The disagreement between Israel and the Obama administration over whether it’s time to acknowledge that diplomacy has failed to stop Iran’s nuclear program is starting to make a lot of people nervous. Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak seem to be interpreting the administration’s staunch refusal to abandon a diplomatic track that has already clearly failed as meaning that the president won’t make good on his promise to stop Iran from going nuclear. That has led to talk that Israel will strike Iran without U.S. assistance or permission and that it may do so even before the November presidential election.
The Americans are doing everything they can to persuade the Israelis to stand down but in the absence of trust in the president, mere words may not be enough. That’s why one of Obama’s leading Jewish supporters, columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, believes it’s time for some symbolism. Goldberg writes today in Bloomberg that a long sought presidential visit to Israel before the election would do the trick. He’s right. If President Obama were to take time out from the campaign for a stop in Israel some time in the next few weeks, Netanyahu would have no choice but to postpone any attack plans. Though it is possible that Obama will listen to Goldberg, such a visit with less than 90 days before the election is a long shot. It is far more likely that the president will rely on his usual mode of communication with the Israelis: pressure and threats. But since that has never worked in the past, Obama’s supporters ought to be asking themselves what’s behind the president’s reluctance to act in a manner that might convince both Israelis and their Iranian foes that he isn’t fibbing about being prepared to act on the issue during his second term.
Though the Democrat’s campaign staff may think any time not spent in a swing state is a bad idea, an Obama visit to Israel now would be a coup for the president. It would monopolize media attention during the trip and thus hurt Mitt Romney. It would also bolster the president’s sagging Jewish support.
Even more important, such a dramatic gesture accompanied by a presidential speech in which he warned Iran that they must halt their nuclear program or face the consequences would convince the Israeli public that he could be relied upon to keep the promise he first made about stopping Tehran during the 2008 campaign. Under those circumstances, there would be no possibility of a unilateral Israeli attack since Netanyahu could not then justify such a move by pointing to distrust of Washington.
It would all be so easy but the question to ask about this scenario is why the president has always been so reluctant to show the Israelis some love when it would cost him so little and bring such a great reward?
The only possible answer is the one we always are forced to return to when discussing the problematic relationship between the Obama administration and Israel: the president’s equivocal feelings about the Jewish state. As veteran diplomat Aaron David Miller memorably put it a few weeks ago, Barack Obama is the first president in a generation “not in love with the idea of Israel.” That’s compounded by his open and very public dislike of Benjamin Netanyahu.
While Obama’s defenders are right to note that there’s nothing all that unusual about the lack of a visit to Israel during a first term, this is a president who has gone out of his way to pick fights with Jerusalem and to avoid the country during trips to the region. It appears that if Obama is to go to Israel, as his campaign hinted earlier during this summer, it would only be as a re-elected president with the whip hand over Netanyahu and not as a candidate who has to show some deference to his ally.
One imagines that Obama is recoiling at the very idea of being forced to pretend to be friendly with Netanyahu even if it meant avoiding an attack on Iran that he opposes or helping his re-election. Given the stakes involved, his refusal to take some good advice from a supporter tells us all we need to know about the president’s attitude toward Israel.