President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are heading into an afternoon of critical negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. Obama, who told me last week that he will always have "Israel's back," and then reiterated that message to a meeting of AIPAC, the largest pro-Israel lobbying group, is going to deliver that same message bluntly to Netanyahu. But he is, by all accounts, not going to tell Netanyahu just exactly how he has Israel's back.
Netanyahu goes into this White House meeting hoping the president will lay out the specific conditions that would trigger an American military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Specificity would allay Netanyahu's fears that Obama is offering mere platitudes during a presidential campaign in which the Republicans are making his Iran policy a subject of strong criticism. The president suggested rather strongly to me that he is offering comprehensive assurances of American backing for Israel in part because he feels it unreasonable to offer a foreign leader, even the leader of a close ally like Israel, a specific commitment to attack another country at a specific time and in a specific way.
So Netanyahu will undoubtedly leave the White House disappointed, no matter what he says in public. The only question: Will Netanyahu leave the White House committed to attacking Iran on his own, and on his own timetable, even if that timetable calls for a strike before the November election? Obama's mission is to convince Netanyahu that there is no need for precipitous Israeli action against Iran. But there is a strong chance the president will not succeed.
After the meeting, when Netanyahu speaks publicly about his discussions, I will be paying close attention to what he emphasizes. If Netanyahu praises at length the sanctions package put in place by Obama, and is circumspect about the chance that the sanctions will ultimately convince the Iranian regime to give up its nuclear ambitions, then it will be clear that Obama has managed to delay Israeli action, at least for a short time. But if Netanyahu praises Obama's sanctions, but notes that the Iranians, despite the sanctions, are racing -- I'm listening for the word "racing" in particular -- to the nuclear threshold, then it seems to me the Israelis, despite Obama's strong but general promise to stand by their country, might move against Iran regardless of Obama's wishes.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. Follow him on Twitter.)
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