The Beneficial Netanyahu-Obama Partnership

One of the most useful alliances President Obama has created with a foreign leader is the one with a person he ostensibly doesn't like very much at all. Both Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu want to stop Iran from going nuclear (and yes, I'm among the people who believe Obama, for manifold reasons, some having to do with Israel, and many others not, is determined to keep Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold) and both have played key, and complementary, roles in the campaign. For Obama, Netanyahu's stalwart and straightforward argument that, for Israel, a nuclear Iran presents an Auschwitz-sized event, helps concentrate the minds of other leaders who may be less-than-willing to join the now-crippling sanctions regime imposed on Tehran by Washington. For Netanyahu, Obama's fear of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East means that he's willing to spend enormous political capital to wage economic war against Israel's main regional adversary.

There is another aspect to this relationship that has gone mainly unexplored: Whether or not Netanyahu has actually been bluffing the whole time. There are a couple of plausible reasons to think that he is: For one, he is not, as I point out in my Bloomberg View column this week, a trigger-happy prime minister. If Israel today were in the hands of one of his predecessors, we'd be watching a full-scale war going on in Gaza right now, on account of the many dozens of Islamic Jihad rockets fired at Israeli cities in the past three days. But Netanyahu is better than most prime ministers at staying his hand (and he is aided, of course, by the partially-American-funded Iron Dome anti-missile system, which is providing cover to Israeli civilians and which ameliorates, to some degree, the feelings of desperation among the million or so Israelis in rocket range).

Another reason to think that Netanyahu is bluffing is that he values the America-Israel relationship above all other of Israel's strategic assets (barring, perhaps, the one with origins in Dimona), and that he understands that he would risk rupturing that relationship by launching a unilateral strike.

For many reasons, I tend to doubt that Netanyahu is bluffing. For one, he'd have to be the best bluffer in the world (a bluffer of this magnitude would have made Sheldon Adelson a poor man a long time ago) to maintain this level of urgency on Iran over such a long period of time. I also think he's probably not bluffing because he is evidently quite sincere in speaking about the world-historical consequences of an Iranian bomb to the future of Israel and the Jewish people. But put it this way: If he has been bluffing the whole time (even in concert with good-cop Obama), it's been a bluff that has so far worked magnificently well.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.


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