Netanyahu is a deeply ideological leader with an unshakeable belief in a Greater Israel and regional hegemony. If this reading of him is accurate, it bodes ill for Israel's reaction to the nascent diplomacy between the United States and Iran. In the coming weeks and months, Netanyahu will likely dedicate himself to derailing any prospect for a diplomatic breakthrough.
In that mission he is, of course, not alone. He will be joined by American hawks and neoconservatives, Republicans who will oppose Obama on anything, and some Democrats with a more Israel-centric bent. Their efforts will be concentrated on escalating threats against Iran, increasing sanctions, and raising the bar to an impossibly high place on the terms of a nuclear deal. All this will serve -- intentionally, one has to assume -- to strengthen hard-liners in Tehran who are equally opposed to a deal.
Of course, the Iranian forces ranged against Rouhani's pragmatism do not need encouragement from Washington. But absent encouragement, they are not in the ascendancy -- and crucially, Rouhani appears to have the backing of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for his diplomatic outreach. Currently, the difference among the three capitals -- Washington, Tehran, and Jerusalem -- is that only in Jerusalem does a representative of the hard-line faction, rather than the pragmatic camp, hold the most senior political office.
If diplomacy survives this initial onslaught and the contours of a deal take shape, Netanyahu will face the choice that he has most wanted to avoid throughout his years in office: to acquiesce to a Western rapprochement with Iran or to stand alone in diplomatic and, presumably, military defiance. The ideologue in Netanyahu will counsel defiance, while the risk-averse politician in him will recommend a climb-down.
If Netanyahu wants a way out from bombing Iran, he could simply declare victory. It would be an easy speech to write: Bibi would declare that it was only Israeli pressure for sanctions and a credible military threat that created the conditions for a nuclear deal with Iran. Even if Netanyahu is wrong on the details regarding sanctions and threats -- they have often hindered, not advanced, progress toward a deal -- the desired result will have been achieved.
Netanyahu is not under Israeli public pressure to strike militarily or reject a deal. His security establishment is divided but wary of going solo, and even his cabinet is split on the issue. And this is why Monday's White House meeting matters so much: While Obama retreated on the Palestinian issue when Netanyahu stared him down -- first on settlements and then on the issue of using the 1967 borders as the basis for a deal -- on Iran they have so far deferred their disagreements. But that option may be reaching its expiration date. The Iran issue is now more urgent, and if progress is to be made on either of the priorities Obama highlighted at the United Nations -- Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peace -- the president will need to become defter at outmaneuvering his Israeli guest.
Netanyahu's calculations and his actions will be affected by clear signals from Washington, Europe, and elsewhere to stop undermining diplomacy, and making the case for the unrivaled benefits of a deal with Iran. After decades spent boxing in Tehran, the interests of global and regional security -- and even of Israel itself -- may now require a short, sharp burst of boxing in Bibi.