Netanyahu and his advisers briefed a group of senators and senior congressmen during the past two weeks on the Iranian issue, and asked them to pressure Obama on the matter. Last week, Netanyahu met a group of five senior senators over lunch, headed by Sen. John McCain, who ran four years ago against Obama for president. Netanyahu reportedly told the senators he was not interfering in U.S. politics and expected U.S. officials not to interfere in Israeli politics either.
So Netanyahu gets McCain – the president's last electoral opponent – to make the following public statement:
"There should be no daylight between America and Israel in our assessment of the [Iranian] threat. Unfortunately there clearly is some."
And the "unfortunately" is clearly, in McCain's view, Obama's fault.
What to make of all this? I'd say, as I did earlier today, it's a further escalation of Netanyahu's attempt to use US domestic politics to back a war on Iran. First we get McCain et al on Israeli soil backing the Israeli prime minister against the US president and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Then we get the report that Israel is preparing to strike alone. Now we hear via Haaretz that Netanyahu is demanding that Obama threaten a US military strike if Iran does not back down on its secluded nuclear research, rather than repeat the "all options are on the table" diplo-speak. Could this confusing set of signals have something to do with this:
A new poll of Israeli public opinion found surprisingly low levels of support for a military strike against Iran — and especially if Israel has to go it alone. Just 19 percent of Israelis believe that Israel should strike Iran's nuclear facilities if it must do so without American support. A significantly higher number — 42 percent — support a military strike if Israel has American support. Thirty-four percent do not support a military strike at all.
So Israelis are deeply conflicted on this – something you won't find reported every day on the op-ed page of the Washington Post. That's why Netanyahu desperately needs US cover for an attack; and is furious he cannot simply push them around as he was once wont to do. Nonetheless, he has a united Republican front in Romney, Santorum and Gingrich, funded by Greater Israel fanatics like Sheldon Adelson, and in desperate need of a way to ignite the Christianist base. He will have a chunk of Democrats as well – and next week's AIPAC conference to beat the drums for war. He also has the potential to send oil to $7 a gallon by election day – and tip Europe and the world into both a new terror crisis and a deeper, longer recession. All of this is leverage to get Obama to do something of enormous risk to the Middle East, the West and the wider world, and launch a war that America, rather than Israel, would have to own.
That's the card Netanyahu will come to Washington to play against the president next week. It's not a weak one. But it's a brittle one, given Israeli public opinion, the huge potential costs and minimal security benefits.
One can only hope Obama has the cool to respond: "Remember Suez, prime minister. Remember Suez."
(Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks at his Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, as he tears up a handwritten note passed to him during the meeting, as he chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in his offices, February 26, 2012, in Jerusalem, Israel. Netanyahu is due to meet US President Barack Obama on March 5, 2012 and Iran's nuclear programme is due to be top of the agenda. By Jim Hollander – Pool/Getty Images)