As I wrote in part one of this post the all but certain prospect that Benjamin Netanyahu will be re-elected prime minister of Israel next week will be viewed with dismay by President Obama. But the assumption that four more years of the Barack-Bibi show will worsen relations between the two countries may be exaggerated for three reasons. The first was, as I wrote in part one, the very real possibility that Obama may have learned his lesson about trying to pressure the Israelis in order to entice the Palestinians to make peace. It hasn’t worked and probably never will and though the president may think Netanyahu is wrong, he would have to be an incorrigible ideologue to want to waste any scarce political capital on more fights with Israel over the peace process when he knows it will lead nowhere.
The second factor that might act as a brake on U.S.-Israel tension is Iran. There is more than a little irony in this. Disagreements between the United States and Israel over the timetable of Iranian nuclear progress, the futility of diplomacy and the ultimate necessity of an attack have divided the two governments for years. Many assume, not without reason, that the president’s reluctance to get tough with Iran (a belief bolstered by his nomination of a new secretary of defense in Chuck Hagel that previously opposed both sanctions and the possibility of using force against Iran) will only make things worse in the future as Israel gears up for the possibility of having to forestall a nuclear Iran if the United States won’t. But as much as this issue appears to be the one which will do the most to escalate tension between Washington, there is also the very real possibility that Iran’s refusal to negotiate seriously and its determination to push ahead toward its nuclear goal will leave the president little choice but to work with Israel to eliminate the threat.
Obama’s decision to waste years of his first administration on pointless attempts at engagement with Tehran and then assembling an international coalition on behalf of watered down sanctions did little to instill confidence in U.S. resolve. The president was late to push sanctions against Iran and has left loopholes in these measures that have allowed the Islamist regime enough money to keep investing in nuclear development even as their people suffer. Should the United States go back down the garden path with Iran diplomacy in the coming months that will merely give the ayatollahs even more time to run out the clock until they reach their goal.
Indeed, the Iranians cannot be blamed if they interpret the Hagel appointment as evidence that Obama would like to go back on his promises about stopping them and not to try to contain them if they get their bomb.
But the storm over Hagel has also made it clear that the president may not have as much room to maneuver on Iran as many on the left hope he has. Though Hagel’s likely confirmation has encouraged those who would like a softer line on Iran as well as the chorus of Israel-bashers (two groups whose membership generally overlaps), the process that led to the former senator doing a 180 on his views about Iran ought to make it clear that the president has painted himself into a corner on Iran. Both Hagel and the president can go back on their promises but doing so will be a devastating blow to the president’s credibility. As much as there is good reason to suspect that the president would like nothing better than to avoid a confrontation with Iran, he may also have come to understand that the prospect of an Iranian nuke on his watch constitutes a grave threat to U.S. interests and security that will be a permanent blot on his legacy. More to the point, the Iranians may close off any avenue of escape from this dilemma.
Since Iran refuses to negotiate in good faith even when the Europeans are prepared to offer them a deal that might let them keep their nuclear program, the assumption that a diplomatic solution is inevitable is one that is getting harder for even the most ardent opponents of the use of force to cling to. Having successfully forced Netanyahu to stand down from any possible Israeli attack up until now, it could be that, almost in spite of himself the president may wind up being forced to agree with the Israelis on the necessity of action sometime in the coming year.
Given its record on the issue, it may be a tremendous leap of faith to assume that the administration intends to keep his word on Iran. That’s why a lot of people, including myself, have viewed Jeffrey Goldberg’s belief in Obama’s rhetoric on Iran as naive. But Obama has acted up until now on the assumption that sooner or later the Iranians would crack and get him off the hook. If they don’t, and there is no reason to think they will, he may find himself at long last in agreement with Netanyahu that a strike is inevitable. Goldberg is probably right when he writes that if the president is drawn to that conclusion, his hard feelings about Netanyahu won’t be enough to stop him from doing something he believes is important to solidifying his legacy.
Tension between Israel and the United States over a decision to pull the trigger on a strike on Iran may be inevitable. But the one factor that may unite the two countries is the adamant desire of the Iranian regime to get a nuke. If they aren’t careful they may do the impossible and bridge the gap between Obama and Netanyahu and forge an unlikely alliance between them.
In part three of this post, I’ll write about the third factor that may ameliorate a problematic relationship: the American people’s affection and support for Israel.