Thursday, September 13, 2012

When Bibi Didn't Meet Barack

Why the American president and the Israeli prime minister just can't get along.


U.S. President Obama (right) with Israeli PM Netanyahu

I understand that Israel is in a tough spot on the Iranian nuclear issue. I live in Chevy Chase and don't have to worry about Iranian nukes falling on my neighborhood. I don't want to trivialize Israel's fears.

And from Netanyahu's perspective, those fears are in the process of being realized. Negotiations, at least in the short term, won't stop Iran from continuing its quest for a nuclear bomb. The fact is that apart from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, four states have nuclear weapons: India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel. All are profoundly insecure, and some harbor visions of themselves as great powers. Iran, of course, is the poster child for both insecurity and grandiosity. In fact, had the shah not been overthrown by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran would have already been a nuclear weapons state.

And on top of all this, Netanyahu believes he's not getting the kind of support and understanding from his "good friend" President Barack Obama that he feels Israel needs. The clock is ticking, the centrifuges are spinning, Israel's window of advantage for a military strike is closing, and Iran's "zone of immunity" is nearing.

So what's a guy to do?

Thus far, Bibi's response has been to lash out. Netanyahu criticized the United States on Sept. 11, of all days, for failing to lay down "red lines" on Iran's nuclear program that, if crossed, would prompt U.S. military action. He was presumably responding to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said that the United States was "not setting deadlines" for a military response to Iran. "Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel," Bibi warned. The rise in tensions -- which were made only worse by reports, later denied, that the White House had turned down Netanyahu's request for a meeting with the president -- prompted an hour-long conversation between Obama and Netanyahu that same night, as the two leaders tried to get back on the same page on Iran.

Netanyahu's broadside -- whatever its intent -- has produced three reactions. And none of them help Israel or the United States.

First, this entire exchange has brought an issue that should have remained behind closed doors into public view. Asked to comment on red lines, Clinton should have simply said that the United States and Israel were discussing these matters privately. The United States is not prepared to strike Iran anytime soon. And frankly, neither is Israel -- not before the U.S. elections on Nov. 7 nor likely by year's end.

Every Israeli red line seems to have turned pink, anyway. Every few months, the media is full of anonymous Israeli sources warning portentously about an imminent strike -- and so far, they have all proved to be false alarms. The more it threatens military action and doesn't produce, the less street cred Israel has in a region where it wants to be feared and respected. If the United States and Israel want to talk red lines, do it in private -- that's where they become real and serious.

Second, it makes no sense to air U.S.-Israeli differences publicly. It sends a signal to America's friends and enemies alike that the relationship is weak and dysfunctional. And the message it sends to Iran is particularly counterproductive: Don't worry.

Third, Netanyahu's remarks could be construed as an effort to intervene in American politics. Let's be clear: Israel and the United States have been intervening in one another's politics for years. And while I don't think the Israeli prime minister had that motivation this time, the timing of these remarks -- 50-odd days (and they will be odd) before the big dance -- will be seen by some as a transparent effort to embarrass and corner Obama, or to actually sway the views of American Jews. Obama bears his fair share of responsibility for screwing up the U.S.-Israeli relationship, but this perceived intervention by Bibi could do major damage. The last thing Israel needs is an angry second-term president who believes his Israeli counterpart played an active role in trying to defeat him. It's unseemly and counterproductive.

The Iranian nuclear issue is complicated enough without two close allies bickering in public about what to do about it. I must say -- having watched American presidents and Israeli premiers since Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin -- that this has to be the most dysfunctional pair I've seen. Since both leaders may well be around for some time to come, let's hope they can find a better way to cooperate. The risks to American and Israeli interests will be too great if they don't.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 12/09/2012
-Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His new book, Can America Have Another Great President?, will be published this year

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