A Perfect Storm

‘The most liberal US President since JFK and a right-wing Israeli Prime Minister appear to be on a collision course

Iran Israel Middle East Obama Points East & West US Politics

The most liberal US President since John F. Kennedy has taken office with plans to revamp his country’s Middle East policy, placing peace, Palestinian statehood and engagement with Iran high on his agenda. In comes Israel’s new Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, a man known for his aversion to Palestinian statehood. Is this not the perfect storm?

At first glance, there is every indication that the US and Israel could be on a collision course over Iran. First, there is disagreement over the timeline of Iran’s nuclear programme. Second, there is disagreement over the timeline of President Obama’s engagement efforts. Third, there is disagreement over whether, in case of failure, US policy should still be prevention rather than deterrence. And, finally, there is disagreement over whether the US might help or hinder an Israeli decision to launch a military attack against Iran’s nuclear installations if it feels that any further delay would allow Tehran to cross the finishing line.

Israel’s assessment of Iran’s nuclear programme is that there is not much time left for polite diplomacy. Initially, Israel will no doubt acquiesce in US efforts to engage Iran. Over time, however, acquiescence will give way to impatience, especially if Jerusalem believes Tehran may be edging too close to the finishing line. Israel might wish to act swiftly, and this may clash with the US assessment of Iran’s nuclear timeline. Israel may be seen as a hindrance to American efforts and its decision to act — quite aside from its chances of success by going it alone — will be judged as detrimental to American interests. If Israel acts before America concludes diplomacy has become futile, it might incur Obama’s wrath. 

Tied to this disagreement is Israel’s insistence that Obama should impose a stringent timetable for engagement, after which America’s engagement should be replaced by pressure — economic if possible, military if necessary. But America’s considerable delay in completing the policy review has resulted in a comparable delay in co-ordination with allies, thus giving Tehran additional time. Elections in key countries — in Iran this month, in Germany in September — could further delay decisive action. It seems that even a short timeline could be longer than is tolerable to Israel, putting the Obama administration out of sync with the Netanyahu government.

Additionally, even as America might conclude at a certain point that negotiations with Iran have run aground, it might choose to accede to pressures from allies who still believe otherwise and may call for further efforts — after all, if experience is any guide, a multilateral process of diplomacy and sanctions involving the EU and the UN Security Council can considerably delay progress on the Iran nuclear dossier and significantly water down sanctions. This time, if America plays along, this might actually encourage Israel to strike.

Regardless, there are just as many indications that Israel and the US remain on the same page. Especially as time goes by, possible differences could be mitigated by changing circumstances. The Palestinian issue, more than anything else, bears the potential for an upset in the strategic relationship. The administration seems to be signaling a return to the days before the Bush era, when the Palestinian-Israeli issue was central to the region. Solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is presented as a necessary prelude to an effective strategy to countenance Iranian mischief in the region. In fact, this might be posturing for image’s sake. After all, there is little progress to be hoped for on the Palestinian front. And pro-American regional powers — especially Egypt and Gulf States — see Iran’s ambitions of regional hegemony as a direct existential threat. It is unlikely they will prioritise Palestine over their survival. 

The challenge for Netanyahu is to persuade Obama that neutralising the Iranian threat is more urgent than the Palestinian issue. The point of equilibrium might require some concession on both sides — and it will more likely than not manifest itself in the form of some perfunctory diplomatic process. 

The challenge for Obama is to give reassurances to Israel, lest it acts alone against Iran, without jeopardising his diplomatic efforts with Tehran or vitiating his efforts to restart the peace process. If Netanyahu manages to dispel the US administration’s anxiety and to explain the reasons for Israel’s concerns about Palestinian statehood and the kind of guarantees Israel needs to advance on the road to a negotiated peace, Obama will have what he needs. In which case, so will Israel.