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President Obama, Israel and Iran

Many of us continue to be apprehensive about what the Middle East policy of a reelected President Obama would look like. Though Mr. Obama continues to insist that U.S. support for the security of Israel is “unshakable,” his turnaround on pressing Israel on the 1967 lines and settlement growth, while welcome, was unnerving. Not only did it occur at the outset of the presidential campaign season, it was also uncommonly abrupt.

Further, to this day Mr. Obama has yet to endorse the notion that Israel should retain the major Jewish population centers in the West Bank and Jerusalem as did his predecessor, George W. Bush. To be sure, both presidents have spoken in terms of mutually agreed upon land “swaps,” but Mr. Bush also said the final borders had to reflect the new demographic realities on the ground.

And of course, at the very onset of his administration President Obama called for a U.S. Middle East policy that would be more accommodating of the Arab/Muslim world. Plainly, this could not come about without cost to Israel.

Yet, refreshingly, when the president speaks about Iran there seems to be no daylight between the U.S. and Israel. Both countries share an obvious concern for a nuclear-armed Iran. But the threats posed to the two countries are obviously very different. For Israel it is primarily existential and secondarily geopolitical. For the U.S. it is primarily geopolitical and ultimately manageable. So of course the U.S. may be willing to wait a little longer than Israel before resorting to military action. But how real is this difference?

In an interview on Sunday, President Obama spoke collegially about Israel’s decision-making autonomy. He went on to reiterate that the U.S. reserves, together with Israel, the option of military action against Iran to destroy its missile sites: “I will say that we have closer military and intelligence consultation between our two countries than we’ve ever had. We are going to be sure that we work in lockstep as we proceed to try to resolve this – hopefully diplomatically.”

It is also noteworthy that the president has just approved massive new sanctions against Iran’s banking system that have the ring of a last ditch effort to force Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program short of military action. Of course this may also be designed to persuade Israel, which believes sanctions are a waste of time, not to proceed with military action at this juncture.

In any event, Prime Minister Netanyahu has declared that concerns over a nuclear Iran trump the current confrontation with the Palestinians. And while no one can guarantee that President Obama won’t change his mind, for now he appears to be providing Israel the critical support it needs on this matter.

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