Since entering office three years ago, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demonstrated that he was familiar with Colson Principle. The idea is named after President Nixon’s general counsel Charles (“Chuck”) Colson, who according to legend had a plaque in his office that would have made even Machiavelli blush with embarrassment: “If you got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.
Bibi has indeed turned up the pressure on President Obama during his meetings in Washington this week. With members of the Israel lobby and the Republican presidential candidates adding to the squeeze, Netanyahu has been operating a political remote control that could determine the outcome of the November election.
In a way, Netanyahu has delivered an ultimatum to Obama. The White House can either ratchet up its war rhetoric against Iran and insist on more unequivocal and precise nuclear “red lines” that Tehran must not be allowed to cross—with the United States using its military power to prevent the Islamic Republic from reaching even a nuclear capability—or Israel will have no choice but to launch a unilateral military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites.
Bibi has been squeezing Obama by proposing two options: green lighting a gradual but sustained American pull into a military confrontation with Tehran or yellow lighting an Israeli attack on Tehran. Either of these two options could result in devastating consequences for U.S. strategic and economic interests.
The Fallout in Washington
At a time when the United States is trying to get out of the military quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan and stabilize a weakened position in the Middle East, getting embroiled in a new and broader regional war is bound to ignite more anti-Americanism and play into the hands of radicals. And the expected rise in global energy prices would be a major blow to the weak European economies who depend on Persian Gulf oil supplies. A new war would also bring to a swift halt the fledgling American economic recovery.
In response to this concern, Netanyahu has embraced a Churchillian pose: he portrays himself as a courageous statesman who is standing up against a Nazi-like menace to the West, manning the trenches alone as he and his nation wait patiently for the Americans and the rest of the civilized world to join them in a global crusade against evil. In reality, Netanyahu’s main strategic goal is to secure continuing Israeli nuclear and military hegemony in the Middle East by preventing Iran from getting the bomb.
But despite Netanyahu’s rhetorical bombast and political pressure, Obama’s heart and mind are not following. He is not singing soprano. The bottom line is that Obama doesn’t see in Iran an “existential threat” to the United States of the kind that the Axis Powers posed in the early 1940s. The White House concluded that notwithstanding Bibi’s rhetoric, the current tough U.S. diplomatic approach vis-à-vis Iran is not a form of appeasement and responds to core American strategic interests, including the commitment to protect Israel. That is what is engraved on Obama’s heart and mind.
After a period of time in which the White House allowed the Iran War hawks to dominate the discourse in Washington and the media, Obama-administration aides and Pentagon officials have publicly rebutted the Israeli case for an attack on Iran. Indeed, one of Netanyahu’s major goals during his recent visit was to ensure that the Israel lobby, the Republican warriors and the neoconservative pundits persist in countering the White House’s spin. The Democratic president is being threatened: if he refuses to tow the Israeli line, he could suffer electoral retribution in November.
Tel Aviv’s Teleprompters
Playing into Obama’s hands has been the continuing debate inside Israel, including in its national-security establishment, over the cost-effectiveness of a military attack against Iran. Representing this more moderate point of view has been Israeli president Shimon Peres. Like Netanyahu, he met with Obama and addressed the AIPAC conference in Washington this week, trying to counter the Israeli PM’s statements with a more nuanced message that places more confidence in the wisdom and effectiveness of Obama’s approach.
Netanyahu is presidiing over a coalition of ultranationalist and ultraorthodox political parties and thus represents the views of the neoconservative and theocratic wings of the GOP, which seek to turn modern Israel into an armed Jewish ghetto, a crusader state that is engaged in a never-ending struggle against Islamic fascism and sharia law.
Obama, on the other hand, is not “anti-Israeli” but a proponent of a more enlightened and optimistic vision of Israel’s future. Obama’s vision is along the lines advocated by Peres and others. This view insists on the need to contain the security threats posed by Iran but also recognizes that the long-term “existential” threat to the Jewish state lies in losing its democratic and secular Zionist identity as Arab Muslims and ultra-Orthodox Jews become a demographic majority in the area that encompasses Israel and the Palestinian territories.
So would Obama follow in the footsteps of President Lyndon Johnson, who decided not to veto the Israeli preemptive attack on Egypt in 1967 and provide Israel with a blinking yellow light to attack Iran? Or would the response of the current White House recall that of President Dwight Eisenhower, who threatened to punish Israel as well as France and Britain when they rejected advice from Washington and launched an attack on Egypt in 1956?
Or perhaps if and when Israel decides to attack Iran, Obama could turn out to be more like Colson’s boss, President Richard Nixon. After providing Israel with enormous military and diplomatic assistance during the 1973 Middle East War, Nixon used the newly acquired leverage over Israel to force it to make major territorial concessions in the Sinai Peninsula and th Golan Heights. This was part of a U.S. strategy that eventually led to a renewal of diplomatic relations with Egypt and ultimately to an Israel-Egypt peace process. If he acted similarly, Obama would be in a position to squeeze Bibi—and ensure that the Israeli PM’s heart and mind would follow.
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).