Tel Aviv — Is Benjamin Netanyahu looking for a way to defuse his public debate over Iran with President Obama, or is he ratcheting up pressure for a U.S. military intervention?
That was the question analysts were grappling with after the Israeli prime minister issued a public call Monday for the U.S. to lay down a clear red line for Iran’s nuclear development that would trigger American military attacks. Such a call, the Israeli prime minister said, would reduce the possibility of conflict.
Iran “doesn’t see a clear red line from the international community,” Netanyahu said. “And it doesn’t see the necessary resolve and determination from the international community. The greater the resolve and the clearer the red line, the less likely we’ll have conflict.”
Netanyahu’s request marked the latest salvo in an unusually public debate between the allies about how to handle Iran, whose leaders have threatened to destroy the Jewish state. The disagreement has escalating stakes for both Obama and Netanyahu because as the U.S. presidential election moves into its final weeks the debate over Iran has become fodder for the campaign, and there is a real possibility that the campaign could be interrupted by an “October Surprise” — an Israeli attack on Iran.
Some in Israel worry that such timing for an attack could hurt relations between the two allies and be seen as intervening in the election. Others note that Israel would only attack if it is convinced that Iran’s nuclear program has reached a point of no return.
“The whole issue is getting blown out of proportion because of the American political scene,” said Zalman Shoval, a former ambassador to the U.S. under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Shoval criticized remarks by U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who said he would not be “complicit” in a lone Israeli attack on Iran. The former Israeli ambassador said such remarks actually undermine efforts to deter Iran from continuing progress with its nuclear program. The U.S. needs to issue an unambiguous statement on red lines delivered somewhere other than this week’s Democratic national convention, he said.
“It must be made not at the Democratic convention … and the way diplomatic statements are made: in no uncertain terms,” he said. “If that will happen, Israel will be able to weigh its own calculations about military action in a different light.”
On one hand, the demand for a statement highlights Netanyahu’s frustration with the White House’s efforts until now, and escalating demands for the U.S. to join Israel’s saber rattling. That might not sit well with the U.S., said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies.
“The Obama administration believes its position is clear — that it opposes a nuclear Iran,” he said. “The administration fears this [deciding on red lines] could lock them into a war trajectory.”
On the other hand, Netanyahu’s suggestion that tougher U.S. talk could convince Iran was the first indication that Israel hasn’t given up entirely on non-military methods of influencing Iran.
The consensus of Israeli observers is that if the prime minister were to order a lone attack before Election Day — against U.S. warnings — it would risk stoking the ire of the White House and further damage the already troubled relations between the two leaders.
Such a move could upend the election campaign by putting U.S. troops in harm’s way and risking a war that would almost certainly drive up the price of oil, potentially causing more damage to the U.S. economy. And a military strike, most analysts agree — if it were to be successful — would set back Iran’s nuclear program only a few years.
“If it’s a massive attack and Obama is re-elected, God forbid,” said Alon Liel, a former director general of the Foreign Ministry. “It will be a mess. There would have been an unprecedented effort on behalf of the U.S., the most creative effort I’ve ever witnessed, to prevent such a thing. If it will happen, it will be a humiliation not just to Obama, but to the only superpower in the world.”
Shoval expressed confidence that an Israeli lone attack on Iran before the election would be received with understanding by the U.S. public, which sympathizes with the Jewish state rather than Iran.
The former ambassador insisted that Israel doesn’t take U.S. politics into account when making such a decision. However, many think that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak see a window of opportunity for a strike during the election campaign because Obama would not want to be seen as abandoning Israel at a time when his own job is at stake.
Columnists like Ofer Shelach from Yediot Achronot suggested that Netanyahu is actually pulling back from the brink.
“Netanyahu realizes that he’s gone too far,” Shelach wrote. “The rhetoric that linked the possibility of an attack to the U.S. election date, on the grounds that if Obama were elected this would tie Israel’s hands, lacked intrinsic logic and also crossed a line in meddling in the U.S. election campaign.”
Though most believe that an Israeli attack on Iran during the election would hurt Obama, Republican political adviser Karl Rove said last week that if Iran and its allies retaliate against U.S. interests in the region, the president could benefit from the “rally around the flag” sentiment stirred by coming under attack.
Moreover, it would shift attention away from the economy and to foreign policy — an issue on which American’s give Obama an advantage over Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential candidate.
“[An Israeli strike] will definitely change many calculations and make foreign policy an issue on the American voters’ minds,” said Shmuel Rosner, an Israeli columnist and editor. “If they are only thinking about the economy, an attack on Iran and an eruption of war in the Middle East will make them more aware of foreign policy.”
Rosner believes that Netanyahu will be less concerned about further injuring his already strained relationship with President Obama if it means forgoing a window of opportunity for an Israeli strike.
“The bottom line for Israel is clear. Israel has a clear incentive for prevention. And all other things, including the cozy relations with America, are secondary,” he said.
Netanyahu has few levers other than the threat of an Israeli attack with which to push the international community regarding Iran. After months of war talk, that tool might be wearing itself out.
The prime minister’s push for a clarification of the U.S. red lines reflects a debate within Israel about whether or not to rely on Obama’s assurance that he will not accept a nuclear Iran. Many ex-security chiefs and current security officers have come out against a strike at the current time. Their remarks that have made it more difficult for Netanyahu to make the threat of an Israeli attack credible.
“In Israel you have an intense debate over this question of an Israeli strike — those who oppose it do so on the premise that the U.S. will handle it,” said the Washington Insitute’s Makovsky. “Netanyahu and Barak argue that the chance of an American strike is less of a chance than an Israeli strike. The issue therefore is not about U.S. capabilities, but about U.S. intentions.”
One American Jewish official based in Jerusalem said that Netanyahu is looking for a way to defuse tensions. When Romney visited Jerusalem in July, press coverage that portrayed Netanyahu as openly helping Obama’s rival disturbed the prime minister.
For all the Israeli saber-rattling in recent months, the focus abroad has shifted to whether Israel will start a war rather than whether Iran is flouting the international community by pursuing nuclear weapons. But if Israeli intelligence indicates that Iran has started building a weapon, all bets are off on de-escalating tensions.
“The bottom line is that as soon as Israel is convinced that the red line is crossed, all the things about image will be in the background,” said the official. “It’s not a question of whether they will do it or not; it will be a question of when and how.”
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