On Monday, Sept. 30, U.S. President Barack Obama will welcome Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House for the first time in 18 months. Much has changed in the intervening period -- both leaders have been re-elected, Obama has made his first visit as president to Israel, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been relaunched, and that rather pragmatic-sounding Hasan Rouhani chap has been elected president in Iran.
In what might be called an anti-"Asia pivot" speech, Obama announced to the U.N. General Assembly this week that the United States is engaged in the Middle East "for the long haul" and that "in the near term, America's diplomatic efforts will focus on two particular issues: Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons and the Arab-Israeli conflict."
That message will be viewed as a mixed bag in Jerusalem, which is keen for a greater American footprint in the region but is less enthusiastic about the idea of peacemaking with the Palestinians and deal-making with the Iranians taking top billing. For that reason, the upcoming White House meeting will likely find the two leaders back on familiar terrain, more focused on testing each other's underlying intentions than on working together as close allies.
The U.S. president is something of an open book, but Netanyahu's approach requires a little more interpretation and context. Too much of that analysis has been consistently wrong, and thankfully so. If prominent Netanyahu watchers had gotten it right, we would be marking the second or third anniversaries of Israeli bombing campaigns against Iran.
Netanyahu is indeed back in threatening mode. His latest rhetorical flourish is to quote Hillel's ancient maxim "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" -- an upgrade of his previous refrain regarding Israel's "right to defend itself by itself." That language is being widely interpreted by Israeli commentators as a reaffirmation of Israel's willingness to strike Iran alone if Netanyahu's red lines on Iran's nuclear program are deemed to have been crossed.
This debate has taken on a new urgency given the diplomatic opening seemingly created by the election of Rouhani. It is no secret that Netanyahu has been dragged out of his comfort zone by the possibility of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's aggressive and insulting behavior made him a convenient adversary for Israel; Rouhani and his diplomatic team, notably polished Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, present a challenge of a very different order of magnitude.
Under these new circumstances, the nagging question for Washington policymakers is whether Netanyahu's tough line on engaging the new Iranian reality is the wise approach of an understandably cautious and concerned Israeli leader, or whether this Israeli pushback is indicative of a more intransigent stance. The pushback has been nothing if not relentless: Netanyahu has called for an intensification of sanctions and military threats, has depicted Iran's new leader as a "wolf in sheep's clothing," and has heaped scorn on the Rosh Hashanah greetings sent to the Jewish world from Iranian leaders' Twitter accounts. The Israeli Embassy in Washington even crafted a fake LinkedIn account for Rouhani, which listed his skills as "weapons of mass destruction" and "illusion."
Sadly, the preponderance of evidence suggests that this is not just about Israel's leader driving a hard but realistic bargain. If Netanyahu's principal concern is really the nuclear file, he should be able to come to terms with the fact that a negotiated outcome offers the best long-term safeguard against Iran developing a nuclear weapon. The most that military strikes could achieve would be a short-term delay of Iran's ability to weaponize its nuclear program -- a decision that Iran has anyway not yet made, according to the consensus among Western intelligence agencies. A strike would also create a greater incentive for Iran to weaponize its nuclear program.
At the moment, however, Netanyahu is signaling that there is no realistic deal that would be acceptable to Israel. For instance, a consensus exists among experts and Western officials that Iran's right to enrich uranium -- in a limited manner and under international supervision -- for its civilian nuclear energy program will be a necessary part of any agreement. Netanyahu rejects this.