walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: September 17, 2012
White House Silent as Netanyahu Pleads for Red Lines

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared on two different Sunday talk shows  over the weekend in a direct appeal to the American public for “red lines”—moments in Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon that would trigger an armed U.S. response. Netanyahu’s offensive comes after the White House refused him a private meeting on Iran with Obama, throwing differences in opinion between the U.S. and Israeli administrations on Iran into the public.

The FT has the details:

“You have to place that red line before them now, before it’s too late,” he said on NBC.

He [Netanyahu] was speaking as the top commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards warned that “nothing would remain” of Israel if it were to attack Iran. Brigadier General Mohammad-Ali Jafari also warned that Iran would strike US bases in the region in the event of an Israeli attack.

The stakes are high. As Iran moves closer to going nuclear—Netanyahu says 6 months or less—there is little agreement on how to proceed. Netanyahu and many Republican leaders in the U.S. believe Washington must stop Iran from gaining the “capacity” to produce a nuclear bomb. Obama has said Iran will be “prevented” from acquiring a bomb, but stopped short of declaring what the U.S. will do as Iran, unfazed, continues its nuclear program.

Even within the Netanyahu administration there is disagreement. According to press reports earlier this month that quoted a senior official involved in Israeli security cabinet discussions on Iran, “intelligence briefings offered conflicting assessments, in particular on the question of how much longer Israel would be able to inflict meaningful damage on Iran’s nuclear programme.” It seems even the spy chiefs aren’t sure how much longer until Iran gets a bomb, or what can be done to stop them.

Up until now those urging delay have had the upper hand. While Iran was making progress on refining uranium and its stockpiles were growing, time still appeared to be on the side of those who wanted a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Sabotage and obstruction had slowed Iran’s nuclear program; sanctions were inflicting grave and growing damage on the economy, and the international coalition against the Iranian program was strengthening. Add the steady advance of Syrian rebels, threatening Iran’s only regional ally, and the international system appeared to be steadily pushing Iran into isolation.

The riots and terror strikes of the last week may have changed that calculation. Assad has a much freer hand this week than last to crack down on the rebels, and the commander of Iranian forces in Syria, now that Iran has openly acknowledged the presence of those forces, is in a stronger position to help him. Religious opinion is inflamed across the region, making a U.S. strike against Iran costlier and more difficult, and decreasing the enthusiasm of many Arab governments for an attack.

Netanyahu turned to the American public to build pressure on the Obama administration to publicly take a harder position on Iran’s nuclear program. He is likely to be less successful in that direct appeal than he hoped, for now. In the heat of our own presidential campaign, one where President Obama for now appears to enjoy a small but very real lead, Americans generally are less interested in what foreigners think about anything. And the recent chaos and the attacks and demonstrations on embassies have reduced the desire of many Americans for more activism in the Middle East.

Decision day is approaching. The pressure is mounting. But the White House is silent.

Israel’s ability to move the American political system is real, but it is limited. Jonathan Pollard, the convicted spy, is still serving his sentence in jail despite intense and focused efforts over many years by the supposedly all-powerful “Israel lobby.” The U.S. embassy remains in Tel Aviv, despite years of efforts by Israel and friends to move it to Jerusalem.

The Obama administration doesn’t want a war with Iran, especially now with the region so chaotic, and it genuinely loathes and resents an Israeli prime minister who has been its most persistent and successful foreign opponent. During the last four years, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu went to the mat several times, and Bibi regularly beat BO. But it is much harder to bounce the United States into a new Middle Eastern war on Netanyahu’s timetable than it is to demonstrate that Congress stands with Israel on a variety of issues that don’t call for military intervention.

We shall see. The American public is digesting the continuing news from the Middle East suggesting that President Obama’s Middle East policies are a bust, but also suggesting that U.S. military interventions, however light and however well intentioned, lead to complicated and unhappy aftermaths. American Jews, who throughout the contest between the president and the prime minister have overwhelmingly remained loyal to President Obama (for whom they voted by a large majority in 2008), by and large dislike and distrust Netanyahu and side with his many critics in Israel who oppose a military strike at this time.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is running huge risks. If President Obama is re-elected (and, although there are more than six weeks until the election, most observers now think he will be), he can expect icy relations with Washington for some time to come. His recent activities will be read in the White House as a deliberate attempt to intervene in American politics—not simply to lobby for more aid for Israel, but to block the re-election of an incumbent. It is something that many Democrats will never forgive and, certainly, something that President Obama will not forget. If the President is re-elected, the power of future Israeli prime ministers in the U.S., based in large part on their perceived ability to shift U.S. domestic opinion, will have permanently and significantly declined.

Nothing less than a truly serious threat to Israel’s existence could justify such a high risk move; we must assume that this underlines the sincerity of Netanyahu’s belief that the Iranian nuclear program is about to reach a point of no return.

Public opinion in both Israel and the United States is very volatile where issues of war, peace and the survival of Israel are concerned. An Israeli strike on Iran could well create a situation in which the U.S. found itself embroiled in conflict with an Iran that struck back at U.S. as well as Israeli forces following an attack by the Jewish state. A “Pearl Harbor moment” is likely to occur following what Americans would perceive as an unprovoked attack on the U.S. by Iran. U.S. public demand for strong and effective retaliation could well become irresistible (if not unanimous) following such an attack.

It is hard to get the American people to support a war in cold blood; it is hard to prevent a war when they are roused. The war with Iran that most of us still deeply want to avoid could quickly and easily become a war that the public demands.

These are deep and murky waters. President Obama’s inbox has rarely been this full: between the election, the domestic economy, the collapse of his Middle East and, quite possibly, his Afghan policies, and domestic issues like the continuing teacher strike in his hometown, he has much to consider. There is often more noise than real substance in American politics: this week, the president is being seriously tested in real time.

Image courtesy of Mikhail Levit/

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