Obama can’t win for losing, at least with right-leaning Americans and Israelis. He’d barely finished his speech to AIPAC this morning when the pundits were all over him—despite his being interrupted by applause many times by thousands of Israel supporters.
Liz Cheney, Dick’s daughter, had earlier addressed the same audience, claiming no president had done as much to undermine and deligitimize Israel. I guess she missed George H.W. Bush, whom her father worked for; he had powerful Arab ties and really leaned on Israel. And Dwight D. Eisenhower, who never forgave Israel—or Britain or France either—for their success in the Sinai Campaign of 1956. Ike never much liked the idea of a Jewish state.
She also must have missed the memo—the many statements and articles—in which the military and intelligence leaders of both Israel and the U.S. have said that weapons sharing, cooperation, joint planning, and information exchange have reached an all-time high during Obama’s watch.
Shimon Peres, fortunately, intervened between her and Mr. Obama, pronouncing the latter a true friend of Israel, thanking him, and setting the record straight. So the crowd should have been softened up for Obama’s defense of his own policies.
He did not, today, mention the 1967 borders (with mutually agreed swaps), but he did offer a litany of steps taken to support and sustain Israel with weapons, money, diplomacy, UN Security Council votes and vetos, and continual insistence on Israel’s legitimacy and security.
But he then had to come to the problem child of the hour, rapidly nuclearizing Iran. On the eve of Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest visit to the White House, a difference of opinion does exist. However, the difference is not just between Bibi and Barry, it’s also between Bibi and some of his own top military and intelligence officers, past and present.
Will a preemptive strike by Israel on Iran’s nuclear operations do Israel and the world more good than harm? Skeptics point to the day after, when missiles will rain down on Israel from Iran itself and from Hamas and Hizbollah on the doorstep. Also attacks on soft targets—Israeli, Jewish, and just plain American—throughout the world. The possibility of wider war cannot be ruled out. All this for a delay in Iran’s attainment of the bomb that few think will last more than two or three years.
Pro-strike voices remind us that Iran wants to wipe Israel off the map, and that one good nuclear bomb could really ruin little Israel’s day. The Holocaust didn’t happen, Iranian President “I’m-a-dinner-jacket” says, but he thinks he can arrange one. Israel aside, an Iranian nuclear weapons program would hand Iran domination of the Arab Middle East—an old aspiration for Persians—until the Saudis, Egyptians, and others got their own bombs.
But there’s more. First, maybe severe sanctions will make Iran back down; but maybe they won’t, and anyway they don’t get really severe till June. The clock is ticking. Iran has already enriched uranium far above levels needed for peaceful uses, and is expected to reach weapons-grade (90 percent) this year. From there it’s only a few months to a bomb.
Why not wait? Well, Iran is taking its thousands of centrifuges underground, and Israel’s air force won’t be able to accomplish much if a certain line is crossed. But that red line is different for the U.S., because our air force can put their program out of action later in the game. Israel’s air force is very good, but ours is very good and very huge.
So the clock is ticking at different rates on different sides of the ocean. Obama said this week that he is not bluffing, and repeated today that military options are on the table. He also says he is not interested in containing a future nuclear Iran, but in preventing it. Tomorrow he will ask Netanyahu to trust him. Let your deadline pass, Obama will in effect say. Ours is later. If sanctions fail, we can still do the strike.
Trouble is, Netanyahu and his people will be sitting under the threat of a nuclear bomb, not Obama and Americans. If the Israelis let their deadline pass, they will have to depend on America to protect them—something they have never done before.
Obama alluded to his grand-uncle who helped liberate Buchenwald, to his Jewish friends, to the seders he shares with his staff every Passover in the White House, and to the way the concept of Tikkun Olam has “enriched and guided” his life. I believe he is sincere. But Iran is an existential threat to Israelis. They must decide if his sincerity can be relied on to repair that grave flaw in the world after they have passed up a chance to do it themselves.