A point of disagreement is more a matter of timing than substance.
IF THE LEADERS in Tehran hoped for signs of a U.S.-Israeli policy rift over the Iranian nuclear program, President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surely left them disappointed. The extensive common ground the two men share suggests that their private two-hour White House meeting found them largely on the same page.
Both the president and the prime minister stressed the special connection between their countries. As Obama put it, "We are bound to Israel because of the interest that we share" and also "our common ideals," adding — in this election season — that American support for Israel is bipartisan. Netanyahu spelled out some of those ideals: religious freedom, minority rights, the rule of law, women's rights — all still woefully lacking elsewhere in the Middle East despite all the hype about the "Arab Spring."
The prime minister lauded "the great alliance between our two countries." For his part, the president detailed the administration's close defense collaboration with Israel, promising to "do what it takes to preserve Israel's qualitative military edge." Most significant, he announced: "when the chips are down, I have Israel's back."
They also agreed on the grave danger posed by Iran's nuclear aspirations and that a policy of "containment," whereby the international community reconciles itself to an Iran capable of building nuclear weapons but seeks to limit its impact, is not an option. Both spoke of how nuclear capability would enable Iran not only to threaten Israel, but also to endanger the world's oil supply, propel a nuclear arms race in the region and supply nuclear weapons to radical factions that could be detonated anywhere, including Western countries.
As Obama said, "The entire world has an interest in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon." And he fully understands that "no Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel's destruction."
Obama detailed the steps his administration has taken to rally the international community in support of a series of economic sanctions against Iran through the United Nations, the European Union and by individual states. He contended that these steps, especially those targeted at Iran's Central Bank and oil exports, are "virtually grinding the Iranian economy to a halt" and that over the coming months Tehran "faces the prospect of even more crippling sanctions."
To be sure, geopolitical realities dictate that the two allies do not view the situation identically. Unlike the United States, Israel lies in missile range of Iran's border, and that lent a greater sense of urgency to Netanyahu's remarks. For all the damage that economic sanctions have done to the Iranian economy, he said, "Iran's nuclear march goes on." While Obama advocates continuation of "diplomacy backed by pressure," his Israeli counterpart declares: "We've waited for diplomacy to work. We've waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer. As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live under the shadow of annihilation."
And yet even this point of disagreement is more a matter of timing than substance, as indicated by the president's declaration, "I will take no options off the table" including "all elements of American power." Most important, just as Netanyahu hinted at Israel's willingness to attack Iran on its own if necessary — "Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat" — Obama backed "Israel's sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs."
Ominously, on Monday, the very day of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting at the White House, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency expressed "serious concerns" that Iran has been conducting secret work on nuclear weapons, noting evidence of significant uranium enrichment and Tehran's refusal on two recent occasions to allow in outside observers.
As the Iran nuclear crisis heats up, mutual understanding between the United States and Israel becomes more vital than ever.
Buzz Warren, a Bloomingdale resident, is metro New Jersey president of the American Jewish Committee.