Sunday, September 9, 2012

Will Israel Attack? It’s Up to Obama

Will Israel Attack? It’s Up to Obama

Jonathan S. Tobin

Speculation about whether Israel will decide to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities continues to build, but the latest report out of Jerusalem confirms that the answer to the question is still to be found in Washington. The Times of Israel reports that Israel’s Channel 10 has quoted sources close to Prime Minister Netanyahu that claim the chances of a strike on Iran are declining. What’s more, they say that if President Obama gives Netanyahu assurances that the United States has firm “red lines” that will trigger action against Iran, there will be no need for Israel to act on its own.

The two men are scheduled to meet later this month on September 27 while Netanyahu is in New York to address the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. But the question hanging over this meeting is whether the White House will interpret Netanyahu’s attitude as an opportunity to call his bluff or a challenge that requires the president to start taking the issue seriously.

What the Israelis want is clear enough. They need the United States to stop acting as if they can kick the can down the road indefinitely on this issue. The administration line that a policy of diplomacy and sanctions needs more time to work has no credibility. Iran has already made it clear for years that they have no intention of backing away from their nuclear goal. The sanctions that were belatedly adopted by President Obama are just as unlikely to bring Tehran to its knees even if they were rigidly enforced rather than being routinely flouted.

The latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency is eroding any lingering doubts about Iran’s intentions or the progress it has made toward realizing its dangerous ambition. But with the number of centrifuges being doubled and now stored in a possibly invulnerable underground facility, the Israelis are rightly worried that time is running out fast before it will be too late to stop Iran.

Unfortunately, the administration has spent most of this year worrying more about Israel acting on its own than about the fact that the Iranian peril may no longer be manageable. But the Israeli preference has always been to act in concert with the United States. The problem is their lack of trust in Obama. They know he has been dragged reluctantly toward confrontation with Iran every step of the way and rightly worry that he will refuse to act if he is re-elected.

Should Obama give a concrete, public promise that action will be taken, Israel’s concerns will be answered and the U.S.-Israel argument will be put to rest. However, if the president interprets this report as Netanyahu weakening his stand and fails to deliver the assurances that are needed, he will squander a chance to end this argument.

As his intervention in the Democrats’ platform fiasco showed, the president is aware that he has a problem with pro-Israel voters. But what is needed now from him is not the traditional boilerplate political rhetoric he has used in the past but a genuine vow to avert a danger to American security as well as an existential threat to Israel.