What Netanyahu really thought of Obama, and other bombshell revelations from Obama’s disillusioned peace negotiator.
On Friday night, November 8, 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked me to come by his residence after sundown for an informal chat. I was in Jerusalem, and he wanted to discuss the talks with the Palestinians and the nuclear negotiations with Iran. As it turned out, I arrived while he was on a secure call with President Barack Obama. When I joined the prime minister after the call, he was as disturbed as I had ever seen him. Earlier in the day, Secretary of State John Kerry had left Israel to go to Geneva to see whether an interim deal on the Iranian nuclear program could be concluded. The Israelis had been surprised that such a deal was suddenly on the brink of happening. Only a week earlier, Israel’s Iran team was briefed on the status of the talks, but White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice had not authorized the Israelis to be briefed on the actual state of play in the negotiations.
Now the surprise left them alarmed — and Kerry, who had a good relationship with Netanyahu, had not been able to reassure him about the content of the deal. Netanyahu had publicly stated that if the deal was concluded, it would be a “historic mistake.” The president had called to change the prime minister’s view, in no small part because of the impact that Israel’s position would likely have on congressional attitudes toward the emerging deal.
The call had not worked. I was struck by how alone Netanyahu felt. He believed the United States had given up all its leverage in this deal and the sanctions would now collapse of their own weight, taking all the pressure off the Iranians and freezing the situation. The Iranians would be left as a threshold nuclear state, and Israel would be confronted with unpalatable choices. I challenged his conclusions, saying that the sanctions would not collapse because there was much the U.S. could do to demonstrate the costs to those businesses that might think of breaking the sanctions regime. He acknowledged that I could be right, but what became apparent is that he interpreted what he heard from the president as a loss of will on his part to keep the pressure up. When I asked him why he drew that conclusion, he said because the president felt politics ruled out the use of force and therefore required a deal.
I told him, “I just don’t believe the president said or meant that. Maybe he was making the point that the war-weariness of our public requires us to demonstrate we made every effort to give diplomacy a chance and this deal gives us the chance to do so.” But the prime minister felt the president was telling him that our domestic reality left him little choice but to do a deal.
There was no call from Susan Rice, there was no follow-up from the president.
I was certain two leaders speaking the same language had talked past each other. I contacted Kerry to let him know that the prime minister had formed an impression about the U.S. position that needed to be corrected. Kerry quickly followed up with a call. But the problem was a White House problem — and not one Kerry could easily correct. Had Tom Donilon still been the national security adviser, he surely would have understood that there was a problem, and he would have immediately spoken to his counterpart. If the impression was not corrected, he would have had Obama make another call.
He had done precisely that in September 2012 when Netanyahu had made public comments challenging our position on the Iranian nuclear issue. Donilon arranged the call and the air was not only cleared, but there was a meeting of the minds.
By contrast, now there was no call from Susan Rice, there was no follow-up from the president, and the prime minister did not soften his public criticism two weeks later when the actual Joint Plan of Action with Iranian negotiators was concluded. Instead, Rice, reflecting her generally more combative mind-set, would say to Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, that in reacting to the Joint Plan of Action, Netanyahu’s posture was outrageous. In her view, the Israeli leader did everything but “use ‘the n- word’ in describing the president.”
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It didn’t have to play out that way. From the outset of his presidency, Obama was focused on establishing what became known as the dual- track approach to Iran and its nuclear program: Be prepared to deal directly with the Iranians but also build our leverage with them. Engagement put pressure on the Iranians in two ways. First, talking to the United States created deep fissures in the Iranian elite. Second, if the Iranians balked at dealing directly with us, it made it far easier for us to mobilize sanctions against them. The hope was to alter Iran’s behavior through negotiations, but if the Iranians would not engage at all, or engaged but would not budge, we would then be able to garner international pressure on them to change course.
We briefed the Israelis on the steps we were taking to act militarily — if it came to that — vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear program.
