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Contentions

Has Netanyahu’s Iran Bluff Been Called?

Earlier, John channeled the spirit of William Safire and gave us an imaginative and probably not inaccurate assessment of President Obama’s motivation for refusing to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu later this month during the meetings of the United Nations General Assembly. Given Obama’s personal antipathy for Netanyahu and his ardent desire to avoid any meeting that would place him under some obligation to strengthen his stand on Iran, the snub is hardly surprising. The intent, as with a number of previous stunts by the president aimed at the Israeli, was to embarrass Netanyahu as well as to stiff him on the one issue his country cares about: Iran.

The decision is particularly problematic because the assumption in the Israeli press had been that Obama would use a planned September 26 meeting with Netanyahu to not only reaffirm his commitment to stopping Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. The consensus was that it would also be the occasion for the enunciation of some “red lines” that would state with some degree of certainty just how far the diplomatic process would be allowed to go before Iran would be called to account by the United States. Instead, Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have made it clear that there will be no red lines, meaning that a policy predicated on the idea that diplomacy and sanctions to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear goal will be allowed to go on, perhaps indefinitely. Netanyahu doesn’t need to read Contentions to understand that in doing so Obama has just shown that he doesn’t believe the Israeli’s threats to attack Iran. Just as important, the president is also signaling that the U.S. has no intention of ever resorting to force even though everyone in Washington already knows that diplomacy has no chance of success.

That leaves the Israeli stuck with a grim choice between ordering an attack or to simply accept the American decision and wait until the inevitable moment when the Iranians announce their success.

The divisive debate about a unilateral attack that has gone on in Israel in recent months has obviously undermined Netanyahu’s position with the Americans. Whereas earlier in the year, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak seemed to have their country with them as they blustered about the nuclear peril from Iran. Their saber rattling was credible enough to force a reluctant Obama administration as well as the Europeans to finally enforce tough sanctions on Iran’s oil exports. The P5+1 talks would never have happened had the Western powers and the Russians and Chinese not feared that Israel would act on its own if they didn’t get serious about pressuring Iran. But the abject failure of those talks and Iran’s ability to continue to generate oil revenue despite the sanctions allowed Tehran to escalate its drive to enrich enough uranium for a bomb. And the Americans and the international coalition they assembled weren’t interested in pushing the issue beyond the show of diplomacy.

In essence, Netanyahu is back where he was a year ago with the only difference being that Iran is one year closer to a nuke and President Obama seems to think he need no longer fear Israel’s threats. As John rightly predicts, that sets the stage for Obama to demonstrate the sort of “flexibility” on Iran that he has promised to show to Russia if re-elected. That will leave Israel not only facing the peril of a nuclear Iran but also having lost the help of its sole ally on the issue.

That leaves us wondering not so much what Obama or Netanyahu is thinking right now but what American Jewish supporters of the president are making of this dispiriting display of pique from the White House. Over the last year the president has embarked on a charm offensive intended to minimize the decline in his share of the Jewish vote. But by choosing to avoid an opportunity to reassure them and Israel of his intentions on the existential threat from Iran, Jewish voters have just been given another reason to abandon the president.


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