November 19, 2019

U.S., Israel and Iran: The unavoidable gap

Three years ago, when President Barack Obama had just been inaugurated and the United States and Israel were mostly talking about the Israel-Palestinian peace process, an Israeli official expressed suspicion that something strange was going on. The Americans were insisting on a settlement freeze, and Israel was looking for compromise, to no avail. Maybe, this high-ranking official thought, maybe there was no compromise that could be reached. Maybe what the United States really wanted was to keep its distance from Israel, as a way of proving to the Arab world that the Obama administration is different from its predecessors. Maybe such distance, such a gap, had been deemed essential to America’s strategy of amending its ties with the Arab world.

In the talks between Israelis and Americans, this observation was cautiously raised. If a gap is what the United States wants, it was suggested, then there’s no point trying to find an agreed-upon formula for the way forward. If what you Americans want is the gap, the thinking went, Israel cannot hope to satisfy your desire for concession, because any Israeli concession would just raise the bar of the demands.

The American response to this suggestion was somewhat evasive, and the suspicion never dissipated. There are times when gaps are necessary for governments on both sides of an issue. There are times when gaps can be useful.

Discussion of settlements and the peace process had all but disappeared this week from the two countries’ agendas: “Just as we encourage Israel to be resolute in the pursuit of peace — we have continued to insist that any Palestinian partner must recognize Israel’s right to exist, reject violence and adhere to existing agreements,” Obama said in his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention in Washington, D.C., on March 4. That was really the only mention in this speech of past disagreements between the Obama administration and Israel; the only hint at the continued dissatisfaction of the Obama team with Israel’s Palestinian policy.

But gaps remain. And the meeting between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this week raises the suspicion that we’re facing the reincarnation of the useful gap. An essential and unavoidable gap. Clearly, it was an important meeting. But judging by the comments made by both leaders before and after the meeting (and one must acknowledge the fact that, at the time of my writing ,we know very little about the actual content of the meeting), not much has changed in recent weeks when it comes to the crucial matter of dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel still has to keep the threat of action alive by way of forcing a more robust timetable for sanctions, as was evident in Netanyahu’s AIPAC speech on March 5. “2012 is not 1944,” Netanyahu said. America is different. But his real “point” was this one: “The Jewish people are also different.  Today we have a state of our own.  And the purpose of the Jewish state is to defend Jewish lives and to secure the Jewish future. Never again will we not be masters of the fate of our very survival. Never again.” These are not the words of a leader willing to delay action in the hope that someone else will take care of the Jews of Israel.

For its part, the United States also has to stay the current course and keep pushing for more diplomacy and sanctions, and keep reminding Israel that it is not alone, if it wants Israel to delay its decision on using military force and initiating war with Iran. The gap is inherent to both countries’ positioning; it is an essential ingredient of both countries’ strategies. 

The pundits’ analyses of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, and of Obama’s AIPAC speech, offer the impression that everything in this world of foreign policy really is all about politics. Obama wants to be nice to Israel because of the Jewish vote (he is, after all, running for a second term), and he opposes an attack on Iran because oil prices would spike (the election), and he wants to delay any decision until November (we all know what November brings), and he doesn’t want to fight much with Netanyahu over settlement activity, so as not to anger voters (again, the Jewish vote), plus he still hopes diplomacy can work with Iran, because his left-wing supporters would not tolerate another U.S. war in the Middle East, and so on and so forth.

The president’s AIPAC speech was political in tone. “America’s commitment to Israel has endured under Democratic and Republican presidents, and congressional leaders of both parties,” he told the audience of about 13,000. Meaning: Don’t use Israel against me in the coming election. Don’t make it a political tool. But has Obama abided by his own high standard? He’s probably tried, but hasn’t always succeeded. “When I took office, the efforts to apply pressure on Iran were in tatters,” the president reminded the AIPAC delegates. In other words: It is not me, but rather my Republican predecessor you ought to blame for Iran’s advancement of its nuclear program. “If, during this political season, you hear some question my administration’s support for Israel, remember that it’s not backed up by the facts,” Obama said. One way of playing politics is to blame the other side for playing politics. And Obama is no better or worse in that regard than his Republican rivals.

