The Iran ‘red line’ crisis

That Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to launch another wave of public criticism of the U.S. administration over Iran in recent days seems puzzling. What does he gain from clashing with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? That the administration decided to publicly ostracize Netanyahu is also puzzling. Did it conclude that picking a fight with Netanyahu over Iran is politically beneficial for it? Did it decide to humiliate him in public because it thinks it has called his bluff?

A dangerous game of high-flying messages has been taking place between Washington and Jerusalem. Netanyahu started it, by making demands for a “red line” for Iran, beyond which action will be taken. “Iran will not stop unless it sees clear determination by the democratic countries of the world and a clear red line,” Netanyahu said in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Co. Namely, he doesn’t see the necessary determination from “countries” such as the United States. So he started it, and the Obama administration picked up on it and decided to respond. The United States did not have to respond but did anyway. The United States is not “setting deadlines” for Iran and still believes that negotiations are “by far the best approach” to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Clinton declared. When Netanyahu asked for “red lines,” he was trying to put the handcuffs not on Iran so much as on the Obama administration. When the Obama administration refused to submit to his demands for deadlines, it was not letting Iran off the hook so much as telling Netanyahu to get lost.

So many crises have arisen for U.S.-Israel watchers in the course of the past four years: the Cairo speech crisis, the settlement freeze crisis, the Joe Biden visit crisis and the 1967-line crisis. And now we have the “red line” crisis, the most dangerous of them all — dangerous because it leaves the prime minister with fewer options. Obviously, former ambassador Martin Indyk was right when he indicated a couple of weeks ago that the administration has had enough of Netanyahu’s game of do-more-or-else. “The U.S. has done everything it could to reassure Israel and doesn’t have anything more in its quiver,” Indyk said. “No other arrow to shoot to reassure them. So it thinks, ‘Here we go again. There’s nothing else we can do. We’ll learn to live with it.’” Netanyahu, even many of his opponents agree, was able to achieve a lot by pressuring the administration to do more. He was also assisting the administration as he was threatening to act, as Israel’s unpredictable behavior is what the United States can sell to the Europeans as a means of making them more prone to act promptly.

But there is one line the Obama team never agreed to cross: As it was keeping “all options on the table,” it was clear that some options were on the table in front of them while others were on tables in other rooms. Tables not to be used in the near future. The United States was willing to use pressure and sanctions, but not yet force, while Israel was watching with concern that these measures fail to achieve any success that is tangible and meaningful.

Thus, when Clinton declares diplomacy to be the best option, Israeli officials hear the sound of perpetual delay that will lead to a bitter end. What Israeli decision makers are faced with, as the Obama administration so blatantly says no to military action, is an even starker choice: to trust an administration in which it has no trust, or to wait for an administration in which it might have some more trust (namely, for Mitt Romney to win the 2012 election), or to act promptly to defy the expectations that the Obama administration so manifestly aligned itself with.

Netanyahu was somewhat misleading when he angrily demanded of “those in the international community who refuse to put red lines in front of Iran” to understand that such position takes away their “moral right to put a red light in front of Israel.” Because what the Obama team was doing in the past week was not putting a red light in front of Israel — it was holding a red handkerchief in its face, to dare the bull to take action or be silenced. And one should just hope that war with Iran doesn’t start over issues of hurt egos. And one should just hope that the pressure on Iran will not be reduced over egos.

What has happened in recent days can’t be a good sign, though. It weakens Israel by forcing it into a terrible choice between taking action that might be premature or admitting an incapacity that will only embolden Iran. And it weakens the U.S. position, as the administration now appears, yet again, to be more concerned with Israeli rhetoric and action than with the rhetoric and actions of Iran. The Iranians, no doubt, are the only ones watching this skirmish with a measure of satisfaction. Obama still believes in talks; Israel still fails to make a case convincing enough for the world to take bolder action. No wonder most Israelis want Romney to get elected in November. Even those of them — the minority — who believe that Obama is a good president for Israel realize by now that relations between him and Netanyahu are probably hopeless.