As a longtime observer of the American political scene, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fully understands the implications of demanding, a month and a half before an election, that an incumbent US president lay out his conditions for military action against Iran.
Netanyahu is eager to try to stop Iran’s nuclear program — by military force, if necessary. By intimating that President Obama isn’t sufficiently firm, Netanyahu can seek to embarrass him into assenting to a raid. And by making Obama look weak, Netanyahu also helps Republican challenger Mitt Romney — an old friend of Netanyahu’s who has vowed almost unquestioning support of Israel. Not surprisingly, a video clip of a speech by the Israeli prime minister figures prominently in ads that a pro-Romney super PAC is running in Florida.
In recent weeks, Netanyahu has called on the Obama administration to set a “red line” that Iran cannot cross without triggering a military response from the United States, Israel, or both. Under the circumstances, Netanyahu’s decision to go outside the usual channels to make his case in the American media is a bold act. American policy makers — especially Republicans, who are normally quite sensitive to potential infringements on US sovereignty — would surely reject similar interference from Canada, Britain, or other longtime allies. Especially on a matter as serious as the decision to use military force, the United States has to make its own decisions on its own terms.
The Israeli prime minister’s public lobbying for military action has one upside: It allows the United States and other nations to play a good-cop-bad-cop routine with Iran. Yet the potential for setting unnecessary trip-wires to military action is also great.
The United States has multiple roles to play; beyond maintaining a close relationship with Israel, it must act as an honest broker in the volatile Middle East. Washington’s ability to line up international support for measures to isolate Iran economically and diplomatically depends on a perception that the United States is acting independently, painstakingly calibrating its policies to promote regional stability.
It is far from clear that a US or Israeli raid would stop Iran’s nuclear efforts; it is more likely to hamper a bomb program temporarily, while rallying Iranian popular sentiment to the country’s theocratic regime. For that reason, Netanyahu’s hawkish stance is far from universally held in Israel. Indeed, in a recent session of Israel’s parliament, one member questioned whether Netanyahu was more eager to replace the current administration in Washington than the one in Tehran.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press” last weekend, Netanyahu seemed to pull back a bit, insisting he didn’t want to be drawn into the American election and distancing himself from Romney’s claim that Obama had “thrown Israel under the bus.” It is also noteworthy that Netanyahu himself has not laid out a “red line” for military action. On the NBC show, he relied instead on football metaphors; Iran, he said, is in the “red zone” — the last 20 yards before scoring a touchdown.
Netanyahu must accept that the United States needs the same flexibility he is reserving for himself. Leaders of both parties should let Netanyahu know, politely but firmly, that attempts to play on American domestic politics will serve neither the United States nor Israel well.