When U.S. President Barack Obama enters his White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 5 -- angling to dissuade Israel from attacking Iran's nuclear facilities -- there will be one seemingly mundane issue on his mind that he may be too uncomfortable to share with his guest: gasoline prices.
There is no gainsaying the corrosive political impact that high gasoline prices have on an incumbent president's chances of getting reelected. With prices projected to hit a national average of $4.25 a gallon by Memorial Day, and with a new poll finding that seven in 10 Americans find the gas price issue "deeply important," the president should be concerned. The tension with Iran has already pushed crude prices to their highest level since the onset of the Arab Spring, adding at least 30 cents to a gallon of regular gasoline. Investors, concerned about potential escalation in the Persian Gulf, are likely to push oil prices even higher. Other factors -- a decline in the dollar, tensions and supply disruptions in oil-producing nations such as Nigeria and Sudan, stocks building up in refineries in preparation for the summer driving season, and a sense that the American economy is improving, to name a few -- have also contributed to the upswing.
No one recognizes the political implications of high fuel prices during an election year more than Obama himself. During the summer of 2008, when he ran against Sen. John McCain, oil prices stood at a historical high of $147 a barrel and gasoline prices surpassed $5 a gallon in some parts of the country. The Republican response -- for the most part "gas-tax holiday" and "drill-baby-drill" sloganeering -- demonstrated the incumbent party's helplessness in the face of an out-of-control oil firestorm. At the time, the crisis worked in Obama's favor. Today, it's the GOP's turn to smell blood. Obama knows this. The problem is that Netanyahu, one of the savviest foreign leaders when it comes to American politics, knows this too.
Israel, meanwhile, is running out of patience with diplomatic responses to Iran's nuclear program, and the momentum for Israeli airstrikes is growing by the day. The economic sanctions against Iran may be biting, but they're not crippling. Iran is moving full steam ahead with its uranium-enrichment activities, and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who also visited Washington this week, says that Iran will shortly reach a "zone of immunity" in which military intervention by the outside world may no longer be feasible. The recent string of apparent Iranian attacks against Israeli diplomats in Bangkok, New Delhi, and Tbilisi have strengthened the perception among Israelis that the regime in Tehran is a loose cannon, while the shameful display of cynicism and apathy at the U.N. Security Council by China and Russia in the face of Bashar al-Assad's atrocities have reminded the Israelis of how unreliable the international community can be when it comes to their national security.
Fed up with the vague official U.S. line that "all options are on the table" when it comes to Iran, Netanyahu is reportedly going to ask Obama to harden the rhetoric against Tehran and make some unequivocal statements about the United States preparing for a military strike in the event that Iran crosses certain red lines. If Obama refuses to oblige, it would expose clear daylight between the two leaders just as they share the same podium at next week's annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It would also expose Obama to harsh GOP accusations that he is weak on Iran. Acquiescence, on the other hand, would elevate the temperature in the global oil market, driving prices to a higher level and deepening Obama's gas price predicament.