Netanyahu and Obama during a meeting at the White House.
Netanyahu and Obama during a meeting at the White House. Photo by Avi Ohayon
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The hurtling rollercoaster of the will-Israel-won’t-Israel-bomb-Iran debate seems to be on the downward track right now, with most observers currently predicting that a strike will not take place in the coming months. Some believe now that President Shimon Peres has finally shown his hand and publicly opposed the attack plans, it just can’t happen – though people close to Peres have told me in recent days “he wouldn’t have spoken if he weren’t convinced that it was about to happen.”

By next week, the trend will almost certainly reverse and once again we will be hearing prophecies of doom, but while we are being reassured momentarily that war is not about to break out just yet, another question must be addressed.

If indeed the Israel Air Force fighter-bombers are not scrambled eastward, how is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu going to deal with the anticlimax? Is there a ladder tall enough to allow him to climb down while saving face and salvaging what’s left of his precarious relationship with the Obama administration?

Some are concerned that the lack of such a ladder may actually force Netanyahu to order an attack just because the alternative – now that he has painted himself into a corner – would be too personally and politically humiliating and arguably could damage Israel’s deterrent power.

As Haaretz military analyst Amos Harel wrote last week,“Recent developments have only tightened the squeeze Netanyahu and [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak have found themselves in: After setting the bar of public opinion on Iran so combatively high, they’re obligating themselves to realize their threats. Under extreme circumstances, there’s a scenario in which Israel − if only to prove that its gun isn’t unloaded, as some outsiders may think − could fire away without the basic conditions needed for that gun’s operation.”

So obviously, a lot of thought and care must go into the construction of that ladder. As former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin has pointed out, the man to build it is, of course, U.S. President Barack Obama. The ladder itself must be tall and robust enough to “convince Israel, Iran, Russia and even Saudi Arabia that the U.S. military option is credible and effective.”

Writing last weekend in the Washington Post, Yadlin set out five immediate steps Obama should take to underline America’s preparedness to act against Iran militarily, if no other options are available to prevent Tehran from reaching nuclear attack capability.

Above all, Yadlin writes, the U.S. president “should visit Israel and tell its leadership — and, more important, its people — that preventing a nuclear Iran is a U.S. interest, and if we have to resort to military action, we will. This message, delivered by the president of the United States to the Israeli Knesset, would be far more effective than U.S. officials’ attempts to convey the same sentiment behind closed doors.”

The possibility of a presidential visit to Israel, at the height of tension with Iran and in the most critical stage of the U.S. election campaign, is an idea that has been gathering support. Jeffrey Goldberg echoed it this week in a column on Bloomberg View, writing that “a visit to Israel would do more to delay a strike on Iran than any other step the administration could take.

“The beauty of this idea is that Obama won’t have to say anything new. He’s on record explaining why the idea of containing a nuclear Iran isn’t an option; he’s on record promising to stop Iran by whatever means necessary; and he’s on record explaining why a nuclear-free Iran is in the interests of the U.S.,” he said.

Noting that “it is hard to leave Ohio and Florida,” Goldberg asserted that “a trip to Israel – a place he hasn’t visited as president – would put Iran on notice that Obama is deadly serious about thwarting their plans. Combined with stops in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, such a visit would also allay the fears of our Arab allies. Most important, such a visit could prevent war.”

It’s an intriguing idea, but would it work? There are two main obstacles here: Obama and Netanyahu. Not only do both men share a deep dislike and distrust of each other, but they would both be suspicious of the implications of such a visit.

Obama knows full well that Netanyahu’s main American backer is Sheldon Adelson, the same man who has pledged to donate $100 million to the Republican Party to unseat the president. Visiting Jerusalem on the eve of elections is akin to straying in to the wolf’s lair. Netanyahu may use the opportunity to publicly lecture him on Jewish history and Middle East geopolitics, as he did in the Oval Office last May. That would hardly look presidential.

Netanyahu would be equally wary of hosting the president who seeks to publicly bind him in a non-belligerent position. Both leaders are consummate communicators, adept at masking their real feelings with body-language, but in this case, neither of them may be capable of hiding the mutual suspicion. Netanyahu reads the polls saying that Israelis are more concerned about losing American support than about facing an Iranian bomb – a frosty meeting in Jerusalem could be ruinous for him politically. The prime minister also has elections coming up soon.

The stakes are too high; even the slightest discordant tone will immediately be pounced on by the media and used devastatingly by political rivals. Obama and Netanyahu’s cautious advisers are undoubtedly warning them against such a meeting. Obama’s campaign has promised that he will visit Israel in his second term of office, and he must certainly hope that if he gets four more years in the White House, it will be a different Israeli prime minister greeting him when he finally arrives in Jerusalem.