The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
Understanding Obama in Jerusalem
Taking the pulse of the perception among Israeli experts, pundits, and policy makers regarding the Obama Administration's change in policy towards Iran
There is one thing on which Israeli politicians, pundits, and journalists from all sides of the political spectrum agree: Iran's nuclear weapon ambitions are a real and imminent threat to Israel, requiring timely action. Having spent 100 days in office, the Obama Administration has already started implementing its campaign promise and preparing the groundwork for a cooperative approach to Tehran. For Washington, this policy change means walking a fine line between carrots, sticks, and regional sensitivities to solve an intractable problem. Closer to Tehran, the big picture seems lost in Jerusalem. The prevailing opinion is that the Iranian leadership will drag its feet with the Americans to allow its nuclear program to advance. Many Israelis fear the more comprehensive Washington's talks with Tehran, the greater the chance that Jerusalem will be brought to the table and be required to agree to painful concessions.
Six years after Iran's nuclear program became a public concern, moderates in Israel have become aware that Bush's confrontational policies achieved little and are willing to grant U.S. President Barack Obama the benefit of the doubt. Conservatives, on the other hand, demand unilateral action from Jerusalem to stop what they consider a set of ill-advised policies. Nonetheless, both moderates and conservatives know that with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in office, nurturing the special relationship between Jerusalem and Washington will be a challenge. The success of Obama's new approach to Iran and the self-restraint of a potentially trigger-happy government in Israel will define the upcoming months. Until then, one should expect the tone in Jerusalem's papers to become increasingly hawkish and love for the Obama Administration increasingly "tough."
Barack Obama's early statement, during a Democratic primary debate, that he would meet the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions haunted him throughout the campaign. President Bush denounced direct negotiations as a "foolish delusion," and Republican candidate John McCain implied Obama was an "appeaser." Notwithstanding Obama's repeated statements that he would do everything in his power to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and his campaign's avoidance of clear positioning on Iran, the Israeli punditry had already started doubting Obama's commitment.
In the fall of 2008, the political situation in Israel deteriorated gradually due to corruption allegations against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni's inability to form a new government. The perceived preference for Obama in the streets of the Middle East, but also among Tehran's and Gaza's decision makers, made Israeli analysts wonder how devoted such an administration would remain to Israel's security.
During his first post-election news conference, Obama's statement that "Iran's development of a nuclear weapon" was "unacceptable" and the United States had to "mount an international effort to prevent that from happening," calmed a few spirits in Israel. Several observers even argued that Israel should welcome the expected change in policy as a possible way towards a solution. In response, the conservative wing called for Israel to "neutralize Iran's nuclear program before the Obama Administration begins implementing America's new foreign policy," as the new president plans "to immediately improve U.S. relations with the nuclear-weapons-building ayatollahs." In December and January, with Israel involved in a military incursion in Gaza and the politically polarizing general elections, the tone became even more hawkish. For example, a leading right wing columnist demanded that a strong Israeli government "stand up to America" and be capable of "butting heads with Obama."
Immediately after his inauguration, Obama offered an "extended hand" to countries "willing to unclench their fist." While Israel's pundits filled the newspapers with calls for "U.S. resolve in confronting the Iranian-led axis," pro-Israel entities on both sides of the Atlantic understood that this was not the right tone to start a relationship with the new American Administration. Ranking members of both Kadima and Likud called Obama a "true friend of Israel," while Israel's president, Shimon Peres, voiced his support for the new president, and the Israel lobby in the United States tried its best to counterbalance the fears of an all too dovish White House.
After a few weeks in office, Obama made the first steps to clarify the new U.S. policy. The president stated "in the coming months, we will be looking for openings […] to start sitting across the table face to face" with Iran. Nonetheless, he made sure to stress that Israel's security remained undisputed, while a softened version of "all options are on the table" message came out of the Department of Defense.
Tehran's response to Washington's offer remained far from transparent. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei let the world know that Iran had not yet made a decision about an answer to Obama's policies, communicating through a representative that Iran's red line was "rejecting the arrogant policies of America." At the Munich Security Conference, Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani declared that the new administration had to admit past wrongs before it could hope for reconciliation. Just a few days later, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated his country was ready to hold talks "in a fair atmosphere with mutual respect."
In Israel, these mixed messages once again split the political playing field. The moderate press demanded that the opportunity opened by the Obama Administration be seized. Government officials like Prime Minister designate and Likud Chairman Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak welcomed "creative thinking to move forward and out of the maze," yet asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her visit that dialogue with Iran begin and end quickly, as Iran was only trying to buy itself time. Conservatives urged the government to "take whatever actions are necessary to prevent Israel's destruction." From their perspective, Washington's policies had ceased to be compatible with Israel's interests. One of the most vocal conservative representatives wrote: "our American Jewish allies and friends of Israel […] may now find themselves conflicting with a powerful administration intent on distancing itself from Israel."
