Another View: Israel's fate is in President Obama's hands
This represents a significant shift in their relationship. For much of the past year, Netanyahu set the agenda in talks about Iran. His ceaseless and dire warnings about Iran's deadly plans helped persuade Obama to strengthen sanctions, launch a series of expensive and possibly dangerous sabotage efforts against the nuclear program, promise repeatedly that the U.S. was ready to use force, and build an international coalition of sometimes unwilling partners to check Iran's ambitions.
Netanyahu's ephemeral power was partly due to the U.S. election calendar. Last year, he had the power to derail Obama's campaign. If Israel had struck Iran before the election in November, as Netanyahu was considering doing, the United States might have found itself in the midst of yet another Middle East war. Such a conflict, the conventional wisdom went, would not have been of great help to Obama's reelection effort.
But last September, Netanyahu gave Obama a gift. At the United Nations, Netanyahu announced that, in his considered view, the world had perhaps six to nine months more before Iran would be ready to enrich enough uranium to make a bomb. By establishing this new red line in 2013, Netanyahu allowed Obama to run for reelection without fear that the Persian Gulf would soon be catching fire. The President was thankful for the gesture. He called Netanyahu shortly after the speech to express his appreciation for the "time and space" Netanyahu's speech gave the U.S. Their relationship subsequently soured (for the fifth or sixth time) when Netanyahu's government announced plans to build new settlements in a sensitive area east of Jerusalem, but for a while, it could have been reasonably argued that the two men were getting along.
Although Netanyahu achieved much of what he wanted - he concentrated the attention of the most powerful man in the world on a rogue nuclear program that is more of a threat to Israel than to the U.S. - what he did at the U.N. was out of character for a man who believes that the state of Israel exists so that Jews will never again be dependent on outsiders for their safety.
The Israeli columnist Ari Shavit, writing in Haaretz, was brutal last week about the consequences of Netanyahu's decision to defer action. Shavit argued that Iran is moving rapidly to the point where it would be immune to the sort of one-time, pinpoint airstrike that Israel could plausibly achieve. "Israel's counter-threat is dissipating and losing its strength," he wrote. "As a result, for the first time in its history, Israel will soon have to place its fate in the hands of others. The Israelis will not decide whether to be or not to be - President Barack Obama will decide."
How did this unlikely situation come to pass? Obama and Netanyahu spent 2011 and 2012 in a staring contest, and Netanyahu blinked. He blinked because he seems to have realized the limits of Israeli independence. A core component of Israeli national-security doctrine holds that no regional adversary should be allowed to gain control of a nuclear weapon. A second component is to avoid getting on the bad side of the U.S., Israel's main benefactor and diplomatic protector. These two ideas came into conflict over the Iran nuclear issue, and the relationship with the U.S. has, at least provisionally, won out.
Obama cleverly put his thumb on the scale by dispatching American generals and intelligence officials to Israel, where they painted nightmare scenarios for their counterparts about the possible consequences of an Israeli strike. Partly as a result, Netanyahu and his former defense minister, Ehud Barak, found themselves without the support of many of their national- security officials at crucial moments.
For public consumption, of course, both American and Israeli officials say that their governments see eye-to-eye on Iran. Both Obama and Netanyahu oppose containment - the idea that the West could acquiesce to a nuclear Iran while checking its aggression - and both have threatened to use military force.
But their threat clocks aren't in sync, and Netanyahu's real worry is that Iran will use the next year or so to make the costs of a potential American strike appallingly high. Two Israeli officials, who requested anonymity to speak frankly, told me that if they were in charge of defending the Iranian nuclear program, they would spend the next year building duplicate facilities in heavily populated areas and spreading out the program in such a way as to obviate the chance that a limited American military operation would work. Many Israelis, of course, are predisposed to think that Obama's promise to stop Iran is only rhetorical. If it came time to act, they assume he would balk. And the likelihood of balking is higher, they argue, if the Iranian nuclear program becomes harder to hit.
Netanyahu will raise these concerns when he meets Obama. But unlike last year, Obama won't be facing an election. This time, he might be in a position to tell Netanyahu things he doesn't want to hear.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for The Atlantic.
READER COMMENTS: 0
- Maureen McDonald: Ray Rice and the everyday problem of domestic violence - 1
- Another View -- Jason Bedrick: An important court victory for parents and taxpayers - 3
- Thomas Sowell: Mob rule economics is bad for everyone - 8
- George Will: Eviscerating the 1st Amendment is extremism - 5
- Jonah Goldberg: Upholding America's honor in a dangerous world - 0
- Kathy Sullivan: We are in for a nasty, dishonest election season - 25
- Charles Arlinghaus: Don't apologize for not voting - 5
- Jonah Goldberg: Growing a foreign legion for losers - 0
- Another View -- Katie Kieffer: Want to reduce rape on campus? Let women carry firearms - 23
READER COMMENTS: 0
- Manchester's Davies 'Man of the Match' as Revs run win streak to five on Saturday - 0
- Keselowski wins Chase opener at Chicagoland - 0
- Dan Tuohy's Granite Status: Democrats target Brown in 'Massachusetts Week' diss - 4
- Woman charged with attacking fiancÚ, threatening him with a gun - 0
- Dave D'Onofrio's Pats Notebook: Proper response required after loss to Miami - 0
- Pinkerton grads Chabot, Parent in the groove at KSC - 0
- Early dismissal by UNH in 45-37 win over Lehigh - 0
- Windham football squad proves a point against Trinity in 49-12 win - 0
- Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Factors the GM should consider - 0
In 2nd District race, Garcia bucks Obamacare
Exeter team reeling over tragedies
In 2nd District race, Garcia bucks Obamacare
Public be damned: Litchfield latest example
Hot spotlight put on NH domestic violence