In the Iranian Poker Game, Netanyahu and Barak Have Overplayed Their Hand

Israel Hayom, the newspaper seen as having close ties to the PM, has been laying off the war drums lately. Senior Haaretz analyst Amos Harel wonders: Does this indicate that Netanyahu is seeking a ladder to climb down from the tree?

Some government officials have recently started poring over Israel Hayom every day. Because the daily is seen as having close ties with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, these officials believe its front-page headlines can offer clues to Netanyahu's intentions, especially on the crucial issue of whether to attack Iran.

In recent weeks, Israel Hayom has featured a barrage of worrying reports on Iran's nuclear progress and Washington's failure to halt it. But over the last few days, something interesting has happened: Last Friday, the paper instead highlighted a statement by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, that he doesn't want America to be "complicit" in an Israeli attack on Iran right now. The International Atomic Energy Agency's disturbing report on Iran's nuclear program got second billing.

On Sunday, Iran was mostly relegated to the daily's inside pages. On Monday, it returned to the headlines, but only in the form of Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz's vague statement that the IDF can act "anywhere, anytime."

In short, the paper that has been beating the war drums for weeks is now muting them. Does this indicate that Netanyahu is seeking a ladder to climb down from the tree?

The number of Israeli statements and leaks about Iran has been so large, and the analyses of what Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak really intend so contradictory, that people are grasping at straws in an effort to figure out where things are headed.

Here is a less speculative assessment: In the Iranian poker game, which they are playing primarily against Washington, Netanyahu and Barak raised the stakes a few weeks ago. From Haaretz's interview with "the decision maker," aka Barak, to the leaks of classified information regarding the dialogue with the United States, Netanyahu and Barak have been ratcheting up the pressure. But they appear to have overplayed their hand.

The result has been a tougher American stance that has led Israel to calm down a bit, as reflected in recent reports that Barak has changed his mind and now opposes attacking at this time. Thus many officials now believe an attack is not as inevitable as it previously seemed.

Yet the disagreement between Jerusalem and Washington over Iran has become even more fraught, and the issue of American support for Israel has consequently gained prominence in the U.S. presidential campaign. Over the long run, this is liable to be a serious mistake.

In the best case, described as a possibility in a leak Monday to the New York Times, President Barack Obama will publicly set red lines and promise to attack if Iran crosses them. In the worst case, he will make do with vague generalities about Iran - but will certainly remember to settle accounts with Netanyahu if he is reelected. Either way, it's hard to dismiss the damage the recent outpouring of Israeli verbiage has done to our strategic relationship with America.