Towards the end of March, Obama made the next step in his policy change and released a video stating that the United States was seeking "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect." He did not mention Iran's nuclear program, calling only on Tehran to exchange "the capacity to destroy" for "the ability to build and create." Just a few hours later, Israel's President Shimon Peres sent a similar video message, sharply attacking Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust, and calling on the Iranian people to topple their leadership. Khamenei responded evasively that Iran "will wait and see. If you change your attitude, we will change, too." Israeli analysts could not but doubt the results.
At the beginning of April, after preparing the ground by stating that plans for missile defense systems in Europe will carry on for as long as Iran continues to be a threat, and declaring that the world "cannot have a nuclear arms race in the Middle East," the Obama Administration made a further step towards Tehran: the United States offered to send diplomats to the multilateral discussions conducted by the Europeans with Iran. The details of these and further meetings remain unclear. It has been reported that the United States and the Europeans were considering options to drop the suspension of enrichment as the precondition for negotiations, a fact that both the State Department spokesperson and later Secretary of State Clinton forcefully denied.
With Benjamin Netanyahu, the new conservative chief of the Israeli government, labeling an Iranian nuclear weapon "the biggest danger to humanity and Israel," the discussion of a potential Israeli attack on Iran found its way back into Israel's newspapers. Israel's president, Shimon Peres, attempted to counterbalance the situation, making assurances that Israel will not act without or against the United States, and underlining that "all this talk about a possible strike […] is nonsense — the solution […] is not military." Even the far-right Foreign Minister Lieberman stressed Israel was "not talking about a military strike" and Washington should "take it upon itself to resolve the Iranian issue." On the other side of the Atlantic, David Petraeus, the commander of American forces in the Middle East, cautioned that Israel might ultimately take preemptive action. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared he does not foresee an Israeli attack this year, and Vice President Biden said Netanyahu would be "ill-advised" to attack Iran and stressed this was unlikely to happen.
With the Iranian presidential elections slated for June, Ahmadinejad does not seem to see any gains in reciprocating the U.S. steps. The Iranian president's xenophobic speech in Geneva, the conviction of the American-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi for espionage, the repeated dismissal of concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions,  and calls for additional steps from Washington diminish the credibility of Iran's nuclear negotiator's statements that his country welcomes negotiations with the United States, or Ahmadinejad's declaration that Iran was preparing a new negotiations proposal. Aiming at putting pressure on Tehran, both the European Union and IAEA's Mohamed ElBaradei urged Iran to take advantage of this "window of opportunity."
As the Obama Administration prepares to move from declarations to an implemented policy change on Iran, the Israeli moderate media is prepared to give this opportunity a chance. The conservatives, however, believe success remains a futile dream and, while accepting that negotiations cannot be prevented, insist that any contact should be short, the military option kept on the table, and talks interrupted as soon as it is obvious that Iran is just stalling to gain time. For Israeli conservatives, Obama's steps towards Iran are nothing but a "disconcerting policy of engaging jihadist groups" with "legitimate fears that pressures may be exerted on Israel to assume the role of the sacrificial lamb to assuage Muslim sensitivities. 
Israeli pundits agree that the difference in approach between Washington and Jerusalem is likely to increase with Netanyahu as Prime Minister, as he has long been advocating a more aggressive approach towards Iran. Looking into the future, moderates hope that the experience Netanyahu and Barak bring to the table will help them understand that a stable working relationship with the Obama Administration is key, and Jerusalem has to allow Washington time to either succeed or fail in its Iran attempts. Unfortunately, the latest appointments in the Israeli government remain rather discouraging.
Nonetheless, one can expect that even the security hawks around Netanyahu and Lieberman understand that Iran is not the only game in town in the bilateral relations with Washington. A rupture with the Obama Administration, the military retaliation from Tehran and its proxies, a boost for Ahmadinejad before the Iranian elections, and the unfiltered fury of the Arab streets seem to be a price too high to pay, at least for a few months. Even so, should Tehran stall the process while the perception prevails that Washington is failing to mount sufficient pressure, Israeli moderates' expectations are unlikely to be fulfilled.
Liviu Horovitz is a Fulbright fellow on academic training as a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) in Monterey, California, and Sarah Poe is a graduate research assistant at CNS. The authors would like to thank Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova and Kenley Butler for their comments and editorial assistance.
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