aircraft carrier in Lebanon [Hizbullah], but there's another one 45 kilometers from Tel Aviv in Gaza [Hamas]. With those two Iranian aircraft carriers in place and Iran proceeding with its nuclear program, with the prospect of America withdrawing from Iraq in the next two years, and Iran becoming a dominant force there … Israel is in position where it needs to act unilaterally and pay whatever the cost." Miller adds that these huge problems will remain the same "not only for Olmert's successor but for Bush's."