Really, they couldn’t have been nicer. Two very important men, engaged in a uniquely public job interview for the position of leader of the free world, and they went out of their way, both of them, to tell us how much they care about us.
We’re a tiny outpost of life-affirming freedom and democracy thousands of miles away, there are fewer than eight million of us, and yet both these gents used a lot of their precious TV time to assure us they “have our back.”
Essentially, they argued about who loves us more. President Barack Obama began talking up Israel as America’s best ally just a few minutes into Monday night’s debate, and then quickly dropped in a second reference, in the context of Syria and Israel’s concerns about what was unfolding there. From there on, it was clear we were in for a starring role.
Republican challenger Mitt Romney reserved some of his most resonant soundbites for us, lamenting the president’s “apology tour” of the region, in which “you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations. And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel.”
Obama was ready for that one, sniping at Romney that, when he had visited, as a candidate in 2008, he went to Yad Vashem, “to remind myself [of] the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.” The governor, recalled Obama by contrast, took donors on his Israel trip earlier this summer and used some of his time here for a fundraiser.
What we were watching for in the small hours of our Tuesday morning, quite simply, were specifics on how each of these men would stop Iran
Was Romney being noble in choosing not to hit back with a Yad Vashem reference of his own? I was assured by one usually credible source today that he has visited the Holocaust memorial. Or maybe that assurance were inaccurate. Yad Vashem itself told me it could neither confirm nor deny that he’d ever been there. [Update: The Times of Israel has now confirmed that Romney did visit Yad Vashem, in 2007.]
But fine words and recalled visits of solidarity are not really the point for Israel in late 2012. Being fought over by our would-be best friends for the immediate presumed benefit of undecided voters in key swing states is not particularly comforting for us.
What we were watching for in the small hours of our Tuesday morning, quite simply, were specifics on how each of these men would stop Iran getting the bomb. And on this, our life-and-death debating point, our BFFs did not provide solace.
Iran wants us wiped out, and is closing in on the means to achieve that ambition. Obama and Romney both said they’d stop the regime, but both also gave us reasons to wonder about that — no matter how good their intentions.
Obama indicated that there would be a need to take action before it was too late, but employed language that was worryingly vague given the stakes: “We have a sense of when they [the Iranians] would get breakout capacity, which means that we would not be able to intervene in time to stop their nuclear program,” he said. A “sense”?
Meanwhile Romney, while notably vowing to stop Iran attaining even a nuclear capability, highlighted in remarks throughout the debate his determination to avoid new wars and military conflicts if at all possible. On Iran, specifically, he said, “a military action is the last resort. It is something one would only, only consider if all of the other avenues had been tried to their full extent.”
Clearly, Romney had taken the tactical decision in this debate to try to deny Obama the capacity to brand him as a warmonger, a would-be president overly ready to spill American blood overseas. And it needs hardly be stressed that Israel fervently hopes that Iran can be stopped short of anyone‘s military intervention.
But if I were an Iranian leader watching Monday’s debate, I would draw the happy conclusion that both these men know the American public is deeply resistant to a resort to force in its name, in anything but the most desperate circumstances. And that’s why the differences between the candidates on Iran — differences that do matter, and that are being analyzed and fought over endlessly by those who care about Israel in the respective American political camps — are nonetheless less significant than the context in which the next president will be operating.
Israel has been asked by the Obama administration to hold its fire on Iran, and thus far has done so. Pretty soon, it will no longer have the military capacity to impact the Iranian program. Obama assures us “we are going to take all options necessary to make sure they don’t have a nuclear weapon.” Romney assures us that Iran’s “nuclear folly” is “unacceptable to America.”
Watching those two eminent gentlemen, for all that they fought to outdo each other in their doubtless heartfelt professions of friendship on Monday night, will have left many Israeli viewers feeling far from reassured
But the key question for us here is whether the next American president, whoever he is, will be leading a nation that will want him to intervene in Iran, if all else fails. There is a limit, after all, to what even the first among equals can do if sufficient forces are stacked up against him. Just ask George W. Bush, after the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate stripped away his grounds for any assault on Iran. Or just ask Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for that matter, after a combination of pressure from current and past Israeli security chiefs and the Obama administration impacted his considerations this summer.
Iran, for one, is betting that when push comes to shove, the US will hold its fire. Israel’s leadership will have to make a critical assessment on this, and urgently.
It’s not only a question — for American voters for whom Israel’s well-being is a priority — of which of these two men might be ready to resort to force. It’s also, indeed mainly, a question for Israel — of whether either of these two men, should they deem it necessary, could persuade America of the imperative to resort to force.
Subcontracting our security in the face of Iran to our best ally, even when it pledges over and over that it has our back, is an immense and unprecedented risk. Subcontracting our security in the face of Iran to our best ally, when that ally may be too constrained by domestic public circumstances to adequately cover our back, is potentially suicidal.
That’s why watching those two eminent gentlemen, for all that they fought to outdo each other in their doubtless heartfelt professions of friendship on Monday night, will have left many Israeli viewers feeling far from reassured.
America, as indicated by the thrust of so much of what the candidates had to say Monday night, is anxious to avoid almost any war, at almost any cost. And who can blame Americans for that? But how agonizing the dilemma that leaves for Israel on Iran.