Commentary Magazine


Did Netanyahu’s “Bluff” Bring Obama and the Brits Together?

Israel isn’t the only American ally that was spurned for the first three years of the Obama administration. President Obama made no bones about his disdain for Britain after being elected president. But after making it clear that as far as he was concerned the “special relationship” between the two countries was as unwelcome as that bust of Winston Churchill he chucked out of the Oval Office, the president is finally getting around to making nice with Prime Minister David Cameron, with a state dinner in his honor and a trip with Obama to an NCAA basketball tournament game. Cameron, whom British pundit Melanie Phillips aptly nicknamed “David Obameron” as he shed conservative ideology during his less than scintillating election campaign, wants Obama’s embrace but isn’t too eager to be seen as under American influence as an unpopular war in Afghanistan winds down. But he and the president do seem to have one policy position very much in common: an ardent desire to prevent Israel from attacking Iran.

Along with France, the Brits have been talking much tougher about Iran in the last year than Obama. Under their leadership, the European Union is preparing to embargo Iranian oil, something the United States has not yet committed to. According to the New York Times, Cameron will urge Obama to escalate American support for sanctions on Iran which currently lag behind those imposed by Europe. But one of the main themes of his conclave with Obama appears to center on an almost hysterical fear that Israel will act on its own to forestall an Iranian nuclear threat that both the United States and Britain have agreed poses a danger to the world. Britain’s stand on Iran as well as its embrace of the latest diplomatic initiative that would embroil the West in further negotiations with the Islamist regime appear to be motivated primarily by a desire to avoid an Israeli attack at all costs. All of which means that Israel’s signals that it is prepared to strike have at the very least resulted in getting the West to take the issue seriously.

At this point, it is impossible to argue that absent Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s public willingness to contemplate the use of force to end the Iranian nuclear threat the U.S. and the Europeans would have committed themselves to the issue as much as they already have. In Bloomberg today, Jeffrey Goldberg hypothesizes that perhaps this is all the result of a gigantic bluff on Netanyahu’s part. He wonders whether all the speculation about an Israeli assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities was just a ploy intended to scare Obama, Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy into doing the right thing. If Goldberg were correct about this, then even Netanyahu’s critics would have to admit his bluff has worked, at least up until this point.

But the problem with that thesis is it is obvious neither Cameron nor Obama are that eager to actually go to the mat with the Iranians on the nuclear issue. Though Israel’s threats have brought the U.S. and the European Union to tiptoe up to the crippling sanctions that might get the attention of the ayatollahs, they have also prepared themselves an escape hatch via negotiations. With Iran having already demonstrated that they regard such talks as nothing more than an excuse to run out the clock while their nuclear program gets closer to the finish line, the question now is whether the West’s commitment to diplomacy is open-ended or not. If it is, then all that will have been accomplished is to have put off an Israeli attack, perhaps beyond the point where success would be possible. Netanyahu knows this and though he is rightly reluctant, as Goldberg insists, to pull the trigger on an attack, he may be forced to do so sooner or later because the West’s strategy of sanctions and diplomacy is unlikely to succeed.

Bluff or not, Netanyahu has brought the United States and Britain together at least for now. Whether their alarm at the prospect of Israel defending itself will lead to any real action to stop Iran — as opposed to posturing intended to prevent Israeli action — is yet to be seen.

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