So, an Israeli strike is far from inevitable. But let's go a step further. A more granular appreciation of the Israeli scene may help identify points of influence to focus on if war opponents are to diminish the prospect of precipitous Israeli action.
First there is the role of Barak. The above political considerations do not apply to him. He is the antidote to Netanyahu's risk-aversion and, in this instance, strengthens all of Netanyahu's worse tendencies. Alongside Barak, Israel's three security agencies (the IDF, Mossad, and Shin Bet) have undergone changes at the top over the past year. The previous chiefs were (according to reports) outspoken in their opposition to a strike on Iran. The new chiefs are apparently less robust in asserting that position. Israel might consider that not acting in the current circumstances will lead to a sense of "crying wolf" and that Israeli threats down the line would begin to lose credibility. And to take military action now would be in keeping with Israel's response posture to date toward the Arab Spring -- a porcupine-like hunkering down and displaying of quills and, in this case, a reaffirmation of what Israel likes to call its power of deterrence.
Obama might opt for developing a strategy that confronts all this head-on. He should begin by focusing his political calculations and risk-avoidance instincts laser-like on March 5's guest -- Netanyahu. Even the most junior politician in Israel knows that Netanyahu is a character who can be pressured, especially when he is anyway uncertain, as in this instance. So, keep making the case for the downsides associated with military action, how dicey and perilous the consequences could be, especially in the context of regional turbulence. Drive that message home in the military-to-military dialogue (as seems to be happening), thereby strengthening the collective spines and anti-solo-strike predilections of Israel's new security chiefs, and pursue a carefully calibrated freezing out of the troublemaker Barak.
At the same time, work Netanyahu's coalition allies by encouraging all their pre-existing neuroses about where a strike might lead on other fronts, notably in the Palestinian arena. Given the intensity of traffic between Jerusalem and Washington, have those U.S. senior officials, especially the uniformed ones, briefing the other members of Israel's security cabinet and, if necessary, their rabbinical sages. Finally give maximum impetus to renewed nuclear talks, following Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili's recent letter to EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton. (Israel is already trying to sabotage renewed negotiations via enrichment-suspension preconditions.) If a diplomatic avenue is shown to have some traction, then this will be an additional factor complicating any immediate Israeli move to action. Ultimately, the U.S. narrative on Iran should shift gears more comprehensively by right-sizing the Iran threat, de-emphasizing the nuclear issue, and acknowledging Iran's diminished status post-Arab Spring -- but that is a project for after Nov. 6.
The other alternative is for the president to give the Israeli leader what he is apparently clamoring for -- a deeper U.S. commitment to act militarily if Iran crosses certain red lines. That might look like a win-win at first glance. Obama avoids the prospect of another war or cleaning up after an Israeli strike during this reelection season, gets Congress and Republican candidates off his back on Iran, and can even wrap his newfound belligerence in the claim that he has consistently promised that all options are on the table. Netanyahu, meanwhile, stays within his comfort zone -- no hard choices, no risks, and a smooth reelection, while driving U.S. policy further in his direction and claiming a win in Washington (again). Obama appears to have set off on this path in that new interview with Goldberg, emphasizing that U.S. policy on Iran "includes a military component," adding for good measure "I don't bluff."
If indeed Netanyahu is less keen on a strike than his posturing would have us believe, and if 2012 for Israel's leadership is in fact less about "zones of immunity" that Iranian facilities may acquire and more about "zones of impunity" that a U.S. election year confers on Israeli policy toward Iran, then perhaps this has been the Israeli intention all along: to checkmate the United States by locking it into a logic of confrontation down the road. Israel's position has, after all, been relatively clear in preferring a "stars and stripes" rather than a "blue and white" label on the military taming of Iran.
If Obama pursues such a formula and this helps avoid war in the tricky months ahead, it is not to be sneezed at. But at the same time, there is a very real downside to this approach. It carries the promise of greater problems and escalation ahead -- making a negotiated solution ultimately less likely, possibly provoking Iran, and placing Israel in the very unwise position of cheerleading America into a war.