President Barack Obama on Monday asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give the sanctions against Iran more time to force it into submission, until it announces – as North Korea has just done, reportedly – that it would halt its nuclear plans in exchange for food. But Netanyahu gave no sign that he was taking a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities off the table.
It is a rare thing in such high level meetings that so much effort and energy would be spent only to produce a position that is an exact replica of both sides’ stand before the fuss.
Unless the fuss itself was the purpose of this high level meeting.
Take, for instance, the absence of heated disagreements, before or after the meeting. The same gulf that separated the two men yesterday was still there, but neither leader appeared particularly upset over what should have been a discussion of life and death for both of them. A nuclear Iran would surely be capable of delivering a stunning blow to Israel, God forbid, but it would also be able to seriously damage US interests, in the Middle East and elsewhere. Imagine the reaction of the Saudi Royal house to its loathsome Shi’ite neighbor, already an existential threat to the region’s oil producers, wielding a nuclear device. It is the stuff of American nightmares, too.
Unless the meeting today was not about Iran’s threat but about the stability of Netanyahu’s coalition government and Obama’s chances at the polls in November.
I spoke to an official of one of the right-wing factions in the Knesset who told me that all day long Leftist officials had been grabbing him by the collar and reading him the Democrats’ talking points: Obama protected Israel in the UN and in Durban; Obama is paying for Israel’s anti-missile project, and so on.
“I told them: can you imagine if he didn’t?” the official said. “How could he even think of getting re-elected if, say, the US didn’t reject the Goldstone report?”
In that vein, neither leader likes the other very much, and at least one has been caught saying as much in public. But today, more than ever, they need each other.
Both leaders have economic issues and social protests to deal with, and whether the answer is subjective, objective or politically prejudiced, both leaders stand a chance of failing the Ronald Reagan ultimate election question to the voter: Are you better off today than you were four years ago?
And so engaging Iran in an ongoing verbal duel would work well for both Obama and Netanyahu.
Strangely, the same duel appears to still be serving well their foe, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Mind you, this does not mean that the Iranian nuclear threat is not real. It only means that we who do not have access to secret intelligence (and I suspect even those who do) have no concrete idea about Iran’s progress in building a nuclear device, because Iran has been barring any and all inspection from those facilities. Ahmadinejad has played a brilliant game of Three Card Monte, and even seems to be having oodles of fun with it. Here you see it, here you don’t, we may have the bomb, we may not, who knows.
Obama sought to assure Netanyahu that the United States was keeping the military option against Iran open, and “has Israel’s back,” and at the same time urged Israel to wait patiently for the sanctions and, possibly, diplomacy, to do their job.
Netanyahu, for his part, concentrated on Israel’s undeniable right to defend itself against Iran, and reiterated that Israel sees Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to its existence.
The problem is, both leaders had held precisely the same positions before and after their meeting. So why meet?
Plausibly in order to meet. The show’s the thing.
Let’s face it, Israel is hesitant about striking Iran in the near future. It may not be able to do so overwhelmingly without the superior US air power. And the US cannot permit Iran to continue brandishing its nuclear swords, because it’s bad for business everywhere. Because it could end with a barrel of oil selling at $200, and this would surely mean a Mormon president in the White House come January.
There are only three directions this plot can go in the next six months, and all three are perfectly plausible:
Iran may capitulate under world pressure.
Israel may decide it can’t wait any longer and strike on its own.
The US and Israel may decide it’s time to take out Iran.
We knew all that on Sunday. We know nothing more today.
But consider this:
While no one in the West can say with certainty how real is Iran’s nuclear threat, they all appear to be ignoring a different threat which is frighteningly real and no one doubts that some day, God forbid, it would be in play.