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Delaying the Meeting Between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu Is Wise

by Dr. Michael Berenbaum

September 12, 2012 | 3:04 pm

As I write this blog it is unclear today whether President Obama has refused to meet with Prime Minister Netayahu when he visits New York later this month. A report in Ha’aretz said that Netanyahu had requested the meeting and the White House had turned him down because of scheduling conflicts – Obama will not be in New York the days of Netanyahu’s visit. The White House has denied that a meeting was requested. It may also be the case that the Israelis were informed weeks ago that the President was not meeting one-on-one with any leader in New York and that his campaign schedule would not permit a Washington meeting. –An hour long conversation between the President and the Prime Minister on Tuesday evening was intended to tone down rampant rumors of a split.

As to the substance: I believe that it is wise that the President and the Prime Minister not meet before the election. My reasoning presumes that Iran will not have a nuclear bomb developed between September 26 and November 6th and hence that the options available to the American President and the Israeli Prime Minister will not change between the date of their presumed meeting and election day.

After the US election, it will be clear who will be the next President of the United States and the President, whether Obama or Romney, will not be burdened or encouraged by electoral politics as he makes a momentous series of decisions: whether to back an Israel attack on Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons; whether to commence an American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities; whether to issue a clear and definitive red line in advance of such attacks; or whether to continue on the current course of strong sanctions and seemingly ineffective diplomacy without taking the option of an attack off the table.

Mr. Netanyahu clearly wanted to meet with the President during a time of electoral vulnerability as it strengthens his hand in getting the outcome he seeks. There are ample reasons for the Mr. Obama not to want to risk a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu who is clearly closer to the Republican opposition than he is to the President with whom he has differed publicly and privately over settlements, over negotiations with the Palestinians and over the pace and scope of actions against Iran.

Several times, Netanyahu has used his leverage with the Congress, most especially with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and the House Republican, and his ardent followers in AIPAC to pressure the President. And there is no reason not to suspect that he might want to do that again with the election on the line in less than seven weeks if he does not prevail. Obama is currently enjoying two to one support in the American Jewish Community and the only place where the Jewish vote may be decisive is in Florida.

Furthermore, after the November elections the tables are turned. Netanyahu is the candidate for reelection and the President – again whether Obama or Romney – does not have to face the electorate for at least four years, if ever. So the hand of the American President in strengthened. And one of the major responsibilities of any Israeli Prime Minister is managing his relationship with Washington and with the American people.

So one cannot blame Netanyahu for seeking to use his current leverage and one should not blame the President for tarrying a bit so that he has a strengthened hand to make the best decision in both US and Israeli interests, a decision that cannot be dismissed by his current political opponent or, if the operation goes awry by its critics, as political opportunism. One can imagine the scenario of the critics who spoke of the Iraq war as the US doing Israel’s bidding of the post Iran criticism when the US is actually doing Israeli bidding if such an attack were undertaken in the height of political battle.

Clearly, Israel is deeply divided over the question of attacking Iran, seriously divided even as no one doubts that a nuclear armed Iran poses an existential threat of Israel and even as Israelis and other concerned people are horrified by the genocidal rhetoric of the Iranian leaders. We do not know, but presumably the President and the Prime Minister do know, if Israel has the capacity to stop the Iranian program and/or to set it back for a significant period of time. And we must surely hope that the President and the Prime Minister know that Israel has the capacity to face the attacks that would surely follow – though both US and Israeli intelligence agencies have failed before on this very question. The war games scenarios must consider the instability of Egypt and Syria along with the rockets aimed at Israel from Lebanon and Gaza as well as potential attacks in the Persian Gulf region and throughout the world. As

Prime Minister, Netanyahu must make a case to his people and as a candidate for Prime Minister; he must make an even stronger case. Clearly the United States is deeply reluctant, properly so, to enter into yet another conflict in the Muslim world. The American military is dovish precisely because it is exhausted by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as its battles in Pakistan and potential actions in Syria. One does not take such actions precipitously and one should not make such monumental commitments as President of the United States under the potential appearance of political gamesmanship.

So if the report in Ha’artez is correct and - and Obama delayed meeting with the Prime Minister he was not unwise for this issue is too serious, too potentially explosive, for one not to proceed with caution and with wisdom.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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A blog by Dr. Michael Berenbaum.

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