Analysis: On Iran, at least, Bibi and Obama agree

By Anshel Pfeffer, April 15, 2010

Commentators have been competing with each other to come up with the best superlative to describe the apparent crisis in Israel-American relations, but it has gone almost unnoticed that on one very significant issue, President Barack Obama seems to be closer now to Israel's position that the Bush administration.

Last week Mr Obama said clearly that he believes that Iran is trying to achieve nuclear weapons. This is a 180-degree turn away from the American National Intelligence Estimate of two-and-a-half years ago which said that Iran had ceased worked on its military nuclear programme in 2003.

Senior Israeli intelligence sources have confirmed that there is very little to choose between their current assessments and those of their American counterparts. Not only do the intelligence communities see almost eye-to-eye on Iran's intentions and capabilities, Israel is also a senior partner in the American diplomatic effort to secure a new round of sanctions.

In recent months, at least three very high-level Israeli delegations have landed in Beijing to support the attempts to bring the reluctant Chinese on board the sanctions coalition. Israelis visiting China have included one minister, two generals - including the chief of military intelligence, Amos Yadlin - and Binyamin Netanyahu's national security adviser, Uzi Arad.

Their arrival in Beijing was coordinated with that of the Americans.

Not even the most critical aspect of the Iranian nuclear dilemma, whether Israel should attack the installations in Bushehr and Qom and elsewhere, is a clear bone of contention. Of course, the Obama team is for now adamantly opposed to an Israeli attack, without ruling out any options in the future, but this position is not so far away from that of a significant portion of the Israeli leadership.

Heading the coalition against an attack is Israel's oldest expert on diplomatic and defence affairs, the "father of the Israeli nuclear programme", Shimon Peres. Defence Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Lt-Gen Gabi Ashkenazi are also not rumoured to be ardent fans of the bombing option. At least not at present.

PM Netanyahu is still on the fence but he certainly believes that Iran is an existential threat to Israel. It is still not clear whether, like Menachem Begin three decades ago, he is capable of facing down the opposition and ordering a strike. He would, though, find partners among many of the senior IDF generals who would like to see the air force re-establishing its credentials in a daring raid.

Since the current assessments are that Israel still has at least a year in which to act before Iran reaches the point of no return, it could be the next IDF Chief of Staff, slated to replace Gen Ashkenazi in 10 months' time, who will deliver the army's recommendation.

Meanwhile, in the discussions surrounding Israel's alternatives, there has been a significant shift. A year ago, many were still saying that an effective Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear programme was unfeasible. These voices are almost never heard today. The air force seems to have been successful in proving its capabilities in the relevant forums. The debate now is whether the repercussions of such an attack, both in the diplomatic and security spheres, do not outweigh the other options.

Mr Obama's position on this, a year down the line, will be crucial. Perhaps even more influential than that of Israel's own president.

Last updated: 4:30pm, April 15 2010