When President Obama hosts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 5, don’t look for the unexpected policy proposals or condescending lectures that turned their last White House session into such a debacle. The hour is too late and the stakes too high for such public sparring. Each man needs the veneer of solidarity as they feel increasingly boxed-in by Iran’s advancing nuclear program. Even if Obama and Netanyahu agreed about the urgency of the threat and overcame their personal distrust, it’s less and less likely that they can agree on a path forward that avoids another destabilizing war in the Middle East.
Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have reportedly told senior U.S. officials that if Israel decides to strike Iran militarily, it will do so without warning Washington—in an attempt to protect the United States from blowback. The Obama administration has responded by ratcheting up sanctions (which are already starting to cripple the Iranian economy) and preaching patience. But Israel believes that Iran is approaching a “zone of immunity” in the coming months as it buries nuclear infrastructure, and the Israelis don’t trust the United States to launch its own military strikes if Iran crosses predetermined red lines on the way to a nuclear weapon. As if an American president can promise preventive war to assuage an ally.
For its part, Iran has responded to sanctions with new provocations, recently tripling its capacity to enrich uranium even as it hastens to bury it beyond the reach of Israeli warplanes. A covert war of assassinations targeting Iranian scientists and Israeli diplomats could also throw a wrench into a crisis that is already spinning up like a centrifuge. “We’re in a vicious cycle now, and there seems to be no way out,” said Martin Indyk, director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. “The Iranians keep moving closer to the nuclear-weapons threshold; Israel gets increasingly nervous and threatens military strikes; the United States tightens sanctions in part to try and calm the Israelis; and an Iranian regime that already feels threatened reacts with greater defiance. And around we go. Sooner or later, that cycle leads to war.”
A presidential-election year makes it difficult to break that cycle, Indyk believes. Republicans would excoriate Obama as an appeaser if he offered the Iranians a face-saving way out of the crisis or openly sought to deter the Israelis. “If the Israelis were to launch a unilateral military strike [this year], they know Obama would really have no choice but to be publicly supportive,” Indyk says. That is the context for Netanyahu’s visit next week to the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Obama and his Republican competitors, who say that he is insufficiently loyal to Israel, are slated to speak. Meanwhile, 37 senators, nearly half of them Democrats, recently cosponsored a resolution that a policy of deterrence and “containment” of Iran does too little—an argument that Israeli officials also advance.
The Obama administration has already moved closer to declaring that weapons development could trigger a military strike (although it has not adopted the lower Israeli bar of an Iranian “threshold capability”). Having begun by passively insisting that a nuke was “unacceptable” and that “no options were off the table,” the administration is now on record saying that Iran’s ambitions would provoke action. “That’s a red line for us. And it’s a red line, obviously, for the Israelis, so we share a common goal here. If we have to do it, we will do it,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently told 60 Minutes. When asked what “it” was, Panetta said, “If they proceed, and we get intelligence that they’re proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon, then we will take whatever steps are necessary to stop it.”
That declaration may be bringing the Americans and Israelis closer together. “I expect the upcoming White House talks will project not only the image but the reality of tighter coordination on Iran’s nuclear program,” says Dennis Ross, who until recently was a special assistant to the president focused on Iran. “There is really no difference in the primary objective that Iran cannot be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons.” The major focus of discussion will be on the timelines and on Israel’s concern that the window for military action is closing. “I don’t think Netanyahu will seek very specific assurances on U.S. red lines for military action, because that might elicit U.S. requests that Israel not act militarily on its own timelines. At the end of the day, no Israeli prime minister will surrender the freedom of action,” says Ross, a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
For now, the centrifugal forces of domestic and international politics continue to press Obama and Netanyahu into an uneasy alliance, forcing the superpower and the scrappy Jewish state burdened by the weight of a tragic history to cooperate. All of which argues for tougher sanctions, clearer red lines, and more threats of military action. The machine is spinning faster.
This article appears in the March 3, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.