The story is an old one. It's the story of a child who throws a fit on the floor of a supermarket, causing a scene in front of his mother and all the other shoppers. Eventually, the security guard comes over to him, whispers something in his ear and - wonder of wonders - the child shuts up.
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"What did you say to him?" the mother and the other shoppers ask, eager to learn his secret.
"Simple," explains the guard. "I whispered to him that if he didn't shut up, and right away, he'd get such a slap that his face would fall off."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn't whisper this week. She delivered the long-awaited slap. "We're not setting deadlines for Iran," she declared in an interview with Bloomberg Radio.
Clinton said the United States considers negotiations "by far the best approach to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons." You don't have to be an expert in American diplomatic language to understand to whom the secretary of state's words are directed, and why. Blatant, direct, cold and harsh language is the only way to get the hearing-impaired country to understand what the Americans want from it.
Clinton did not direct her words at Tehran, but at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In other words: Israel will not present any ultimatum to the United States and will not dictate red or blue lines to Washington. The time has come, Clinton made it clear, for Israel to internalize the fact that the United States also has an independent policy, its own interests and timetable, which, amazingly, are not decided in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu should not be surprised. After all, he was the one who exceeded expectations when it came to turning the conflict with Iran into an Israeli-Iranian issue, instead of an international threat. The tremendous international efforts to enlist support for the strongest sanctions ever imposed on a country are worthless in his eyes.
In that case, explains Clinton, let Israel have the honor of fighting its private war with Iran by itself. The United States will not be a partner, at least for the time being, to this crime. The United States, she affirmed, has not exhausted the diplomatic process, and also believes in it.
So what, for heaven's sake, does U.S. President Barack Obama mean when he says that the United States is committed to Israel's security? If he isn't even willing to draw red lines, how can we be confident that he will send his planes when the necessary time comes? And what is the "necessary time" if we don't have a defined timeline?
The dispute between Israel and Washington is far more profound than the question of defining the proper time for an attack. Clinton's words make it clear that the two countries are not on the same page in terms of their perception of the Iranian threat. They also imply that Washington does not believe Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons. At most, Clinton is adopting the approach that enriching uranium to 20 percent is an indication of intent, but not of action. As Clinton says, "We're watching very carefully about what they do, because it's always been more about their actions than their words."
That is precisely the formulation of the American equation on the question of guaranteeing Israel's security. The United States wants to protect Israel from itself - or, to be more exact, from its prime minister. It is not buying the Israeli government's assessments about the relatively small number of potential victims. It predicts that Israel won't be able to stop the Iranian nuclear program, and worse, that an attack against Iran will only increase its self-conviction that it must attain nuclear weapons. The United States anticipates a violent campaign in the Middle East in which Israel will be a prime target, and what especially scares Washington is that it will be forced to fight this war for Israel.
Netanyahu has apparently forgotten that the United States is not an Israeli colony. It is Israel that depends on the United States, which has assumed the role of sponsor despite the tremendous price involved. The dispute over the Iranian threat is liable to destroy the infrastructure of that relationship. The American security guard in the supermarket hopes that screaming at Netanyahu will suffice. But what if it doesn't? What if, in spite of the screaming, Netanyahu's inner Napoleon goes to his head?