Iran seen bridging divide between Obama and 'Bibi'
While Obama's visit may not ease his frosty relationship with Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, the fear of a nuclear Iran will compel the two to transcend their differences, officials say
Monday 18 Mar 2013
US President Barack Obama's much-anticipated trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories -- his first since becoming president more than four years ago -- begins on Wednesday, just days after the Israeli prime minister's new cabinet was finalised.
Although ties between Israel and Washington remain close, the rapport between the two leaders has been markedly chilly over the last four years with a very public show of differences on both the peace process and how to prevent Iran from achieving military nuclear capabilities.
Netanyahu has demanded the White House draw a "red line" for Iran, which if crossed could bring down a military strike, warning the UN General Assembly in September that Tehran could have enough fissile material for a bomb by the summer.
Obama ignored the demand, but last week appeared to soften a little, finally using the term in an interview with Israel's Channel 2 television, and saying he believed it would take Iran "over a year or so" to develop a nuclear weapon.
The American president also went to great lengths to show he had a good working relation with "Bibi" -- Netanyahu's nickname -- a term he used multiple times in the interview.
"I've met with Bibi more than with any other world leader." he said.
"There have been times where Bibi and I have had differences but as I said, the relationship between the two countries is so strong, between its people is so strong that I think that any differences in policy -- not personal, but policy differences -- end up being bridged and resolved."
The question of how to handle Tehran's nuclear ambitions will force the two together, and Israeli officials say the visit will be a crucial opportunity for Netanyahu and Obama to work out the specifics of their stance on Iran.
-- Iran top of the agenda --
"The Iranian issue will be at the top of the agenda when the president meets the prime minister," an Israeli official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"It's clear that despite the international pressure, despite sanctions and diplomacy -- the Iranians still proceed rapidly towards creating enough fissile material for a bomb, and they must be stopped," he said, rejecting the notion that personal tensions could get in the way.
"As far as personal relations go, there is nothing that would prevent them from doing so," he said.
"Both of them understand the historic importance of this."
Danny Ayalon, Israel's envoy to Washington from 2002-2006 and until recently the deputy foreign minister, said neither leader would allow personal issues to get the upper hand.
"Past differences are simply irrelevant, the same way they haven't influenced relations between the US and Israel, which in recent years have deepened and flourished," he told AFP, citing US funding of the Iron Dome missile defence system as the "tip of the iceberg."
"Leaders of states are pragmatic people; politics and diplomacy are the art of what is possible," he said. "The map of interests do not change, ethos do not change."
Ayalon noted the immense significance to Obama's choice of making Israel the first foreign tour of his second term.
"Differences of the past do not matter, if there ever were such," he said. "This is an opportunity to strengthen ties and maybe develop personal relations."
While Israel and the US agree that Iran is striving to achieve a military capability, they differ on the immediacy of the threat, defence minister Ehud Barak said last week before stepping down.
"The differences between us and the United States are mainly over the pace of the ticking of the clock and the pace is different because of the differences in the ability to act," he said.
Both Washington and Israel have refused to rule out the option of military force to prevent Iran going nuclear.
Ties between Obama and Netanyahu could even improve if the new Israeli government moves ahead with peace talks, Ayalon said, noting that the two-state solution was endorsed by all coalition parties, except for Jewish Home, which could be replaced if necessary.
"This government could actually start a significant process," he said, speculating that Obama -- who has deliberately lowered expectations over the trip -- could even initiate a triple summit with Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, or even with Jordan's King Abdullah.