Why Bibi Better Watch Himself

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Sept. 20 2012 7:10 PM

Wait, Who’s the Superpower Here?

Bibi Netanyahu should be careful about getting too mixed up with the U.S. election season.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a joint press conference in Jerusalem in September.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Photo by Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never worried much about what foreign dignitaries think of him. Barack Obama is certainly not the first American president to find him a tough customer. In 1996, Bill Clinton remarked privately after his first meeting with Bibi, "Who the fuck does he think he is? Who's the fucking superpower here?" Now, however, and at potentially great cost for Israel, he may be going too far.

The relationship between Obama and Netanyahu started out awkwardly; Israelis felt snubbed by the president’s failure to visit Israel during his tour of the Middle East in 2009. A fight over the expansion of settlements the next year and Netanyahu's unveiled attempt to enlist Congress against the administration's pressure on peace negotiations left little doubt that Netanyahu believed that Obama was too weak to impose his will.

Looming above all of this is the danger of a nuclear Iran. Despite protestations  by Iran and its apologists, there is no question that Iran sees the acquisition of nuclear weapons as a long-term goal and one for which it has worked, quietly and carefully, for more than a decade. A nuclear Iran would almost certainly add fuel to its ambitions as a regional power, destabilize the "cold war" with its neighbors, most notably Saudi Arabia, and risk a wider nuclear arms race in the Middle East.   

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Israel would be particularly threatened. Iran has run an on-again, off-again proxy war with Israel, particularly through its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon. A nuclear Iran would likely result in a more aggressive regional policy for Iran, while increasing immeasurably the cost of uncontrolled conflict. 

Up to this point, American and Israeli positions on Iran are aligned. But when it comes to what should be done about this threat, amicable cooperation has given way to backbiting and heated disagreements. On this question, the American and Israeli administrations are at loggerheads. 

If there was any question about which candidate Netanyahu wants to win in November, it was answered with the very public—and largely contrived—kerfuffle  over Obama's unwillingness to meet with Netanyahu later this month. Snub or no, Netanyahu chose to make it a public issue only three months before the U.S. presidential election. 

Netanyahu believes that Iran is a uniquely ideological state and is thus not subject to the usual rules of self-preservation that govern nuclear stand-offs. Yet, the assessment of Iran as uniquely dangerous requires difficult comparisons—is the regime more irrational than that of Stalin? Or of Kim Jong-il? Moreover, the Israeli leader gives too much credence to the "theological" character of the Islamic Republic. As Iran has proven time and again, ideology matters for the regime. But the regime's survival matters more.

The Obama administration understands that it needs to play the "long game" with Iran. It has done so through sanctions, through increasingly close cooperation with its allies, including Israel, and through reported cyberattacks aimed at slowing Iran's nuclear progress. 

But Obama has rejected Netanyahu's call for a "bright red line" with Iran with good reason. The current strategy is working and leaves the "military option" on the table. The American military is overstretched and exhausted.  A new "war of choice" is neither politically nor strategically sensible. And while the risks of a nuclear Iran are clear, so are the risks of war with Iran, including attacks on Saudi oilfields, destabilization of Lebanon and Iraq, and a closure of shipping through the Gulf. With both the American and European economies struggling to pull themselves out of a recession, such a war would be a fool's errand. Forcing a confrontation now would be stupid and rash, and the White House knows this.

Netanyahu is doing something that is doubly foolish for Israeli-American relations. He is asking America for something it will not do. And Netanyahu shouldn’t delude himself: For all of Mitt Romney’s tough talk on the campaign trail, he would continue Obama's policies on Iran, not overturn them. 

That Netanyahu is taking sides in an American presidential election is, from an Israeli standpoint, profoundly worrisome. (Political ads highlighting Bibi’s message on Iran have started to air in Florida; his critique of Obama’s position was too tantalizing for pro-Romney groups to pass up.) Politicizing what has been traditionally an alliance built on strategic and political consensus overturns more than six decades of Israeli foreign policy.

If Obama wins in November, Netanyahu had better hope that the president doesn't carry a grudge. But regardless of who sits in the White House—or what they say during campaign season—no  American president is going to allow Netanyahu to determine American foreign policy. This time, he really does need to remember who the superpower is.

Howard Eissenstat is assistant professor of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University.

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