Seeing this only through the lens of politics, though, would be a mistake. Yes, the president is a politician, and one has to be very naïve to assume that political considerations play no role in his thinking. An Israeli attack before November — inconvenient. After November — still inconvenient, but not to the same extent. For the president to oppose an Israeli attack based on political considerations would be a logical thing to do, but suspecting him of playing politics with serious strategic matters is also unfair: Politics aside, it is still quite logical and strategic militarily for Obama to oppose an Israeli attack. And Obama didn’t give any reason this week to suspect that his motivations aren’t fundamentally strategic in nature.

Israel is more nervous than Obama about Iran because, a.) Iran is more dangerous to Israel than to the United States, and, b.) for Israel not to act soon means losing the ability to act (according to Defense Minister Ehud Barak). The United States is more relaxed about Iran because a.) Iran is less dangerous to the United States, and, b.) the United States can decide to act later (given that it has the better-equipped military).

“A nuclear-armed Iran is completely counter to Israel’s security interests. But it is also counter to the national security interests of the United States,” Obama said. There is clearly a difference between “completely counter” and “also counter.” It is an important differentiation Obama was making, more than hinting that Israel and the United States not only have different ways to counter the threat, but recognizing that they are also dealing with different levels of threat.

It would have been a surprise had the president not tried to persuade Israel that there’s still time. Presidents of the United States always want to preserve their freedom to maneuver, and this particular president sees no reason to commit now to something he may or may not want to do later.

That Israel must remain “the master of its fate,” as Prime Minister Netanyahu told Obama during their White House visit, is obvious. And that the prime minister felt compelled to say such thing is a sign that Israel will not commit to delay action against Iran — at least not publicly. Israel’s successful strategy has been to use the threat of force to convince the world — Americans included — that time for diplomacy and sanctions is running out.

Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute wrote this week that “the two leaders are likely to strive for the golden mean between clarity (so they can avoid misunderstanding) and ambiguity (so they can preserve freedom of maneuver in the future) that sounds optimum in a seminar room but is difficult to achieve in the real world.”

Did Obama and Netanyahu find that golden mean? “As president of the United States, I have kept my commitments to the State of Israel. At every crucial juncture — at every fork in the road — we have been there for Israel. Every single time,” Obama said in his AIPAC speech. The speech was a bit defensive on Obama’s Israel-support credentials. But Obama was speaking the truth: He has kept most commitments (the exceptions are some commitments by the Bush administration of settlement construction, which he chose to interpret differently from Israel). The problem, though, is that no past commitment is similar to the one required now, as he wants Israel to halt all consideration of military action against Iran.

Writing in The New Republic earlier this week, columnist Yossi Klein Halevi asked whether Israel can “trust the administration to act militarily against Iran.” When “Obama tells Israel to give sanctions time,” he wrote, ”what he is really saying is: Trust me to stop Iran militarily when you no longer can.” It is a matter of more than simple trust, however. It is to believe that the president will act when Israel no longer has credible leverage, no longer has the subtle threat of war to be pulled out whenever Israel feels that the world’s resolve shows signs of decline. 

Netanyahu can’t give Obama such a card, and Obama can’t seriously expect Netanyahu to succumb to his request. “I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests,” the president said, without quite saying that halting Iran’s nuclear program should be considered not just an American interest, but also a case in which “defending” the United States is required. Hence, the president’s repeated acknowledgment of Israel’s dissimilar set of calculations. Hence, the strange and very interesting (and dangerous) game of poker the two leaders played this week — against Iran and also against one another.

Read more from Shmuel Rosner in Rosner’s Domain