“Obama to warn Netanyahu against military strikes on Iran.” So proclaimed the headline in Saturday’s Washington Post. At their meeting on Monday, Barack Obama reportedly did just that, while reaffirming America’s commitment to Israel’s safety. And yet … could this be very different than it seems? Is it the cagey exterior of a policy aimed at leaving Israel no choice but to strike?
Look at it this way. Suppose you were the Obama administration, confronted by an intransigent Iran but facing an election in November and an American public weary of Middle Eastern wars. Wouldn’t you rather shoehorn an ally into undertaking this risky and unpleasant business in your place? Then, even if you too had to intervene (as you would, at the very least to keep open the Strait of Hormuz), you’d have avoided blame for starting the conflict.
It’s happened before, and not just once. Twice already, the United States has declined to intervene against nuclear threats in the Middle East, and twice already, Israel has concluded that it had no choice but to do the job itself. In 1981, it destroyed the Osirak reactor in Iraq, and in 2007, a secret nuclear plant under construction in Syria. In neither case, so far as is known, was there a green light from Washington. But both countries reaped the benefits of actions that were effectively outsourced to Israel.
The Iranian threat is much graver than those. The task of eliminating it is harder and the expected retaliation is more dire. In such a situation, each ally would gladly shift the burden to the other. Israel has naturally been hoping that the United States would dispose of the matter, as befitted the senior partner in the alliance. So far, this has proved wishful thinking under Mr. Obama, as it did under George W. Bush. As the weaker of the two partners, Israel lacks the means to force the United States to act. Washington, however, possesses ample means to coerce Tel Aviv.
The asymmetricality here lies in Iran’s two different “zones of immunity” from attack. Washington has weapons capable of eliminating Iran’s installations at a later stage of hardening than anything known to be in Israel’s arsenal. It can wait for sanctions to fail before launching its hypothetical attack. Israel can’t.
As Yossi Klein Halevi has argued, Israel faces an agonizing choice. Either it strikes Iran’s program while it is still within its power to wreck it, or having missed its chance, it would be reduced to relying on Washington to do so. Either it attacks, risking a break with its closest ally, or it becomes completely dependent on that ally to deal with an existential threat. The former choice would be wrenching, but the latter would violate a fundamental Zionist principle: that the survival of the Jewish state and people must never again be left to the unreliable mercies of others. It was one thing to hope for America to act while Israel remained capable of doing so if necessary. It would be quite another to have forfeited all initiative to it.
The basic problem goes much deeper, then, than Israel’s mistrust of Mr. Obama. Even presidents deemed staunch friends have faltered when Israel most needed them. Two countries are two countries.
At this point, Israel has good reason to doubt that even the toughest sanctions will prevent or delay Iran from building nuclear weapons. Like most sanctions, these have come too late. The findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency confirm that the mullahs can now enrich uranium at their leisure. And every spokesman for the regime, from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on down, has insisted that nothing will deter it from its oh-so-peaceful nuclear quest – or its doubtless equally “peaceful” resolve to annihilate Israel.
Looking beyond sanctions, Israel sees too much ambiguity in the Obama administration’s positions, too much demonstrated irresoluteness, too many signs of willingness to tolerate a more advanced stage of Iranian nuclearization than Israel deems compatible with its safety. Especially in election years, American fulmination is cheap. (Just ask North Korea, as snug as a bug in a rug with its nuclear weapons that successive administrations in Washington had declared they would never permit.)
Is Washington really seeking to push Israel into intervening before its perceived window of effectiveness shuts? I doubt it. Mr. Obama likely still hopes that, with Iran being a “rational actor,” sanctions will suffice to sway it. But if it were my plan to finagle Israel into attacking, I wouldn’t practice a public diplomacy much different from Mr. Obama’s.
Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and a distinguished fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.