Foreign Policy Blogs

Obama v. Bibi

Obama v. Bibi

News reports are awash with an alleged “open feud” between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu over an Iran strike. Even though the United States repeated said that no options are off the table to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, the media–and even Israeli officials–are casting the Obama administration as refusing to give Netanyahu a stated “red line” for when a strike is appropriate. Netanyahu has publicly criticized the Obama administration stance, while Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barack–who previously vehemently backed an Iran strike–chastised the prime minister for such tough talk against Israel’s closest ally. Several factors are important to consider as to whether this crisis is real or manufactured, and what it means vis-a-vis Iran (not to mention the U.S. elections).

Netanyahu is very intelligent and knows the following:

1. Current polls suggest that President Obama will win a second term and that criticizing the administration does not bode well for the President’s re-election chances.

2. An Israeli strike on Iran before the election would force President Obama to order military assistance or else Governor Mitt Romney would sop up the pro-Israel vote, especially important for the key battleground state of Florida.

3. Not only that, but President Obama ordering a strike would further embolden his re-election chances as military conflicts often lead the electorate to stick with the current president.

4. If Obama is re-elected, this incident will not be forgotten–and administration officials have already leaked this sentiment to the press.

5. Congress is overwhelmingly pro-Israel and can force the issue on the administration.

6. After the elections, the next U.S. president will have more leverage to not assist in an Iran strike if they so choose.

7. There is internal Israeli politics at play, where a new election could be called at any time and some in the Israeli government are not as loyal as they once were.

Therefore, this crisis could be a result of several possibilities:

1. This feud is real and legitimate. Israel wants to attack Iran and has been prevented by the Obama administration. Through public criticism, Netanyahu is attempting to force the issue and strong arm the Obama administration into supporting a strike.

2. This feud is real and Netanyahu is pulling for Congress to step in. Because Congress is overwhelmingly pro-Israel, lawmakers could be the leverage for gaining U.S. support and aide for a strike on Iran. Congress could pass legislating mandating U.S. intervention and even have the votes to over-ride a presidential veto.

3. This is all coordinated. President Obama cannot launch an Iran strike for fear of alienating an anti-war base. So long as President Obama has demonstrated opposition to armed conflict and if Israel attacks unilaterally, the United States can assist in the conflict and state that there was no choice–“To our regret, Israel acted, a conflict has erupted, and we must seize this moment that was pushed upon us.”

4. This is Netanyahu trying to play god. Because of the potentially devastating consequences of this fiasco on President Obama’s re-election, Netanyahu might be getting revenge for the supposed Obama administration insults throughout the last four years. His intervention could represent an attempt to sway the election toward Governor Romney, who some consider as more pro-Israel than President Obama. This is a huge gamble as Obama is ahead in the polls, and Netanyahu would have sabotaged the next four years.

5. This is an internal Israeli political battle. Netanyahu and Barak were together the biggest proponents of an Iran strike. That’s all changed. Barak has now taken a much less aggressive stance on Iran and has slowly distanced himself from Netanyahu. Some speculation in Israel suggests that Barak is making a power play to overthrow the weakened Netanyahu (who lost a key part of his mega-coalition) by forcing elections and becoming central to a different, more left-wing, government. With the newly created daylight between Barak and Netanyahu, this manufactured crisis could represent jockeying by both men to change the heart of–not President Obama–the Israeli electorate.

While this crisis is still in development and Iran strike could feasibly occur before or after the U.S. elections and with or without U.S. support, the repercussions of the last 48 hours are sure to take center stage in the news cycle and the debates between President Obama and Governor Romney.





Ben Moscovitch

Ben Moscovitch is a Washington D.C.-based political reporter and has covered Congress, homeland security, and health care. He completed an intensive two-year Master's in Middle Eastern History program at Tel Aviv University, where he wrote his thesis on the roots of Palestinian democratic reforms. Ben graduated from Georgetown University with a BA in English Literature. He currently resides in Washington, D.C. Twitter follow: @benmoscovitch

Areas of Focus:
Middle East; Israel-Palestine; Politics


Great Decisions Discussion group