Obama: “We’ve Got Israel’s Back”


Jeffrey Goldberg has an exclusive interview with the president on the topic. The first thing to say is that Obama's mastery of the detail and strategy, and his ability to relay it with nuance and conviction, remains gob-smackingly impressive. Compared with the crass, apocalyptic, binary rhetoric from the GOP candidates right now, it's another reminder of how impressive the current commander-in-chief is. And no, he had no TelePrompter.

And the message Obama is sending is well delivered via Jeffrey. Very few journalists want this issue resolved to America's and Israel's advantage more than Goldblog. You can see the strain in his prose as these two countries' core interests have seemed to collide (in fact, have collided). And so Obama tells Jeffrey exactly what he wants to hear and exactly what Obama wants the Israelis to hear: that he has always been a staunch defender of Israel, has delivered on every promise and more, has orchestrated the most successful isolation of Iran since 1979, and delivered the most punishing sanctions in history. There is also no mention of the Palestinian question in the interview, which itself is revealing. Netanyahu has won on that question – until an Obama second term (which is why he and his neocon allies are doing all they can to defeat Obama this fall).

But there's no question, it seems to me, that Obama, through this interview, has pre-empted Netanyahu's reported demand that the president intensify his rhetoric to include an iron-clad commitment to US military action against Iran if sanctions fail. He unpacks the "all options are on the table" diplo-speak thus:

It means a political component that involves isolating Iran; it means an economic component that involves unprecedented and crippling sanctions; it means a diplomatic component in which we have been able to strengthen the coalition that presents Iran with various options through the P-5 plus 1 and ensures that the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] is robust in evaluating Iran's military program; and it includes a military component. And I think people understand that. I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff.

My italics. I think that is about as explicit as he can possibly be. More to the point, Obama has ruled out containment of Iran, the position I take, and never raises the issue of Israel's nuclear weaponry. What more could AIPAC want? What they lack is trust. And here's where I think Obama gives a reason for trust. He believes that a nuclear Iran would destroy nuclear non-proliferation in the Middle East, which, in his eyes, is a core threat to US interests:

If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, this would run completely contrary to my policies of nonproliferation. The risks of an Iranian nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorist organizations are profound. It is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons. So now you have the prospect of a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world, one that is rife with unstable governments and sectarian tensions. And it would also provide Iran the additional capability to sponsor and protect its proxies in carrying out terrorist attacks, because they are less fearful of retaliation … [Even taking Israel out of the equation], it would … be a profound national-security interest of the United States to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

So what Obama is clearly saying to the Israelis is: I've got this. Now he needs them to believe this for the policy to work. And by framing this in terms of his liberal and long-held position on nuclear non-proliferation, he makes it, to my ears, much more credible. For what it's worth, I see no reason to disbelieve him. He's never said anything else, and it's where his liberal realist instincts lie. For my part, I think containment is a perfectly feasible strategy – and the sanest one – but I am not Obama. I would never call the alliance with Israel "sacrosanct." No alliance, in my view, should ever be "sacrosanct" or "unbreakable". But Obama is comfortable with the permanent, even sacred, fusion of the US and Israel. Nothing in his career from Hyde Park on has ever suggested otherwise. That he disagrees with the policy of continuing to expand Greater Israel through settlements is no contradiction to this. In his eyes, such settlements are dooming Israel, imperiling its most important diplomatic relationship, and empowering its enemies.

So you see the long game here as well. He maximizes non-military pressure on Iran, holds Israel at bay from unilateral action, and then promises to follow through in a second term by military strike if necessary. There's a chance that the chaos in Syria, the crippling nature of the European-US sanctions, and regime fragility and division in Tehran could lead to a win-win: an Iranian nuclear energy program subject to full and constant international inspection. Why rule that out now prematurely? Why isolate Israel and make Iran a victim and unleash a global terror wave if we can avoid it and still retain a US capacity and pledge to destroy Tehran's alleged nuclear weapons program if necessary?

Obama has essentially committed the US to war as a last resort to stop nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. He's said it before. But it's clear he means it. It's not a trap for Israel. It's a core public pledge in terms of a profound national-security interest. Obama went to war in Libya where no such interest was involved. So why would you disbelieve this pledge when he says it is? Netanyahu has all the assurance he could possibly ask for – and one suspects that most Israelis will be persuaded by Obama's clear language. A unilateral Israeli war with Iran against these pledges from the US would not just isolate Israel in the world; it would isolate Netanyahu in Israel. Meep meep again.

Under these circumstances, all I can say is that I hope the sanctions work – and that Obama proves me wrong (again). But I have found myself to be less bellicose in this first term than the president himself – vis-a-vis Afghanistan, Libya and Iran. Obama's defense of just war in his Nobel speech was not insincere. Ask Bin Laden. Or Qaddafi. Or al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The man likes being commander-in-chief and killing this country's enemies.

But will Bibi bite? That is the question. The answer? Next week.

(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty.)