Jones: Will Obama be successful in convincing Netanyahu not to strike Iran?

By: /
March 5, 2012

Netanyahu has a dilemma. Part of him would like to trip Obama up during the election campaign, when he knows that Obama can’t afford to stand by if Israel does move to strike Iran. But only 19% of the Israeli public support such a move. A vast majority of Israelis believe that a nuclear Iran poses an existential threat to Israel; but they are also deeply of the view that Israel’s survival in general is heavily dependent on strong security support from the United States. Alienating a US President on a move of massive strategic significance is a risky move for an Israeli President – to say the least.

So if Obama is firm with Netanyahu, both publicly and privately, it will constrain Netanyahu’s hand. To limit Netanyahu’s options, Obama has to signal firmly: I’m in the lead, I will judge when sanctions have/haven’t worked, and I will be willing to use force when that threshold is reached.

But as my colleague Martin Indyk has pointed out, this creates it’s own problems. It locks Obama into a spiral of ever-tighter sanctions on Iran, that leave Iran ever-less reason to contemplate meaningful negotiations. And no one has created a credible political opening for Tehran that could give life to a diplomatic off-ramp. So escalation dynamics prevail. Obama doesn’t want that to end in military action, and can probably turn off Israel for now – but unless there’s a decisive shift in strategy, Netanyahu may get his chance in the end.