Israel was very much a factor in this approach. To forestall Israeli military action against what Israelis perceived as an existential threat, the president understood we needed to show we could apply meaningful pressure on the Iranians that would alter their nuclear program. In his first meetings with Netanyahu, in May 2009, Obama explained the logic of the dual track — which necessarily had to start with the effort at engagement. When Netanyahu asked how much time we would give engagement — clearly fearing that the Iranians might just string us along as they proceeded with their nuclear development — Obama told him that if nothing happened before the end of the first year, we would pivot toward sanctions. To add to the credibility of our pressure on Iran, the president wanted the Israelis to understand that he meant it when he said that “all options are on the table.”
To that end, we briefed the Israelis on the steps we were taking to act militarily — if it came to that — vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear program. Obama directed the Pentagon early in the administration to make sure he could back up his promise. He told a small group of us that if he decided at some point that force had to be used, he did not want to be told we did not have the necessary military means. But he also did not want the way we prepared that capability to leave him with no choice but to use force. While engagement and possible sanctions were means to affect the Iranians, they were obviously not ends in themselves. The goal was to get the Islamic Republic to roll back its nuclear program, but the administration did not at this time address what it was ultimately prepared to accept in this regard. Defense Secretary Robert Gates sent a memo to the president emphasizing we needed to be clear on our objective. Gates wanted systematic discussions not just on our goals but also on different scenarios related to the eruption of conflict, including if the Israelis were to strike the Iranian nuclear program and the Iranians retaliated, what should the United States do (support the Israelis, not support them, threaten Iran, etc.). Gates’ memo led to a number of highly sensitive discussions among the principals, including some in which the president participated.
Obama wanted the vice president to provide outreach to the Israeli public and also reassurance on our readiness to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.
More than anything else, these discussions provided impetus for enhancing our presence in the region and led to further deployments of missile defenses and an additional carrier to the Persian Gulf. We would add to our capabilities to be ready for any contingency — and, in time, we would discuss these with the Israelis.
Although we withheld some military and intelligence capabilities that would have made unilateral Israeli military strikes easier, the president’s inclination was to be very responsive to Israeli military and intelligence requests. Here there was no dissonance among the president’s senior advisers. To the extent there was any disagreement, it had to do with the nature of our objective: Should we prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon or ultimately be prepared to live with it and contain it after the fact? No one minimized the consequences of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons or a nuclear capability. But there was debate over whether we should use force to prevent the Iranians from crossing the threshold if crippling economic sanctions, isolation and diplomatic pressure and negotiations failed to do so. Gates and Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, made it clear that we were in two wars in the region and that was quite enough. They were not soft on Iran, but they were not in favor of the use of force if all other means failed to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons pursuit. Clinton as secretary of state, Tom Donilon, deputy secretary of state, Jim Steinberg and I had a different view. But we understood that for coercive diplomacy to succeed—and obviate the need for military strikes — the Iranians had to believe we would use force if diplomacy failed. It was a source of continuing frustration that Gates and Mullen periodically spoke of with the terrible costs of an attack on Iran — whether by us or the Israelis. If the costs were so terrible, why would we ever do it? Why would the Iranians believe the president when he said all options were on the table?
The mixed messages triggered Israeli complaints, in no small part because the Israelis understood they were derivative of the more basic disagreement over prevention versus containment of the Iranian nuclear program. The president heard the Gates-Mullen view and also the countervailing view that the problem with containment was that it would fail. We could deter the Iranians from using or transferring nuclear weapons, but the Saudis and others then would feel obliged to get their own weapons. They would not trust U.S. assurances after three administrations — Clinton, Bush and Obama — had all declared that it was unacceptable for Iran to have them, and it had acquired them anyway. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty would probably collapse as a result, and the ground rules of the Cold War, where mutual deterrence worked, would not apply in this region because no one in the Middle East would feel they could afford to strike second.
We had debated this issue in front of the president but, as was so often the case, he kept his counsel to himself. Only as we prepared for Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel in March 2010 did he reveal what he had decided.
Obama wanted the vice president to provide outreach to the Israeli public and also reassurance on our readiness to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. We met with the president on successive days in the Oval Office to discuss what the vice president should say about our objective on the Iranian nuclear program in a major speech. Initially, the president was comfortable saying that it was “unacceptable” for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. When I pointed out that “unacceptable” was an observation, not necessarily a policy, he asked what I meant. I said, “It will still be unacceptable after they have it, just as it is with North Korea today.” I said he could certainly stick with this position — it is, after all, what both Presidents Clinton and Bush declared.
