WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu agree, at least in principle: Keep the talk on what to do about Iran behind closed doors. Once they are behind those doors, however, they cannot agree – and it seems they cannot resist bringing their disagreements into the open.

Within hours of a long and private Oval Office meeting on Monday that aides to both leaders said was productive, Netanyahu suggested that Obama’s sanctions-focused approach to Iran’s nuclear program was not producing results. The next day, Obama was warning that the United States would suffer repercussions if Israel struck Iran prematurely.

Still, there also seem to have been some concessions from both sides.

Netanyahu insisted to Obama and congressional leaders that he had not yet decided to strike Iran. Meanwhile, Obama’s defense secretary, Leon Panetta, issued perhaps the most explicit warning yet that U.S. military action against Iran will come if all else failed. Panetta made his comments in his address Tuesday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference.

“Military action is the last alternative when all else fails,” he said, adding pointedly, “but make no mistake, if all else fails, we will act.”

That formulation is more acute than the “no-options-off-the-table” language that has been the boilerplate for the Obama administration and the George W. Bush administration that preceded it.

Top Obama administration officials have tried to persuade Netanyahu that diplomatic options have not yet been exhausted in the bid to have Iran stand down from its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Netanyahu’s AIPAC speech (see page 24) Monday evening appeared to frustrate Obama on Tuesday morning. In response to a question at a news conference, Obama pointedly said that military action against Iran could have consequences for the United States.

Obama acknowledged that he is “deeply mindful of the historical precedents that weigh on any prime minister of Israel when they think about the potential threats to Israel and the Jewish homeland.”

He added, however, “The argument that we’ve made to the Israelis is that we have made an unprecedented commitment to their security. There is an unbreakable bond between our two countries, but one of the functions of friends is to make sure that we provide honest and unvarnished advice in terms of what is the best approach to achieve a common goal, particularly one in which we have a stake. This is not just an issue of Israeli interests, this is an issue of U.S. interests. It’s also not just an issue of consequences for Israel, if action is taken prematurely. There are consequences to the United States, as well.”

In a subtle gibe at Netanyahu, Obama also said that Israel’s intelligence establishment agreed with him that diplomacy may succeed.

“It is my belief that we have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically,” he said. “That’s not just my view – that’s the view of our top intelligence officials, it’s the view of top Israeli intelligence officials.”

JTA Wire Service