Obama remains deeply mistrusted in Israel, and as part of his effort to assuage those concerns he continued to cultivate Israeli President Shimon Peres, who has become his greatest advocate. Speaking just before Obama, Peres affirmed that U.S.-Israeli “security cooperation has reached its highest level” under this president, with a record $3.1 billion in aid a year, and declared to applause that in Obama “we have a friend in the White House.” In his speech, the president announced that later this spring he will invite Peres to the White House to present him with America’s highest civilian honor – the presidential Medal of Freedom.
At the beginning of his tenure, the president stunned Israel and its supporters in the American Jewish community by attempting to strong-arm the Israelis into halting settlements on the West Bank. Then, last year, Obama sought to blunt a Palestinian effort to win a U.N. General Assembly vote unilaterally recognizing a Palestinian state by declaring, in a speech, that "the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps." Even though such a position has been privately adopted in peace negotiations going back to Camp David, Netanyahu was furious and alarmed by Obama’s decision to offer it up unilaterally while getting nothing in return.
On the campaign trail, Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have both come close to promising U.S. preemptive war against Iran—and soon—if elected. At the most recent GOP presidential debate in Arizona, Romney said that for him, military action wouldn't be merely "an option." Obama, Romney said, has "made it clear through his administration and almost every communication we've had so far that he does not want Israel to take action, he opposes military action. He should have instead communicated to Iran that we are prepared, that we are considering military options. They're not just on the table. They are in our hand."
Despite the all-out effort being made by the White House to talk down the Israelis and muster political support among critical Jewish voters at home, some daylight remains between U.S. and Israeli positions. In particular, while Obama says he will do what is necessary to prevent a “nuclear bomb,” Israelis still tend to define their own “red line” as preventing Iranian bomb-making “capability.” “With the backing of the U.S. military, [Obama] has stood firm behind weaponization rather than weapons capability as the red line,” said Washington commentator Trita Parsi. As a result, Parsi insists, the differences between the U.S. and Israel remain “profound.”
Republicans will no doubt continue to assert that the daylight is still there. As GOP advisors Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie put it in recent article in Foreign Policy that attempts to identify Obama’s vulnerabilities as commander in chief: “In part because of how he has mishandled the Iranian threat, Obama has lost much political and financial support in the American Jewish community. His approach to Israel must be presented as similarly weak and untrustworthy. The Republican candidate must make clear the existential threat to Israel from a nuclear-armed Iran -- not only because it will lead to a better policy, but also because it will reduce the president's support among this key voting bloc in the critical battleground states of Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.”
It also remains to be seen how Iran will react to this combustible mix of intensifying U.S. domestic politics and the perception of a heightening security threat from Tehran. Iran continues to deny that it is pursuing nuclear weapons, but experts suggest its position is only hardening. In parliamentary elections on Sunday, loyalists in support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei trounced candidates in support of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has displayed an occasional willingness to negotiate with the West. The results delivered a tough message to “the arrogant powers bullying us,” Khamenei said in a statement.
And so for Obama, two key questions will dominate in the coming months: Will Netanyahu take him at his word and delay a planned attack on Iran that some security experts suggest could come before the U.S. election? And will the president’s politics-fueled new hard line prod the Iranians second-guess their approach—or will it only commit Obama to another war he really doesn’t want?