What Netanyahu Doesn't Understand About Obama

The Israeli Prime Minister might want Mitt Romney to win the presidential race, but he doesn't seem to believe that will happen.

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Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu shakes meets U.S. Republican presidential candidate Romney in Jerusalem/

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, did not publicly (if indirectly) criticize the Obama Administration because he is trying to tip the election to Mitt Romney. He criticized the Obama Administration because he believes the President won't actually stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon.

Does he want Romney to win? Yes, probably. He's never stated this plainly, but such a desire tracks with his behavior, disposition and ideology. Does he believe Romney has a chance of winning? No. From what I understand, he apparently believes Romney doesn't have much of a chance of winning.

So why risk alienating the man who he believes will probably be president until January of 2017? Because Netanyahu genuinely believes that Obama, at the crucial moment (whether it is this year, next year or the year after), will flinch and allow Iran to cross the nuclear threshold. This is why he is pestering the President for red lines. I'll get into the red line discussion later, but the nub of the issue now is Netanyahu's view of Obama.

Netanyahu doesn't appear to understand three aspects of Obama's position on Iran:

1) Obama is committed, and has been committed, long before he became president, to a vision of a nuclear-free world. He is a militantly opposed to proliferation. He believes that if Iran were to go nuclear, the world's most volatile region would quickly become the scene of a nuclear arms race. He has said many times that this is completely unacceptable to him.

2) Obama has stated clearly, and repeatedly, that a nuclear Iran would represent a "profound" national security threat to the United States. Nothing in his behavior suggests he does not actually believe this to be true. He understands that competent presidents do not go about identifying profound national security threats and then ignoring them.

3) Obama understands that his presidency will be judged a failure if Iran goes nuclear. He has gone on record many times promising the American people, and the world, that Iran will not get a bomb. If Iran succeeds, he will have failed, catastrophically. His legacy will be shattered, his credibility will be destroyed, and he will bequeath to his party a reputation for weakness and fecklessness that will not be shed for a generation. For these reasons alone, Obama knows he cannot let Iran go nuclear.

Is Netanyahu insane to be worried? Of course not. (He might be insane to risk alienating the affection of America and its president, but he's not insane to worry about failure on the nuclear file.) Obama could still try his hardest, and Iran might out-fox him. The U.S., as Netanyahu and his allies have pointed out, did not want Pakistan and North Korea to go nuclear,  and they did. But Netanyahu has to ask himself: Who has the better chance of stopping the nuclear program? The U.S., or Israel? He knows the answer. This is a job that is to big for Israel to carry-out alone. He needs America, and he needs the man he fears will be president again.


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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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