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Bibi vs Obama vs Iran

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18 May 2009 12:19

This week’s meeting in Washington between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama has generated more than usual interest and commentary. The meeting is expected to be difficult because Bibi and Barack are seen to be ideologically incompatible, with the two being lined up to clash, in particular, on Israeli-Palestinian issues and on Iran.

I think the first assumption is correct, but not because of the second assumption. Israeli-US relations over coming months will be more difficult, but not because Bibi is a Likudnik and Barack is a Democrat. The difficulty lies in the subtle but significant divergence in the way that Israel – more or less across the political spectrum – and the US – more or less across the political spectrum – view the Iranian challenge and more importantly, what to do about it.

Israel sees Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat. This perception is not the sudden product of Bibi’s election as Prime Minister and the political ascendancy of the Israeli right; the Iranian threat preoccupied the previous centrist Olmert/Livni government as well. Indeed, if this story is true, Olmert sought US agreement to an Israeli military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities late last year and the US said 'no'.

By saying in this Newsweek article that Israel’s calculations on Iran are going to be far more ‘acute’ and that it is not his ‘place to determine for the Israelis what their security needs are’, Obama acknowledged something that is all too quickly dismissed outside Israel. Outside commentators and analysts may quarrel and quibble over how much of a threat Iran really poses to Israel, but any such calculi, no matter how dispassionate, hardly makes the threat seem less real to those living in Israel. 

Obama’s empathy for Israel does not hide a difference in strategic priority. For the US, the threat posed by Iran is not to its existence, but to its interests in the Middle East. From the US perspective, Iran’s nuclear program is one significant element in a multidimensional challenge. The increase, in the last six years, of Iran’s influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza and the threat (conventional and otherwise) that Iran poses to Washington’s regional allies, including Israel, are other key elements.

Because the stakes are so high for Israel, the impulse towards decisive military action – even if it does not ultimately prove to be decisive – is going to be equally high and will continue to grow as the Iranian nuclear program proceeds. And Israel will be single-minded about this to the exclusion of all other strategic issues, including the Palestinian question.

In contrast to Israel’s game of strategic checkers, the US is playing chess with Iran. That is, even as it tries to topple Iran’s nuclear queen it is also worried about its other pieces on the board. Washington is working not just to contain Iran’s nuclear ambition but to check Iran’s influence in the areas where it has grown in recent years. 

So this means an orderly withdrawal from Iraq, where the US military presence has exposed American policy to Iranian machinations. It means a renewed effort on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where the stalemate has both allowed Iran to play a greater role (primarily via Hamas) and where US inactivity diminished America’s regional standing, to Iran’s ultimate benefit. And on Iran it means a renewed effort to use diplomacy — and if that fails, sanctions — before contemplating a military solution whose broader regional costs currently outweigh potential benefits.   

But before anyone jumps to the conclusion that the Obama Administration is more dispassionate about Israel’s security than its predecessor was, it is worth keeping in mind that this divergence in strategic perspectives between the US and Israel really opened up under the Bush Administration. That divergence is evident in the Bush Administration’s late (and even if ham-fisted) renewal of US activism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (through the Annapolis process). It is evident in the eventual desire of the Bush Administration to exit Iraq in an orderly but prompt fashion, manifest in the Status of Forces Agreement it signed with Iraq in November last year. It is also manifest in the Bush Administration’s conditional change of heart on engaging Iran more or less directly in 2006; not to mention the red-light it may have given an Israel strike last year, mentioned above.

In effect, if not entirely in intention, the Obama Administration is developing and refining an approach that began with the Bush Administration, albeit an approach that sits far more comfortably with the worldview of the former than the latter. What the Bibi-Obama meeting will reflect, therefore, is less an incompatibility in ideological biorythms than a divergence in strategic perspectives. It is not a chasm and it is far from unbridgeable – and the bridge may yet prove to be Iran’s inability to respond, positively and decisively, to US diplomatic overtures. But it will nevertheless create strains in US-Israeli ties over coming months that have not been felt for a great many years.

Photo by Flickr user Barack Obama, used under a Creative Commons license.

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