Who will blink first in Iran's nuclear poker game?
If diplomacy fails, Netanyahu and Obama will either call their bluff or act upon their heated statements.
"Do not strike" is what the Americans are telling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "Let's first try sanctions on Iran."
"Do not strike" is what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is saying to Netanyahu. "If you go crazy and go to war, it will be the end of the Zionist regime."
Netanyahu managed to convince the world that Israel is on the verge of a preemptive war to try to foil Iran's nuclear program. His speeches on a second Holocaust and Amalek, the acceleration of military preparations, the exercises on the Home Front, the distribution of gas masks and even the stockpiling of dollars by the Bank of Israel all suggest that Israel is preparing to strike Iran, as it did when it attacked the nuclear plants in Iraq and Syria.
The preparations for war give Israel unprecedented international significance. U.S. President Barack Obama, who kept his distance at the beginning of his tenure, is now airlifting senior officials to ask Netanyahu to hold back. When he wanted to deal with the Palestinian problem, Obama made do with a retiree without authority in the form of George Mitchell.
It turns out that the Israeli threat to spark a regional war is bothering the administration a lot more than the occupation and the West Bank settlements. Not only are the politicians troubled, representatives of global investment firms are curious to know "when they will attack," as a way of gambling on oil prices. It turns out that Israel's economic significance is buried in its ability to cause trouble - not in high tech, start-ups or the Bamba snacks the Israelis pride themselves in.
Netanyahu will certainly argue that his assertive stance is what convinced Obama to take a tougher line on Iran. But the prime minister's approach is risky: What will happen if diplomacy and sanctions fail, as they are expected to, and Ahmadinejad continues on his nuclear path? Will Netanyahu then be able to pull back from his heated statements and announce that the Iranian threat is not so bad? Or has he already burned the bridge for a withdrawal and will have to go to war?
Netanyahu is playing poker and hiding his most important card: the Israel Defense Forces' true capabilities to destroy Iran's nuclear installations. If he attacks, he is risking a war of attrition in which Tel Aviv will be hit by missiles and Ben-Gurion International Airport will be closed. And the longer the violence continues, the more international firms will leave the country; the talented and wealthy will abandon it, too.
Netanyahu sees the same danger, but from the other side. He believes that if Iran goes nuclear, the elites and high tech will leave and the economy will be destroyed, so an Iranian bomb must be prevented.
Ahmadinejad is also playing poker, and in recent weeks he upped the ante when he posed the destruction of the Zionist regime not merely as a religious-ideological ambition, but as a practical goal. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is functioning as a super-adviser to Netanyahu for national security affairs, said in response that "the clock for the Iranian regime's downfall is ticking."
Israel and Iran are gambling that only one of them will survive the confrontation. Is this threat serious? History suggests it is. In the Six-Day War and the War of Attrition, Israel defeated Nasserism, which, like Ahmadinejad today, preached the wiping of Israel off the map of the Middle East. The price was high and cost Israel the Yom Kippur War, but the Arabs became convinced that the Jewish state is not a passing phenomenon.
The third player, Obama, holds the weakest hand. This is so because of domestic political weakness and because he can't seriously threaten Ahmadinejad or Netanyahu. Obama doesn't want to attack Iran himself and will find it hard to restrain Israel at the moment of truth.
What will he do? Will he turn off the American early warning radar in the Negev and announce that there will be no airlift and no diplomatic support, and as far as he's concerned Tel Aviv can burn because Israel acted against his advice? It's hard to imagine that Obama will abandon Israel to its fate. He can only complain and signal to Netanyahu that American support is not guaranteed for any Israeli action.
Before war breaks out - if indeed it does - the real hands the leaders are holding will not be seen. But in the meantime the stakes are constantly rising with the expectations that one of the players will recognize his weakness, blink and leave the table.