Commentary Magazine


This Does Not Sound Like Someone Looking for a Confrontation

President Obama gave an interview to the editor of Newsweek that should give pause to the kind of people Jonathan Tobin exposed as eagerly hoping for a brouhaha between Obama and Bibi Netanyahu. Obama’s words portend just the opposite.

“I’ve been very clear that I don’t take any options off the table with respect to Iran,” Obama said, endorsing a concept that caused his supporters to nearly demand war crimes tribunals under the previous president. Meacham then asked Obama whether he expects Israel to follow the U.S.’s diplomatic approach on Iran “and not take unilateral [military] action.”

No, look, I understand very clearly that Israel considers Iran an existential threat, and given some of the statements that have been made by President Ahmadinejad, you can understand why. So their calculation of costs and benefits are going to be more acute. They’re right there in range and I don’t think it’s my place to determine for the Israelis what their security needs are.

The line about America not dictating Israel’s security needs is an old and meaningless one, but Obama’s willingness to articulate the way Israel perceives Iran — especially in the midst of his outreach to Iran — is not. And there is even a hint that Obama is already feeling slightly chastened by engagement:

I assure you, I’m not naive about the difficulties of a process like this. If it doesn’t work, the fact that we have tried will strengthen our position in mobilizing the international community, and Iran will have isolated itself, as opposed to a perception that it seeks to advance that somehow it’s being victimized by a U.S. government that doesn’t respect Iran’s sovereignty.

Obama may or may not be speaking sincerely, but at a minimum it is evident by his choice of words that he is not trying to set up a public confrontation with Netanyahu. My prediction is that the major points of discussion are going to be related to chronology — how much time before a point of no return is reached on the Iranian nuclear program, how much time Obama plans on devoting to engagement, how much time can pass before Israel decides it must act, and how to formulate the timing of Obama’s approach to the peace process, which today — as I think Obama implicitly acknowledged — has taken a back seat to the Iranian challenge. (If Obama wanted to make the peace process a higher priority than the nuclear program, why did he endorse the idea that the Iranian program poses an existential threat to Israel?)

If you really want to get into the weeds on this, there is some good analysis here, here, here, here, and, last but not least, a great piece from our own Shmuel Rosner.