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Netanyahu and Obama: The End of the Beginning

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A lot of effort was invested by both Israeli and American diplomats and spin masters to create the impression that the Netanyahu-Obama meeting was successful, but I remain skeptical.

Body language is not a precise science (or is it?...), but watching the two leaders making their initial statements before entering the Oval Office clearly indicated nervousness and tension, particularly on the part of President Obama. He surely paid careful attention to the lack of the word 'diplomacy' in Netanyahu's remarks, as well as to the repeated reference to Israel's right to self defense. Also, Netanyahu's emphasis on his obligation as a leader of a Jewish state was a prelude to the history lesson later to be delivered at his AIPAC speech.

Moreover, it was another reminder to those who still need it that Israel's approach about Iran is greatly motivated by the past, with the heavy burden which it places on every Israeli leader confronted with the need to make a crucial, historic decision. The president, on the other hand, spoke about the future, the efforts still to be made in order to prevent a nuclear Iran. In this regard, the president announced a significant change of policy, by abandoning containment as an option, and opting for prevention. Netanyahu was polite enough to note the change, but he was expecting another word from the host: preemption. At any rate, the contrast between the different emphasis of the two leaders was stark.

Then there is the fact that no joint communiqué was issued after the meeting, not completely against the protocol but still indicative of the continued existence of problems. Both sides tried to come up with a positive spin, as they emphasized Netanyahu's assurance to the president that no final decision was taken by Israel about the military option against Iran. Did any one, even first year students of political science, really expect the Israeli leader to say something else to the president? But then, the leak/spin serves both leaders very well. Netanyahu continues with his policy of ambiguity, Obama can gain some days of no spike in the price of gas, as the fear of an immediate military eruption, which was overplayed to start with, seems to have receded, at least for some time.

So, all that is really signaling the end of the beginning, the end of the stage, where the Iranian nuclear project was somewhat of a subject to be discussed, rather than an immediate problem to be resolved. Now, a new stage starts, the countdown towards a decision, can diplomacy work, or are we left with the inevitable military option? Netanyahu left us still somewhat bewildered after his AIPAC speech, but the direction is clear. He spoke about the diplomatic option in past tense, "we WAITED for diplomacy to succeed," indicating both his disbelief that this is a potentially successful option, and also his growing impatience. This was amplified by specifically stating that there is not much time left for the option that, to start with, he is so skeptical about.

In fact, a great deal of the speech sounded as if it was meant to be the retroactive justification to a military strike, particularly the dramatic comparison between now and the refusal of the Allies to bomb the Auschwitz death camp in 1944. Historians will surely debate the pros and cons of the comparison, but the PM message was loud and clear, and it was that between trusting others and taking an independent Jewish action, the choice is clear. Is it really? Did the PM corner himself, in a way, which has restricted his options to the minimum? Not yet, but very close to that. It may surprise some people who are not Netanyahu's watchers, but a careful scrutiny of his career reveals that the PM has never made a decision leading to a major military operation on the part of Israel. Those who object to an Israeli military strike can be encouraged by that, as well as the fact that he did not refer to a specific time table, though implying that this is a matter of few months at the most. This is where the president, for his part, can still play a decisive role.

Mr. Obama basically told Netanyahu, "trust me," something that he will have to prove the effectiveness of in a relatively short period of time. Can he do it in a way that will convince an Israeli leader so much engulfed with his understanding of history and its lessons? We do not have too much time to know the answer.