There was less antipathy than at Aipac 2011, but the Israeli PM is maximising his leverage in the US president’s re-election year
If Barack Obama and Bibi Netanyahu liked each other more, you might almost think they’d worked it out. If the two men were pals, you could guess that the little performance the two of them laid on in Washington over the last few days had been carefully choreographed, a “good cop, bad cop” routine staged for the benefit of the only audience that matters: the regime in Iran.
But the American president and the Israeli prime minister are not pals, far from it. That much was obvious when they were photographed sitting together in the White House on Monday, the body language still chilly between the two – even if it lacked the barely-concealed hostility of their encounter in May 2011, when Netanyahu presumed to lecture Obama in his own office. But there is no hiding it. As Aluf Benn, editor in chief of the Israeli daily Haaretz, wrote at the weekend, “the contacts between Netanyahu and Obama are devoid of warmth, mutual esteem and credibility.”
The president sees the Israeli PM “as a liar who uses subversive tactics, shamelessly meddles in American politics and is encouraging the Republican campaign to topple him,” wrote Benn, while “Netanyahu sees Obama as a spineless leftwinger whose fantasies about world peace are threatening Israel with the prospect of a second Holocaust.” So, not exactly chums, then.
Which means that what we saw played out was real rather than confected. With the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) conference in Washington as the backdrop, the two men have been conducting a negotiation in public. The message of the president in his weekend speech to the pro-Israel lobby group was to cool the “loose talk” of war with Iran and to give non-military forms of pressure on Tehran – sanctions and, to a lesser extent, diplomacy – time to work. Netanyahu’s reply, in his speech Monday night, was a declaration of his own impatience: “We’ve waited for diplomacy to work,” he said. “We’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer.”
In this negotiation, both men have leverage. Obama’s resides in the fact that, for all the Israeli leader’s bluster, Netanyahu does not want to go it alone. Both politically and militarily, he wants the backing of the United States. Indeed, Netanyahu’s urgency partly arises out of his fear that the longer he waits, the more time Iran would have to secrete its nuclear installations deep underground, out of reach of Israeli firepower and where only US “bunker-buster” bombs could find them. All of which lent a certain irony to his insistence last night that “Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.” If that were completely true, then Netanyahu would have had no need to plead his case in Washington.
But the Israeli PM has leverage too, provided by the calendar. He knows that the last thing Obama needs between now and election day on 6 November is yet another war involving the US. Part of the president’s pitch to the voters will be his winding down of George W Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; new conflict in Iran undermines that message. More importantly, an attack on Iran could trigger a surge in oil prices, inflicting immediate damage on America’s economic prospects.
Yet, it’s hard for Obama to give Israel a clear red light to military action when he faces a clutch of Republican presidential candidates desperate to cast him as insufficiently supportive of Israel. Mitt Romney and the others may believe they can win over some of the Jewish vote – a stunning 78% of which chose Obama over John McCain in 2008 – even though most experts reckon Jewish support for the president is holding firm. More likely, Republican leaders calculate that rattling the sabre for Israel helps them with the much larger Christian evangelical bloc, for whom support for Israel has become an article of faith.
So, the task for Obama is managing Netanyahu, offering him sufficient reassurance that Israel holds off, at least till 7 November. It’s not that the president doesn’t believe there’s a problem with Iran and its nuclear ambitions – even as a candidate in 2008, Obama was surprisingly hawkish on the Iranian question. As he reiterated in his interview with the Atlantic last week, when he says that he intends to stop Iran acquiring a bomb, he means it. The dispute with Israel is chiefly over timing and when, exactly, Iran will be deemed to have crossed the red line: is the crucial moment when Tehran has the ability to make a nuclear weapon or when it has actually done so?
The danger is that this public negotiation unleashes a dynamic of its own. The more Netanyahu bangs the drum for war – Monday night, he compared the Iranian threat, once again, to the Nazis – the harder it becomes for him to back down. What kind of concession could Obama extract from Tehran that would be enough to placate Bibi? As Israelis put it, now that Netanyahu has climbed up the tree, how does he get down?
• Commenting will remain open on this article for 24 hours and may be switched off overnight
Follow Jonathan Freedland on Twitter @j_freedland
from Jonathan Freedland