Trip to Israel put Obama on the spot

Could war be avoided if Israeli jets strike Iran?

By Dale R. Herspring

President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel was a success.  He handled himself well both with the Israelis and the Palestinians.  His language with regard to Iran was tough, but not belligerent.  He made all of the important stops during his visit to Israel and the West bank, with all of the solemnity called for in such visits.

The problem with raising expectations is that if they are not fulfilled, the disappointment — indeed, the letdown — can be devastating to one’s credibility. One could argue that the heart of diplomacy is credibility, especially if issues are of critical importance to one of the parties involved. 

Let us consider some of the positive aspects of Obama’s visit. He handled the “optics” very well. He said the right things at the right times.  Obama’s rhetorical gift was evident in his speech before Palestinian students. His delivery was masterful. He seemed to have this group of Palestinians in the palm of his hand; that’s quite an accomplishment given that our government’s reputation among Palestinians is not very good.

Obama also was superb during the obligatory visits to sacred sites in Israel. This is a key part of a high level visit in all countries: failing to visit such sites would be a slap in the host country’s face. Watching Obama at the monument for the Holocaust victims, I was impressed. He appeared deeply touched by the visit. These are the optics; what about the difficult issues?

Obama pulled off what I would call a diplomatic coup. Israel and Turkey, both U.S. allies, came close to breaking relations over the 2010 Israeli raid on a Turkish-led flotilla that had intended to dock in Gaza. Israel has blockaded the coast of Gaza to stop arms smuggling.  Up until Obama’s visit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had resisted U.S. pressure to apologize to Turkey. Yet with Obama sitting nearby, Netanyahu phoned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and admitted that the Israelis had made “operational mistakes” during the attack on the ships. The Israeli government subsequently said it would pay reparations to Turkey.  Furthermore, both sides are to expedite “the dispatch of ambassadors” and Turkey is canceling legal steps against Israeli Defense Force soldiers. Clearly, it was a step forward from the American perspective.   

The most important component of the trip was not what was said, but what was not said. A majority of Israelis have felt for months that the United States would let them down in a crisis.  The recent U.S. approval rating was only 10 percent among the Israeli populace.

Obama went out of his way to try to convince the Israelis that the United States is a stout ally of Israel with regard to Iran. At one point he spoke of each country having its own national interests — and seemed to imply that Washington would not mind if the Israelis were to attack sites in Iran where they believe nuclear weapons are being developed.  That could signal a major change on Washington’s part. Previously, all Obama had to say was, “Don’t attack Iran.”

Now, however, we are coming to a critical decision point.  While Tel Aviv and Washington disagree on how close Iran is to producing a nuclear weapons (a few months vs. a year), the point is that Israelis will have to decide whether to attack.

The problem for Obama — and the region, NATO and the United States — is that Iran has made clear that it will not stand by if attacked. Ayatollah Ali Khameni, Iran’s supreme leader, said an Israeli attack on Iran would result in Iranian forces “razing Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground.”

This raised the question of what Obama would do if Iran tries to destroy the two most important cities of our closest ally in the region. I believe it is unlikely that Iran would — or could — avoid U.S. forces, given our presence in the region.

Such a scenario would almost certainly lead to a major conflict in the area. I believe Obama when he says he wants diplomacy to work. So does everyone else in this country as well as in Israel.

I cannot believe that the Israelis will sit back and do nothing. From all appearances, Iran has no intention of giving up on its efforts to develop an atomic bomb. It sure looks like we are coming to a point where the rubber hits the road.  I wonder what Obama will do.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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