Why Obama fears Israel
Election-year politics dictate White House Iranian policy
President Obama offered to give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu military assistance for a strike on Iran. The catch is, Israel must delay action until after the November election. That’s according to several major news outlets which ran reports based on unnamed sources from Monday’s White House meeting. Whether or not this report is accurate, it underscores the power dynamics behind the nascent crisis with the Islamic Republic.
The alleged U.S. military assistance would include bunker-buster bombs and aerial-refueling aircraft, which Israel would need for a successful military action against Iran’s well-protected nuclear infrastructure. While Mr. Netanyahu can trade his freedom of action for a White House pledge, there is no guarantee it would be fulfilled. Mr. Obama is trying to avoid election-season wild cards that could derail his march to a second term. If he secures re-election in November, the pressure to support Israel would be off and the promised aid need not be delivered.
Mr. Netanyahu has considerable leverage in the relationship, which was evident in the body language at his White House meeting. If Israel strikes Iran before the election, Mr. Obama will have a Hobson’s choice: Support the attack, or do nothing. If he does nothing, it would reinforce the perception that despite his tough talk, Mr. Obama is a weak leader when it comes to dealing with substantive crises. It would hand Republicans a winning issue, and the inevitable shocks to oil, financial markets and the economy would put Mr. Obama’s re-election in serious jeopardy.
A wounded Iran could lash out at the United States since Tehran would assume America was involved. U.S. interests abroad could be targeted, and there would be potential for a domestic terror attack. This would be the worst-case scenario for the Obama team because it could no longer claim Mr. Obama kept America safe by overseeing the takedown of Osama bin Laden. Obama political operatives would assert that criticism of the president after a domestic attack is a shameful attempt to profit politically from national tragedy, but the Republican challenger could rise above partisanship while super PACS and pundits pound the administration for its failure to defend the homeland.
There is a chance such a crisis could benefit Mr. Obama. President Carter’s Gallup approval rating was 32 percent in early November 1979 when Iranians took 52 U.S. embassy staffers hostage. The American public responded to this outrage by rallying to the commander in chief, and by the end of January 1980, Mr. Carter’s approval rating had soared to 58 percent. It soon sank again, but in the short run, international crises tend to advantage the incumbent.
Given these factors, Mr. Netanyahu’s best move is to demur at the purported U.S. offer of aid dependent on his pushing back the prospective timetable for action. The questions he should ask Mr. Obama are: Is this offer still valid if you lose in November? And can we get it in writing?