“I’m absolutely convinced that the president is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. And I appreciate that” — Benjamin Netanyahu
But Obama felt that was not enough and asked what more we could say. I suggested: “We are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” Unlike saying it is unacceptable, which does not require us to act, once you say this, you are making it clear you will act. “This is not about living with a nuclear Iran but preventing it.” Obama wanted to think about it overnight and we would reconvene before we left on the trip. The next morning, he told us he was comfortable with “determined to prevent,” and this became the language the administration used from that point forward.
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It was not until two years later that the president publicly drew a distinction between prevention and containment as our objective. He did it first in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic and subsequently at the AIPAC conference in March 2012. With Goldberg, he was clear about all options being on the table, that he did not “bluff,” and that prevention was necessary because if Iran crossed the nuclear weapons threshold, it would trigger “a nuclear arms race” in the Middle East.
Why would the president choose Goldberg and AIPAC to stake out this public position? Some might argue he was trying to shore up his political standing in the Jewish community. Certainly, Jewish leaders were bound to prefer a posture that emphasized prevention and not containment, given the existential threat Iran’s nuclear pursuits posed to Israel. No doubt he was mindful of the political benefits of articulating this position and denying GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney an opening on this issue. Still, I suspect he had another reason. Netanyahu was visiting Washington at this point, and the president, I believe, was looking to give the Israeli prime minister a reason not to strike the Iranian nuclear facilities. At this time, Israeli Defense Minister Barak was emphasizing that Iran was on the brink of reaching a “zone of immunity” — representing the point past which an Israeli military strike could have only limited effect. After the president’s public statements and his meeting with the prime minister, Netanyahu said that the time left to deal with the Iranian nuclear challenge was measured “not in weeks, but also not in years.” He thus sent a clear signal that the president had more time for diplomacy to work.
By the fall of 2012, Netanyahu was feeling differently. That led to the secure call to Obama in September, which again helped to defer any Israeli consideration of striking on its own. When Obama visited Israel in March 2013, Netanyahu would say, “I’m absolutely convinced that the president is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. And I appreciate that.”
That firm confidence lapsed by the time of my meeting with the prime minister on November 8 of that year. In the intervening time, Hassan Rouhani had been elected president in Iran. We had opened a back channel to the Iranians, facilitated by Oman, and that back channel had led us to believe that a deal was possible with Rouhani — particularly given his desire to see sanctions lifted and Iran’s isolation ended. The Joint Plan of Action with Iran, as key officials in the administration explained to me, reflected the belief that Rouhani was a moderate and could, in time, do the kind of deal we needed. But he could not do it without gaining some limited sanctions relief, which would show the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, that Rouhani could affect our behavior — and thus build his authority.
Netanyahu, for his part, saw Rouhani very differently. He saw no moderation and feared that the deal, rather than leading to a rollback of the Iranian program, would end up freezing it in place as our leverage inevitably eroded. Iran with 19,500 centrifuges would be a nuclear threshold state, and we would no longer be able to prevent it from breaking out at a time of its choosing — or so Netanyahu believed. Obama disagreed. He felt the Joint Plan of Action allowed us to test the possibility of Rouhani being able to do a deal that would roll back the Iranian nuclear program, and that if it failed to do so, we still had the option of applying pressure — and using force if need be.
After the Joint Plan of Action was agreed upon, a public gap emerged between the president and the prime minister. But they would act to cool the rhetoric, and the administration would work quietly with Israel on our approach to a comprehensive agreement. However, over the course of 2014, as the administration showed its readiness to accept an industrial-scale Iranian nuclear program and not roll it back, the gap with the Israelis reemerged, and Netanyahu became far more outspoken in his criticism of a possible deal.
Overall within the administration, however, there remained a strong consensus on our policy toward Iran. Negotiations need to be pursued.
But in the process we damaged our relationship with Israel far more than we needed to.
Ambassador Dennis Ross is a long-time U.S. Mideast negotiator and author of the forthcoming “Doomed to Succeed: The US-Israeli relationship from Truman to Obama.”