Netanyahu’s dilemma: Does he dare rely on Obama?

A game of the highest stakes is playing out between president and prime minister

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu Monday (photo credit: Ron Kampeas/JTA)
Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu Monday (photo credit: Ron Kampeas/JTA)

Amid all the feverish talk of attacking Iran that’s been swirling around Monday’s meeting between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, what seems to have been rather overlooked is the fact — the indisputable fact — that both the United States and Israel would emphatically rather thwart Iran’s nuclear drive via economic pressure than through military intervention, no matter who is flying the planes.

Crippling sanctions persuading the regime that it will fall if it does not abandon its bid for the bomb is the favored scenario in both Washington and Jerusalem.

Emphatic preference No. 2, from Israel’s point of view, is that if the sanctions don’t do the job, and time has run out, the United States lead any military intervention, with other members of the international community as necessary.

Israel has always argued that an Iranian bomb is a threat to the entire free world, not solely an Israeli problem — and that it should therefore fall to the international community to make sure that this Iranian regime never achieves that capability.

The third, and emphatically the worst option, from Israel’s point of view, is that the sanctions fail, time is about to run out, the United States is disinclined to intervene militarily, Israel feels the existential blade touching its very throat — and a prime minister has to make potentially the most fateful decision any Israeli prime minister has had to make.

For Israel’s leaders, the key concern surrounding this week’s top-level diplomatic contacts in DC is that the US, while seeking to persuade Israel not to act, not to resort to option three, is disinclined to exercise option two and act itself — and that, by the time this has become clear, it will be too late for Israel to intervene because Iran’s nuclear program will be immune to anything Israel could launch at it.

That’s where the issue of differing timelines comes in. The US has military capabilities that might mean it can thwart Iran further on down the road. Israel, in forgoing its own narrower military option, would have to be absolutely certain the US was indeed prepared to act.

Apart from sending a message to Iran, Obama’s markedly stronger remarks in recent days on a readiness for US military intervention, including his comments in the Oval Office on Monday, are designed in good part to reassure Israel that his administration is, if necessary, genuinely prepared to resort to force before it’s too late. “My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons,” he told Netanyahu. “And… when I say all options are at the table, I mean it.” The more robust he sounds — the more credible he seems — the smaller the ostensible temptation for a desperate Israel to act.

Netanyahu, however, is not entirely convinced, in part because of remarks made by various senior US administration personnel that indicate a profound reluctance to resort to force under almost any circumstances.

And you could hear Netanyahu’s wariness in his Oval Office remarks. It is not coincidental that he chose to so prominently thank Obama for restating, as the president did in his address to AIPAC on Sunday, Israel’s ultimate right to protect itself as it sees fit. As Netanyahu paraphrased the president, “… that Israel must have the ability always to defend itself by itself against any threat; and that when it comes to Israel’s security, Israel has the right, the sovereign right to make its own decisions. I believe that’s why you appreciate, Mr. President, that Israel must reserve the right to defend itself.”

There’s a dramatic, highest-stakes game playing out here. Netanyahu is reminding the president that Israel will act if it feels its very existence threatened. And by issuing those reminders, the Israeli prime minister is aiming to persuade the president to take the firmest positions that he can — so that Israel does not reach the stage where it sees no alternative to launching its own strike.

As the prime minister told the president with the cameras rolling on Monday, “that’s the very purpose of the Jewish state — to restore to the Jewish people control over our destiny. And that’s why my supreme responsibility as prime minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate.”

Read between the lines of those remarks and what you get is: Make no mistake, Israel will have no alternative but to act if it feels its survival is in jeopardy. So, please, Mr. President, do what you need to do to make sure we don’t find ourselves in that position.

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