February 23, 2012
Divided by common foe, Israel and U.S. tangle over Iran
(Page 2 - Previous Page)
Obama and his national security team have yet to determine how the United States would respond if Israel does attack Iran, one U.S. official said. But the growing chorus of warnings from Washington - Israel’s biggest source of military assistance - serves as a stark message of the potential fallout in relations between the two longtime allies.
The debate over the possibility of an Israeli strike has exposed an important difference of opinion over Iran, which says it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes.
“We are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor,” Dempsey said in the CNN interview. “And it’s for that reason, I think, that we think the current path we’re on is the most prudent path at this point.”
Netanyahu has made clear he believes that kind of thinking is wrong-headed.
“Since the dawn of the nuclear age, we have not had a fanatic regime that might put its zealotry above its self-interest,” he told The Atlantic in 2009. “People say that they’ll behave like any other nuclear power. Can you take the risk? Can you assume that?”
An Israeli strike ahead of the November 6 U.S. elections would put Obama in a serious political bind.
Already defending himself against Republican accusations that he has been too tough on Israel and not tough enough on Iran, he would be reluctant, at least initially, to come down hard on Netanyahu for fear of undercutting support among Jewish voters and other pro-Israel constituencies as he seeks re-election.
It’s that perceived window of opportunity for Israel to strike at a time when incumbent candidate Obama might be shy about challenging Netanyahu that has helped to fuel speculation of an Israeli attack soon.
But for Netanyahu to go ahead with an attack in defiance of Washington, he would risk not only damaging his country’s most crucial alliance but also face the near-certain prospect of Iranian retaliation with no immediate U.S. military help - or even a commitment to provide any.
More likely, Obama and Netanyahu will try to keep their differences behind closed doors and present a united front against Iran in next month’s talks.
Any further public rift between the two leaders, who will meet a day before the Super Tuesday voting contests in which 10 states hold presidential primaries or caucuses, would likely be seized upon by Republican candidates looking for ammunition against Obama.
And, for the second straight year, Netanyahu will be able to emerge from any White House chill into the warm embrace of the powerful pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), whose annual convention he will address in Washington.
But Israel, in weighing military action, faces the risk of a backlash from Congress and the American public if oil prices spike during a still-fragile economic recovery or if the United States is hit by revenge attacks on its interests around the world.
“It’s the law of unintended consequences,” said an outside expert who advises the White House on national security. “This could lead to the first real reassessment in a generation of how America and Americans feel about Israel.”