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Tell Netanyahu things he doesn’t want to hear

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When President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet this week for what will almost certainly be an intense and lengthy conversation about Iran’s nuclear program, it will be the president, not the prime minister, who drives the discussion.

This represents a significant shift in their relationship. For much of the past year, Netanyahu set the agenda in talks about Iran. His ceaseless and dire warnings about Iran’s deadly plans helped persuade Obama to strengthen sanctions, launch a series of expensive and possibly dangerous sabotage efforts against the nuclear program, promise repeatedly that the U.S. was ready to use force, and build an international coalition of sometimes unwilling partners to check Iran’s ambitions.

Netanyahu’s ephemeral power was partly due to the U.S. election calendar. Last year, he had the power to derail Obama’s campaign. If Israel had struck Iran before the election in November, as Netanyahu was considering doing, the United States might have found itself in the midst of yet another Middle East war. Such a conflict, the conventional wisdom went, would not have been of great help to Obama’s re-election effort.

But last September, Netanyahu gave Obama a gift. At the United Nations, Netanyahu announced that, in his considered view, the world had perhaps six to nine months more before Iran would be ready to enrich enough uranium to make a bomb.

"By next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage," he said, famously holding up a drawing of a cartoon bomb to illustrate his point. "From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks, before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb."

By establishing this new red line in 2013, Netanyahu allowed Obama to run for re-election without fear that the Persian Gulf would soon be catching fire. The president was thankful for the gesture. He called Netanyahu shortly after the speech to express his appreciation for the "time and space" Netanyahu’s speech gave the U.S. Their relationship subsequently soured (for the fifth or sixth time) when Netanyahu’s government announced plans to build new settlements in a sensitive area east of Jerusalem, but for a while, it could have been reasonably argued that the two men were getting along.

Although Netanyahu achieved much of what he wanted — he concentrated the attention of the most powerful man in the world on a rogue nuclear program that is more of a threat to Israel than to the U.S. — what he did at the UN was out of character for a man who believes that the state of Israel exists so that Jews will never again be dependent on outsiders for their safety.

The Israeli columnist Ari Shavit, writing in Haaretz, was brutal last week about the consequences of Netanyahu’s decision to defer action. Shavit argued that Iran is moving rapidly to the point where it would be immune to the sort of one-time, pinpoint air-strike that Israel could plausibly achieve. "Israel’s counter-threat is dissipating and losing its strength," he wrote. "As a result, for the first time in its history, Israel will soon have to place its fate in the hands of others. The Israelis will not decide whether to be or not to be — President Barack Obama will decide."

How did this unlikely situation come to pass? Obama and Netanyahu spent 2011 and 2012 in a staring contest, and Netanyahu blinked. He blinked because he seems to have realized the limits of Israeli independence. A core component of Israeli national-security doctrine holds that no regional adversary should be allowed to gain control of a nuclear weapon. A second component is to avoid getting on the bad side of the U.S., Israel’s main benefactor and diplomatic protector. These two ideas came into conflict over the Iran nuclear issue, and the relationship with the U.S. has, at least provisionally, won out.

Obama cleverly put his thumb on the scale by dispatching American generals and intelligence officials to Israel, where they painted nightmare scenarios for their counterparts about the possible consequences of an Israeli strike. Partly as a result, Netanyahu and his former defence minister, Ehud Barak, found themselves without the support of many of their national-security officials at crucial moments.

For public consumption, of course, both American and Israeli officials say that their governments see eye-to-eye on Iran. Both Obama and Netanyahu oppose containment — the idea that the West could acquiesce to a nuclear Iran while checking its aggression — and both have threatened to use military force.

But their threat clocks aren’t in sync, and Netanyahu’s real worry is that Iran will use the next year or so to make the costs of a potential American strike appallingly high. Two Israeli officials, who requested anonymity to speak frankly, told me that if they were in charge of defending the Iranian nuclear program, they would spend the next year building duplicate facilities in heavily populated areas and spreading out the program in such a way as to obviate the chance that a limited American military operation would work. Many Israelis, of course, are predisposed to think that Obama’s promise to stop Iran is only rhetorical. If it came time to act, they assume he would balk. And the likelihood of balking is higher, they argue, if the Iranian nuclear program becomes harder to hit.

Netanyahu will raise these concerns when he meets Obama. But unlike last year, Obama won’t be facing an election. This time, he might be in a position to tell Netanyahu things he doesn’t want to hear.


Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for The Atlantic.


—Bloomberg News

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