For some reason quite unclear, the Obama Administration's foreign policy establishment decided to make a major issue out of the announcement during VP Biden's visit to Israel of new settlement construction in East Jerusalem. As analysts searched for an explanation of the White House's well-publicized contest with Prime Minister Netanyahu during the latter's recent U.S. trip, more and more the focus was drawn to matters unrelated to the settlement issue.
The Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth was used by insiders in the Netanyahu entourage to be quoted as saying Obama's views were a "strategic disaster." While most people assumed the quote related to the settlement matter, it was actually aimed at a more serious and immediate concern. The settlements could have been passed off as unfortunate timing. More importantly, according to the former Israeli UN ambassador Dan Gillerman, development in East Jerusalem has never been considered by Netanyahu and Israel's right wing as part of the settlement phase of "land for peace."
Biden had been briefed on this; Obama had been briefed on this; Hillary Clinton had been briefed. The real story is that the Obama Administration is proceeding on the basis that evolving a Palestine/Israel accord will be an important element in negotiations with Iran to cease nuclear weapon development.
This fantastical idea has evolved out of the strong White House belief that Iran can be cajoled into an agreement on nuclear weapon development if only the Palestine "problem" was solved. Any action appearing to inhibit the current campaign to bring Israel and Palestine closer is perceived by President Barack Obama as contrary to his plan to prevent Iran from "going nuclear." Contrary to the oft-stated theme of keeping the military option on the table, the Obama Administration is committed to avoiding a preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear development targets.
The key to the Obama strategy (as reportedly explained to PM Netanyahu) is the expectation that there is a real possibility that the current Iranian clerical regime will be overthrown and replaced with a secular republic that that will include perhaps only a clerically dominated judiciary. All that is needed for the Obama plan to work is time, he told Netanyahu.
And here is where Obama's recent conflict with Bibi Netanyahu comes in. Netanyahu's real purpose in meeting with the U.S. president was to explain Israeli thinking on the need for and possible timing of an Israeli strike on Iran. From the Israeli standpoint the new developments in East Jerusalem were an unimportant side show, and Israeli estimates of the ability of the Iranians to have nuclear weapons is at most by the end of this year.
Obama's view was firmly anchored in the importance of the peace talks while Netanyahu was equally adamant and unmoving in disagreement. He said quite clearly that Israel has to plan on using its military power to prevent the Persian attack. Well-informed sources in the Israeli PM's camp indicated that while repeating the pledge of United States commitment to Israel's defense in perpetuity, the American leader tried to use verbal strong-arm tactics to challenge the position of Israel's American-educated, former IDF special forces officer-turned professional politician prime minister. This was definitely the wrong thing to do.
It was at this point that Obama decided to disengage and left Netanyahu cooling his heels in the White House. It was the first time Obama had been so categorically thwarted in his generally accepted "brilliant" ability to out-debate an adversary.
Netanyahu admitted differences between the U.S. and Israel "are those between allies and friends…." His response to Yedioth Ahronoth's claim that Obama's views were "a strategic disaster" was simply to refer to the newspaper's comments as "anonymous, unworthy remarks." Not quite a strong denial in any terms.
The final result of the Obama-Netanyahu talks was that the latter left convinced that the American president would not openly admit it, but he was willing to extend all aspects of negotiation and threats of sanctions with and against Iran to a point beyond where Netanyahu believed Israel could afford to go before taking preemptive action. Furthermore, the Israeli prime minister believes there would be little or no influence on Iran's nuclear plans resulting from Palestine-Israel peace talks -- contrary to Obama's firm belief to the opposite.
If Israeli news sources are to be believed, Obama's view has been effectively altered that he could make the decision for an Israeli government headed by Bibi Netanyahu regarding if and when to use a preemptive strike against Iran. As President Obama himself said in a different context, it's just a matter of time!