September 6, 2012

Obama’s Israel Problem

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U.S.-Israeli relations are quickly becoming the President’s primary foreign and domestic political challenge in the run-up to the 2012 election.

On the domestic front, the Democratic National Convention’s platform committee removed a plank supporting Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on Tuesday, only to have it reinstated under political pressure. In addition to the flip-flop, Democratic Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz claimed Monday that Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren felt the GOP was dangerous to Israel — but was later refuted by Oren himself. These gaffes come on the heels of increased Republican criticism and growing tensions between Israel and Iran.

As the countdown to the November election begins, Israel’s window of opportunity to conduct an airstrike against Iran may be closing. Israel has long threatened to use military force against Iran’s nuclear facilities as a means of self-defense, but the Obama administration has been tepid in its support for Israeli preemption. Some military leaders have chimed in, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, who on Sunday commented that the United States would not necessarily be “complicit” with an Israeli offensive. Israel knows it needs American support if it hopes to conduct a full-scale attack on Iran and avoid serious consequences.

Israel, however, has some leverage over the Obama administration — at least for now. Given Israel’s standing as the unofficial “fifty-first” U.S. state, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understands that President Obama’s political aspirations are tied to his support for Israel.

Should Obama be re-elected this November, he will have ample power to reject Israel’s calls for military action against Iran. An Obama victory would not give Israel the military leeway that a Romney presidency may provide. In the meantime, however, an impending election means the President must offer concessions to Israel in order to preserve key voting constituencies.

Although the extent of Romney’s support of Netanyahu is not yet certain, the Romney campaign has unsurprisingly criticized Obama’s diplomatic efforts against Iran and has emphasized the fact that the President has not yet visited Israel during his time in office.

Tensions between the President and Benjamin Netanyahu have intensified, as Obama may have mismanaged what was perhaps his best opportunity for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. The Obama administration reportedly used much of its soft power to encourage Israel into making concessions to facilitate negotiations with Palestine, only to find the Palestinian government completely uncooperative.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has taken a harder line on U.S. diplomacy, perhaps to rally local political support, including publicly criticizing the President’s understanding of foreign policy. Although the Prime Minister’s conduct has reportedly infuriated the President, some argue that the President’s administration has been one of the most supportive toward Israel. The fact remains, however, that Prime Minister Netanyahu aspires to quickly halt all Iranian nuclear development with the possibility of aggression — something Obama is not yet comfortable with.

The Obama administration has decided to forego immediate military action against Iran. Now the ball is in Israel’s court, and Netanyahu must make a calculated decision. Israel understands that should they initiate an “October surprise,” the United States will be drawn into a new conflict and President Obama will likely be reelected. Due to Netanyahu’s presumed preference of a Romney presidency, a Romney advantage or tight polling in the weeks leading up to November will most likely not merit an airstrike. Should Obama build a significant pre-election advantage, however, the President will still face the political constraints of Israeli loyalty but, in this case, Israel will have less to lose by conducting an air strike. In short, if Israel chooses to attack Iran it will face four more years of Obama, but by waiting for a possible Romney presidency Israel risks forever losing the opportunity to strike a hostile enemy.

The intrigue of the American-Israeli dilemma hinges on the fact that tensions between the two allies will not subside until President Obama leaves office, whether in 2012 or 2016.  In the weeks leading up to the election and possibly thereafter, Obama’s presidency will begin to be defined by the actions of a small country halfway across the globe.

[UPDATE: President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are reportedly scheduling to meet after Yom Kippur in late September to discuss postponing any potential military action against Iran.]

Original Author: Chris Mills