Netanyahu and Obama Play High-stakes Poker Over Iran

Haaretz's editor-in-chief Aluf Benn says PM's planned trip to Washington will be the most fateful of his political career.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's upcoming trip to Washington will be the most important one in his long career as ambassador, politician and national leader. On Monday, Netanyahu will meet President Barack Obama in the White House for a game of diplomatic poker, where the greatest gamble of all will be right on the table: an attack on Iran's nuclear installations. Each of the two players will try to push the other to act. Netanyahu would prefer to see the American superpower, with its vast range of military capabilities, pulverize Iran's nuclear project. For his part, Obama would prefer, if an attack must be launched, that the job be done by Israel, while the United States would serve as the "responsible adult" who comes in afterward to make order in the Middle East.

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For three years, Netanyahu has been preparing for this very moment. During this period, he has chalked up for himself a diplomatic coup that initially was seen as unimaginable: He has managed to turn the superpower's political agenda upside-down - from "Palestine first" to "Iran as top priority." In his first meeting with Obama, in May 2009, after both had taken office, the premier was very clear about his concern about the Iranian threat, while Obama insisted on talking about a freeze on settlements in the West Bank. At the time, the U.S. president described a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and an end to the occupation and the settlements in the territories as a vital American security interest. He forced Netanyahu to support the creation of a Palestinian state and to freeze all construction in the settlements for 10 months.

Today, in retrospect, these ideas sound ludicrous. The settlements have long since disappeared from America's national agenda and Israel's right-wing government has been diligently developing and expanding them, in accordance with its ideology and without any annoying external interference. Netanyahu has defeated his Palestinian rival, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who tried unsuccessfully to secure the United Nations' recognition of a Palestinian state, while the reaction in Israel to talk of the threat of a third intifada is little more than one big yawn.

Israeli public opinion is chiefly preoccupied today with the price of gasoline and the issue of ultra-Orthodox Jews serving in the army. The Palestinians have been forgotten. Netanyahu has proven that it is possible to drastically reduce the dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to a war of speeches and press statements that he is waging with Abbas without having to pay an international price.

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Netanyahu has made good use of Obama's Republican rivals, who have made threatening Iran a central issue in their presidential primaries and have forced the president to go on the defensive. The upheavals of the "Arab Spring" have positioned Israel as an island of stability in the Middle East, in comparison with the disintegrating Arab states. To outflank Turkey, Iran and Egypt, Netanyahu has invested considerable efforts into creating a new Israeli "peripheral alliance" with Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania, Azerbaijan and Uganda.

However, the prime minister's greatest achievement has been to persuade the international community that Israel intends to bomb Iran and has the capability to do so, and that Israel intends to plunge the entire Middle East into a war that will cause gasoline prices to skyrocket. The combination of threatening declarations and briefings, especially from Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and long-range training missions conducted by the Israel Air Force has shown the world that Israel means business. That is the reason for the flurry of visits by senior U.S. administration officials, who have been coming here and asking Israel to "give the sanctions a chance."

The recent behavior of Iran - which has accelerated its nuclear development program despite the imposition of tougher sanctions, the assassination of Iranian scientists, and the threats of war - only strengthens the credibility of the Israeli message that time is running out and that the window of opportunity for taking action is about to close.

Position of strength

Benjamin Netanyahu now returns to Washington from a position of strength: Both the politicians and the media in America seem to be focusing their attention almost exclusively on Iran, while Obama is fighting to be reelected and needs the American Jewish community's support.

Lest anyone be mistaken or confused, it must be reiterated that the contacts between Netanyahu and Obama are devoid of warmth, mutual esteem and credibility. Whereas the president sees the premier as a liar who uses subversive tactics, shamelessly meddles in American politics and is encouraging the Republican campaign to topple him - Netanyahu sees Obama as a spineless left-winger whose fantasies about world peace are threatening Israel with the prospect of a second Holocaust, should Iran be allowed to realize its nuclear ambitions and arm itself with a bomb.

When he returned to the post of prime minister three years ago, Netanyahu regarded his chief task as recruiting the United States to participate in a decisive confrontation with Iran that would remove the threat to Israel's survival. It is now obvious that he is coming close to achieving his goal: More and more Americans are talking about the idea of going to war against Iran. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 58 percent of all Americans support such a move. However, such support is not enough. Obama is still not convinced, and the danger that Tehran poses appears less threatening when seen from the safe distance of Washington and Los Angeles .

In recent weeks, an interesting change has taken place in the American position. Statements by Obama and senior administration officials are now focusing on the timing of a potential Israeli move - declaring, "Israel has not decided on attacking Iran" or "a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June" - rather than on warning Israel not to attack. Opposition to an attack, which once seemed resolute, is becoming more and more reminiscent of America's lip-service opposition to the settlements ("obstacle to peace" and "illegitimate" ), which has never prevented Israel from settling additional Jews in the territories. The new American position can be explained as posing a challenge to Netanyahu, along the lines of: "If you are such a hero, then go attack Iran. But don't hide behind us."

Obama, ahead of his meeting with Netanyahu, tried to prove his decisive stance on Iran in an interview with The Atlantic's Jeffery Goldberg. He noted that there is an option of a "military component" when dealing with Iran's nuclear plans, in hope that he could convince Netanyahu that he is serious, just as he convinced Ehud Barak. But Obama also said that Israeli leaders will act according to "what they think is best for Israel's security."

His comments can be seen as a "yellow light" to an Israeli strike. Moreover, a basis for a deal can also be seen emerging: Netanyahu will hold off on a strike until after the U.S. elections, and in return he will receive security guarantees from Obama, tough talk against Iran, and maybe even a promise that if he gets reelected, Obama will refrain from pressuring Israel on the Palestinian issue.

Netanyahu's position involves a big risk. Wars break out when leaders are pushed into a corner and feel they have no other option, and when the political price of refraining from going to war takes precedence over the logical calculation of the pros and cons of war itself. This was the background of two world wars and most of the Israeli-Arab wars. It could happen on the Iranian front as well, if Tehran continues along its present course, if Obama remains adamant in his opposition to an American military operation, and if Netanyahu finds himself in a situation where he will be asked, "So what have you done to prevent a second Holocaust?"

Will Netanyahu feel compelled to make a highly risky move even though the Israeli home front is not prepared for barrages of missiles and rockets, and when the arguments of opponents to an attack are already well known and laid out for the future commission of inquiry?

That is why prime minister's mission in Washington is the most sensitive and important of his political career. Deriving support from the usual discourse about "all the options on the table" and about Israel's "right to defend itself against dangers," he will try to understand from his meeting with the president what America's "red line" is regarding Iran and whether there is are any circumstances that could lead the United States to launch its bombers and destroy the Iranian facilities in Natanz, Isfahan and Qom - or whether everything is just a lot of empty talk and the decision on whether to attack is solely in the hands of Israel's leader. That will be the moment when Netanyahu's leadership ability will really be tested.