Sunday, August 19, 2012

Edging towards War: Netanyahu takes on Obama

Last spring in my Palestinian-Israeli conflict class, we periodically dealt with current events. Our class discussions reflected much of what the students followed in the mainstream media, and during those months it seemed as though Israel was preparing to attack Iran at any moment.  In fact, I commented that it almost seemed as if there was a concerted effort to notify Iran of the eventual attack.  However, by the end of the semester, the tension eased and a full-out Israeli-Iranian war was put on the back burner, while the US continued to work through diplomatic means to force the Iranians to rethink their race towards becoming a nuclear-armed state.

Well as the summer is now coming to a close, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, have succeeded in putting Iran back on the agenda. However, now the level of speech concerning an Israeli strike has surpassed that of last spring and has left all the actors in the region on edge. Literally for the past two weeks, the Israeli media has been discussing the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program on a daily basis, presenting multiple scenarios and timelines.  What has emerged is worrying, since it is tangled up with an outright duel between Netanyahu and Barak on one side and President Barack Obama on the other.

The scenario is simple: Israel will unilaterally strike Iran before the US elections, which will in essence force Obama to support the Israeli move and Israel’s “right to defend itself,” even though the Obama administration is convinced that a military strike is premature.  Of course, with Mitt Romney courting Israel at all costs, Obama will need to appear defiant in his support for Israel. Clearly, this tactic does not need to lead to an actual Israeli strike, since even the threat of one before the elections is enough for Netanyahu to reap fruits, such as Obama committing to an American airstrike after the elections (which some pundits have been discussing). Let us remember that Netanyahu is no stranger to meddling in US politics.  Back in 1998, President Clinton pressured Netanyahu (during his first term) to negotiate with the Palestinians. Upon arriving to meet with Clinton and Yasser Arafat, Netanyahu chose to meet first with a Clinton adversary, US Evangelical leader Jerry Falwell, along with a thousand supporters, to send a strong message to Clinton that he also could play the pressure game.    

The Obama administration thus far has not caved to this pressure,  and has even warned Israel that the time is not right. US Defense Minister Panetta has stated that the use of force should be a last resort, and General Martin Dempsey, US Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs, maintains that an Israeli strike will only “delay but not destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities.” On Israel’s Channel Two, Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the US and a staunch supporter of Netanyahu, rebuffed the American “advice” and reiterated Israel’s right to self-defense. He argued that even a unilateral strike that would only “delay” the Iranian nuclear program might be sufficient for the time being.  

For now, the Netanyahu-Barak coalition is shunning the chorus of opposition in Israel to a unilateral Israeli strike, which has been voiced among members of the military establishment and most recently by Israeli President Shimon Peres.  This voice of reason was not welcomed among the Netanyahu administration, which reminded Peres that the Israeli presidency is merely ceremonial and is supposed to remain above (and out of) politics. 

While I have not focused on the regional implications of a unilateral Israeli strike, it is clear that, with Syria in disarray and the Middle East fresh from the downfall of dictatorships, many scenarios can play out.  However, unlike past Israeli wars, this one could actually place the majority of the Israeli population under a major assault. It is therefore safe to say that Netanyahu is playing with fire.

For now, we will need to wait to see how Netanyahu plays his cards. With Israel appointing Avi Dichter last week as Home Front Defense Minister, it appears that they will need some time to prepare their citizens for war, leaving the possibility for a strike within the next the few weeks highly unlikely. Also, it would make sense that the next event to wait for is an Obama-Netanyahu meeting in mid-September at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. The question remains whether such a meeting will defuse the tension between the two leaders. When Netanyahu arrives in the US, it will be interesting to see if he will first meet with Romney in order to embarrass Obama, as in the above mentioned 1998 case.  What is certain is that Netanyahu’s tactics prove once again how detrimental he can be to Israel’s world standing. Clearly, more than any other leader in Israeli history, Netanyahu has completely isolated Israel, and it seems that he will continue to choose this option.