Much of the attention devoted to U.S.-Israel diplomacy in recent months has been on whether the United States will seek to prevent the Jewish state from acting on its own to forestall an Iranian nuclear weapon. The differences between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu over the utility of sanctions or diplomacy and how much more time these measures should be allowed before force can be used have not been resolved. Nevertheless, it is more likely than not that the Israelis are going to give the president a bit more time before launching their own strike.
But despite the near obsessive focus on the fractious Obama-Netanyahu relationship, the most important messages being sent from the speeches at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington were not those exchanged between those two leaders. Instead, it was the clear warning to Iran by Netanyahu that the Jewish people will not live under the shadow of annihilation. For all of the justified concern about what Obama will or will not do to try to impede the Israelis as he hangs on to the forlorn hope of a diplomatic solution to the problem, the fate of the Middle East hangs on whether Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, comprehended Netanyahu’s clarion call to action during his Monday night speech to the conference. Tehran must either stand down on its nuclear ambition or face an Israeli attack at some point in the not too distant future.
By stating unequivocally that Israel will always be master of its own fate when it comes to its security, Netanyahu was making it crystal clear that Obama’s misgivings about force will not preclude an Israeli assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities before the program is rendered invulnerable. However much time Netanyahu may give Obama, it is also easily understood that this is not an open-ended commitment. He is rightly convinced that neither renewed diplomatic activity nor even the stepped-up sanctions Obama now contemplates will convince the Iranians they must give in.
As Netanyahu said, Israel has waited patiently for years as Western diplomatic initiatives intended to cajole or buy off the Iranians have flopped. It has also looked on as the half-hearted sanctions against Iran were tried and has seen they will not answer the problem. And the Israeli leader is well aware that even the oil embargo mooted by some Western European nations and reluctantly seconded by Obama will also certainly fail due to lack of cooperation from China and Russia.
All of this renders much of the speculation about Obama’s intentions moot. He may argue that Israel must give diplomacy another chance to work, but few even in the administration believe any such initiative will succeed. It has already been amply demonstrated that the Iranians interpret any opening for talks as an invitation for delaying tactics that only serve to get them closer to their nuclear goal. As it is unlikely the president will let go of his illusions about diplomacy or engagement with Iran working until it is too late to do anything about their nuclear program, that puts the ball squarely in Israel’s court.
That is why the most important message delivered this week was not the exchange between Obama and Netanyahu so much as it was the one delivered to Iran. The Iranians may be laboring under their own set of delusions in which they cling to the notion that the United States can exercise a veto over Israeli self-defense. But Netanyahu’s speech, which drew a direct parallel between the current impasse over Iran and the refusal by the Allies to attack the rail lines to Auschwitz in 1944, is a signal that Obama is ultimately powerless to prevent the Jewish state from acting to prevent another Holocaust.
Iran has conducted itself in the last several years as if it believed it had impunity from retribution should it acquire a genocidal weapon to be used against the Jewish state it has sworn to destroy. It has also acted as if it believed, not unreasonably, that President Obama wasn’t serious about stopping them. But if Iran wishes to avoid having its nuclear facilities attacked, it needs to understand that Netanyahu was speaking in deadly earnest when he warned them of the consequences of their actions.