Saturday, March 3, 2012

Post #201 - Who Should Strike the Tar Baby?

The following article by Ethan Bronner, "For Obama and Netanyahu, Wariness on Iran will Dominate Talks," appeared on March 1:

JERUSALEM — Nearly four years ago, when Senator Barack Obama was running for president and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was head of the opposition, they met here in what aides described as a warm atmosphere.

“Senator,” Mr. Netanyahu said to Mr. Obama, “as president, many things will cross your desk, but the most important, by far, will be stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.”

On Monday, the two will meet again in the shadow of an American presidential election, and Iran will again dominate the conversation. But the bonhomie will be replaced by wary intrigue as Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama try to sort out their differences, in timing, messaging and strategic bottom lines, on how to grapple with Iran — while also managing their own strained relationship.
Mr. Netanyahu, who will address AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, right after his White House meeting, is hoping to prompt more clarity from Mr. Obama on how he sees increasingly tough sanctions and diplomacy with Iran playing out in the coming months.

He also wants to press Mr. Obama on where his red line lies: how and when the United States will decide whether sanctions are succeeding or failing, and how committed he is to the use of force, officials and analysts following the discussions on both sides said in recent days.

For Mr. Obama, the challenge is to deliver two competing messages. He wants to join Mr. Netanyahu in warning Iran to abandon its nuclear program or face military action, but also to press him to give time to sanctions and diplomacy and hold back his military.

“This is being billed as the most important encounter ever between the two,” said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a prominent Jewish leader. “Both of them need success here. There has to be a serious understanding, there has to be real trust, and so far I don’t think it’s there.”

Much has divided the two leaders in the eight previous meetings they have held during the three years they have been in power, especially what Israel should do to promote peace with the Palestinians, including stopping settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.

But with the region in turmoil and the Palestinian peace talks frozen, the central concern the two men are facing is the Iranian nuclear program.

The talks are complicated, especially for Mr. Obama, by domestic politics. Israel’s security and the Iranian nuclear program have drawn the most attention of any foreign matters in the Republican primaries. That leaves Mr. Obama with somewhat less room to maneuver than he would have at another moment in his presidency. The men will meet the day before the Super Tuesday nominating contests in 10 states.

“Whether they say it or not, both will be influenced by their own domestic politics,” said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington who presides over an advisory group for Mr. Netanyahu on American-Israeli relations. “Public opinion polls in America are about 50-50 on whether America should take a role in an eventual military operation against Iran. This is not the main element in a decision, but it will have some influence on the candidate, who happens to be president.”

Some argue, therefore, that if Mr. Netanyahu decides to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, he is more likely to do so before the November election, figuring Mr. Obama would find his hand forced into at least tacitly supporting the move.

But others make two counterarguments. The first is that Mr. Netanyahu believes that Mr. Obama is likely to be re-elected and does not want to alienate him. The second is that no matter who is in the Oval Office, Israel will not outsource what it views as its vital security interests based on an American promise to take military action if sanctions fail. Israel’s goal is an American attack on Iran, but it seems unlikely to wait till it no longer can do it by itself.

This is because the red lines that Israel and the United States draw regarding Iran have been in different places.

For Israel, it is Iran’s capacity to build a nuclear weapon quickly; whereas for Washington it is the actual building of the weapon. Moreover, the American military has more, better and more sophisticated equipment so it can attack at a later date and still be effective even if Iran’s enrichment facilities have been moved underground beyond Israel’s reach.

All of this is making for complex calculations on both sides. If Mr. Obama trusted Mr. Netanyahu more, he might issue a more muscular statement of military threat to Iran, confident that Israel would not move too quickly without coordination. And if Mr. Netanyahu trusted Mr. Obama more, he would be less jumpy over every statement of caution emerging from Washington, like one by Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that it would not be prudent to decide to attack Iran now because it would destabilize the region. 

It seems me that, if he were truly the thinker, talker and man of character that we thought we elected in 2008, President Obama's actual task would be somehow to bring Netanyahu to a very different place.  He should forcefully make the case that everything Israel does is aimed at securing its survival, but many of the actions taken in that quest have only increased the number of foes Israel faces.  Like Pearl, in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, who "seemed always to be sowing broadcast the dragon's teeth, whence sprung a harvest of armed enemies, against whom she rushed to battle,"  Israel steps deeper and deeper in a mire (partly) of her own making.  An attack on Iran would be the quintessential sowing the wind; Israel would reap the whirlwind.

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