Tuesday, September 4, 2012

On Iran, Obama No Longer Playing Defense With Bibi

Reports of Israeli attempts to re-align Iran policy with the United States shows that the Obama administration is using the defense relationship with Israel as an asset rather than a safety net.

The Obama administration began touting the strong defense relationship between the U.S. and Israel after the initial Obama-Netanyahu spat over settlement building in 2009.  However, Prime Minister Netanyahu was able to leverage conservative and mainstream Jewish mistrust of the President to compel the Obama administration to lay off pressure to freeze settlements.  President Obama lost credibility with the Israeli and center-to-right pro-Israel public in the United States.  Another concocted spat between president Obama and PM Netanyahu over the "indefensible" 1967 lines before the AIPAC conference in 2011 made crystal clear that for the Obama administration, the West Bank was a toxic issue.

The Obama administration had alienated some Jewish voters during these tense exchanges and was taking heat from conservatives.  In response, it emphasized the strong defense relationship between the US and Israel, a longstanding strength of the relationship.  At the core of this initiative was a $205 million dollar allocation for the Iron Dome anti-missile system.  The White House's statement made clear that the deal was intended to showcase the defense relationship in particular between the U.S. and Israel: "As the President has repeatedly said, our commitment to Israel's security is unshakable and our defense relationship is stronger than ever."  

The White House was - literally - playing defense on Israel.  By leveraging the defense relationship, it was seeking to cut its losses from those it had taken earlier in the Obama administration.  While opponents of the administration could complain that no amount of support was ever enough, the White House had hard numbers to fall back on and actual initiatives to which it could point.

Recognizing the defense relationship as important to Israel - but also to the Obama administration's credibility - the Netanyahu administration began applying pressure on the Obama administration to get tough on Iran.  It's slogan, revealed in the Prime Minister's speech at the 2012 AIPAC conference in 2012, "containment is not an option," was intended to push the Obama administration to set red lines.  While President Obama himself echoed the sentiment, it was followed not by tougher rhetoric but by a renewal of talks between the P5+1 and Iran in Baghdad in May, 2012, which were followed by talks in Moscow in June.  Spurning the conservatism of the Netanyahu administration and its far-right coalition partners, the Obama administration awarded President Shimon Peres, a liberal pragmatist, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  

Recently, and with a boost from his U.S. support, President Peres has been vocal against the Prime Minister's antsy-ness on Iran over the past month.  Despite opposition from highly respected Israeli defense officials and ex-officials, Prime Minister Netanyahu tried to push the Obama administration to lend support for a strike on Iran.  However, he was not successful in this regard, undermined by internal and external dissent.

The Prime Minister allegedly expressed his displeasure with the administration in a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro.  This meeting did not go well.  Rather than publicly take on the President as he had in 2009, the Prime Minister directly confronted the U.S. Ambassador in private.  His support for a tougher line on Iran, both inside Israel and from the United States, was fraying.  When the story was leaked to the press, the Prime Minister appeared trigger happy to the extent that he was willing to risk alienating the United States.

Then came the public U.S. response.  It was not from the State Department or the White House, but the Department of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey.  Dempsey, who had classified Iran as a rational actor in February 2012, expressed doubt that an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear program would be effective and noted, "I don't want to be complicit."  On top this clear signal, the U.S. government allowed ex-U.S. diplomat Jeffrey Feltman to visit Iran as a U.N. representative during the Non-Aligned Movement summit.  Prime Minister Netanyahu had asked U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon not to attend, but was ignored.  

The events have now put PM Netanyahu on the defensive.  In response to CJCS Dempsey's statements, Israeli MK Dan Meridor was now the one reiterating the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship on Israeli television.  Today, Israeli officials spoke of close discussions with U.S. defense officials in an attempt to do damage-control and be sure that U.S. and Israeli policy are realigned.  These talks will likely be successful, a beneficial outcome for the U.S. and Israel alike.

But the failed outcome of PM Netanyahu's initiative demonstrates the success of the Obama administration in moving the defense relationship from a safety net to a tool of diplomacy with Israel.  Aided by internal dissent inside Israel and the United States over a potential strike, the administration was able to leverage CJCS Dempsey's sober assessment that a strike on Iran would simply not end Iran's nuclear program.  What began as the Obama administration's attempt to save face has now become a point of leverage towards PM Netanyahu.  The Obama administration has shown that it is not afraid to use the relationship to derail the Prime Minister's attempt to lock down U.S. foreign policy.