netanyahu - GPO - May 20 2011
U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the White House lawn. Photo by GPO
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“The president should have built a credible threat of military action and made it very clear that the United States of America is willing, in the final analysis, if necessary, to take military action to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon.”

This, according to most Israeli sources, is the essence of the position that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is taking to his meeting with President Barack Obama in their meeting in Washington tomorrow.

It also happens to be an exact quote of what presidential candidate Mitt Romney said on January 7 at the Republican debate at St Anselm College in New Hampshire.

And though most people wouldn’t suspect Netanyahu of coordinating his positions on such an existential issue with the Republican Party, some of the people close to Obama suspect that this is exactly what he’s been doing. According to this conspiracy theory, Netanyahu and the Republicans are in cahoots: the Republican role is to portray Obama and his Administration as weak in order to push it to adopt a harsher position on Iran; Netanyahu’s role is to strike a bellicose pose that not only confirms the Republicans’ accusations against the president but also ratchets up tension in the Middle East, drives up the price of oil, increases the price of a U.S. gallon of gas and thus sows voter dissatisfaction in advance of the upcoming presidential campaign.

Whether coldly realistic or hysterically paranoid, this suspicion of subterfuge is but one manifestation of the myriad extraneous elements that will complicate the already complex discussions facing the two leaders on Iran. Though they are united in their aim of preventing Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons – in the eyes of most everyone except for the most deranged of Obama’s critics – the contacts between the president and the prime minister cannot but be colored both by their problematic history and by the high political stakes of their meeting, in particular, and of the Iran issue, in general, for both of their futures. In their talks tomorrow they will thus be engaged in an intriguing three-dimensional game of wits that could be the stuff of high political melodrama were it not so critical for the future of the rest of us.

As one who knows better than most how much effort and resources a politician tends to invest in his own survival, Netanyahu and his advisers will no doubt be asking themselves whether Obama’s pledges and guarantees are aimed more at thwarting Iran’s sinister designs or at safeguarding the Jewish vote and postponing the Iranian quandary until after the November elections. Obama, for his part, must be wondering how far he can trust an Israeli prime minister who has been quoted as saying that he “thinks Republican” and whose main American benefactor is the same man who has been bankrolling Newt Gingrich and pledging to spend many millions more in order to defeat Obama in November.

Politics and public opinion

The two leaders must also take into account the effect of their agreements and disagreements on their respective publics. On the one hand, most polls show that Americans consider Iran to be the most dangerous threat to American security today, that most would support either an American attack or an Israeli attack on Tehran’s nuclear facilities and that many of them, it stands to good reason, would not take kindly to an Obama that seems to be harsh with Netanyahu and soft on the ayatollahs.

But Netanyahu knows the American public well enough to realize that this public support could be very short-lived if Israel is perceived as causing a spike in oil prices, exposing Americans to Iranian retaliation or dragging America into a war against its will.

If the American Administration does not stand behind Israel, it will be a matter of weeks before the reservoir of support that Israel currently enjoys will be sorely depleted. It is worthwhile remembering, just for the sake of historical proportions, that following the 1981 Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osiraq, the Reagan Administration sharply criticized the bombing, supported a condemnation of Israel at the UN, imposed an embargo on further sales of F-16’s on its great ally Israel and paid absolutely no political price for its actions.

Netanyahu must also take into account the potential negative fallout of a disagreement with Obama on his own public back home. As the poll released last week by University of Maryland Professor Shibley Telhami showed, the Israeli public’s support for an attack on Iran is contingent on a perception that the United States backs it as well. Netanyahu might have hell to pay if an Israeli attack on Iran does not go as well as expected, if the Israeli public is subjected to fierce retaliation and if the prime minister is perceived as having alienated the U.S. administration at a time when Israel needed it most.

Netanyahu must also consider the possibility that Obama may “still be around after November” as the Vice President’s National Security Adviser, Antony Blinken, bluntly warned in a briefing to the Israel Policy Forum in New York last week. But even if Obama is defeated in November, a Republican president wouldn’t take office until late January, when, at least by Israel’s account, it might be too late to effectively attack the Iranian nuclear sites, especially if winter weather postpones such an offensive until April 2013, at the earliest.

In fact, it is only if Obama is reelected that Israel will be able to rely on American commitments given before the November elections. Obama’s pledges, after all, are acts of state, while Republican exhortations, no matter how gung-ho, are no more than non-binding campaign rhetoric. Not only that, under the Nixon-to-China, Bush-to-Iraq principle of public opinion, there can be no doubt that the American public’s support for a confrontation with Iran will be deeper and longer-lasting under a “dovish” Democrat like Obama than under a “hawkish” Republican like Romney or Santorum.

And it is also far from clear why a newly-elected Republican president would choose to start his term in office with a potentially unpopular war with Iran that would raise oil prices, increase the deficit and possibly run the American economy aground. It’s also far from certain, to say the least, that the titans of industry and finance who are so closely allied with the Republicans would be too enthusiastic about such destabilizing steps either.

In the same boat

But notwithstanding these complex and often contradictory calculations, Obama and Netanyahu will find themselves tomorrow at the White House sitting in the same boat, facing the gravest threat to both of their countries’ together. And while they may differ in their evaluations of what steps have to be taken and when – both are also united in their preference for a satisfactory non-military solution to the Iranian nuclear problem.

Netanyahu knows that whichever country attacks Iran, if it comes to that, Israel will need an American president that “has Israel’s back” as Obama told Jeffery Goldberg last week. By the same token, America requires Israel’s close cooperation in order to prevent a war breaking out before America is fully prepared to deal with its repercussions. And Obama, just like any other American president in recent times - and even more so, his supporters might say – is indeed committed to ensuring the survival of a country that many Americans consider to be one of their best allies in world, warts and all.

When both of them were running for office in the summer of 2008, Netanyahu was brimming with confidence that he would find much common ground with a fellow Boston-educated man of the world like Obama. Things didn’t work out exactly as he foresaw, but fate, and the Iranian challenge, have nonetheless bound together the fortunes of the MIT graduate Netanyahu with the Harvard-educated Obama.

Thus, the motto for their meeting tomorrow might be taken from the man whose exquisite 1767 portrait by David Martin hangs in the Green Room in the White House. It was he, Benjamin Franklin, who reportedly said at the signing of the American Declaration of Independence: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

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