President Obama picked up the phone and called Prime Minister Netanyahu earlier today, which is a good thing, though presumably it was not the warmest conversation ever to take place between a president and a prime minister. (Yes, I do long for the days of Clinton and Rabin.) You can assume, though, that some air was cleared. This relationship is fraught and consequential, and also repetitive. These two men time and again find themselves stuck in the same rut.
It's understandable why the President is frustrated with Netanyahu -- after all, Obama has said repeatedly that he will not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, and he would like the prime minister of Israel, whose closest ally and protector is the United States, to believe him, and to stop suggesting he is about to launch an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities before the U.S. election. Netanyahu's public brushback pitch directed at the Administration (at Hillary Clinton, specifically) should have been done privately, if at all.
It is understandable, though, why Netanyahu feels anxiety about Obama; their relationship got off on the wrong foot over the Administration's public demand for a settlement freeze, and the lack of a follow-up plan when the demand went more or less unmet (the current mayor of Chicago, who was Obama's first chief of staff and the White House expert on Israel, didn't help by nursing a grudge against Netanyahu that dated back to the Clinton presidency).
And Netanyahu's specific anxiety is not unreasonable: The White House position is that the U.S. will keep Iran from possessing a nuclear bomb. It is fair to ask, as Bibi is asking: Does that mean you will let them have a warhead design, sufficient enriched uranium, and a missile system capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, so long as they don't actually finish building the device and then mating it to a delivery system? In other words, what if Iran is only technically non-nuclear? What if it would only take Iran a month to put together a nuclear bomb from the moment the decision is made? What will you do then? And how will you know, for sure, that they are doing it? American officials have promised Israel and the Arab states that their intelligence is good enough that they will know when Iran is approaching the nuclear threshold. But obviously the record of the American intelligence community is not without its flaws (the same holds true, of course, for Israel, and the Europeans.)
Yesterday, I spoke at a J Street conference in Washington (oh, yes I did) with Gen. Dan Halutz, the former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Just before our session, Halutz suggested something very smart to me -- it's fairly clear that President Obama is not going to be flying to the Middle East to hold Bibi's hand in the next eight weeks, but what he could do, later this week, is record a Rosh Hashanah message to the Israeli people in which he states, in addition to all the usual holiday wishes, that he stands with Israel -- that, in fact, he has Israel's back (he's said it before, so why not say it again?) and that Israel should be comforted to know that it has a resolute friend in the United States. He could refer directly to Iran, and its record of anti-Semitic invective, but tell the Israelis not to worry about the ravings of lunatics, because he stands against such lunacy.
I'm sure that Ben Rhodes and the other very smart people at the National Security Council could come up with language that would be both non-specific and broadly reassuring. It seems like this would be a good use of 10 minutes of the President's time. And this would allow him to speak directly to the Israeli people, whose pulse the prime minister regularly takes. If they feel reassured, well, he's going to take that into account before he makes any sudden moves.
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