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Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as Israeli prime minister collapsed in 1999 in part because he had an unhappy relationship with President Bill Clinton. It is understandable then that Mr. Netanyahu’s current government had, until last week, strived to stay close to President Barack Obama.
That strategy would have been entirely sensible if Mr. Obama were simply another president in the long line since Franklin Roosevelt who vigorously asserted U.S. national interests, championed our friends (especially beleaguered ones), and kept alliances strong. But Mr. Obama is different. He is our first post-American president. He looks beyond American exceptionalism and believes that our role on the world stage should be merely one nation among many. Mr. Netanyahu’s strategy is therefore out-of-date and flawed.
Israel has sought to accommodate Mr. Obama on two critical issues: negotiations with Palestinians and Iranian nuclear weapons. These efforts have largely kept bilateral disagreements out of sight. But now the suppressed conflicts are fully visible and will either be resolved or cause a serious collision between Israel and the U.S.
On the Palestinian front, Mr. Netanyahu’s government has tolerated 14 months of feckless administration diplomacy that has not altered geopolitical realities between Israel and the Palestinians.
Last week’s announcement of the construction of new settlements in East Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting Israel was an unnecessary step. But optics are not the real problem. Mr. Biden’s response (“I condemn the decision”), approved in advance by Mr. Obama, and then emphasized by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a blistering Friday phone call to Mr. Netanyahu, foreshadows what lies ahead. It won’t be pretty.
Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts to avoid open disputes with Washington have not won him White House plaudits. Mr. Obama almost certainly believes the real obstacle to peace is not new housing or unfortunate timing but so-called Israeli intransigence.
On Iran, Mr. Netanyahu has faithfully supported Mr. Obama’s diplomacy, hoping to build credibility with the president against the day when Israel might have to strike Iran’s weapons program pre-emptively. Jerusalem, for example, currently backs U.S. efforts to increase sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, doomed to failure though they are. As time passes, Israel’s military option grows more difficult and the chances for success shrink as Iran seeks new air-defense systems and further buries and hardens nuclear facilities.
Mr. Netanyahu’s mistake has been to assume that Mr. Obama basically agrees that we must prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But the White House likely believes that a nuclear Iran, though undesirable, can be contained and will therefore not support using military force to thwart Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
What’s more, Mr. Obama is also unwilling to let anyone else, namely Israel, act instead. That means that if Israel bombs Iranian nuclear facilities, the president will likely withhold critical replenishments of destroyed Israeli aircraft and other weapons systems.
We are moving inexorably toward, and perhaps have now reached, an Israeli crisis with Mr. Obama. Americans must realize that allowing Iran to obtain nuclear weapons is empowering an existential threat to the Israeli state, to Arab governments in the region that are friendly to the U.S., and to long-term global peace and security.
Mr. Netanyahu must realize he has not been banking good behavior credits with Mr. Obama but simply postponing an inevitable confrontation. The prime minister should recalibrate his approach, and soon. Israel’s deference on Palestinian issues will not help it with Mr. Obama after a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear program. It would be a mistake to think that further delays in such a strike will materially change the toxic political response Israel can expect from the White House. Israel’s support will come from Congress and the American people, as opinion polls show, not from the president.
Mr. Obama is not merely heedless of America’s predominant global position. He is also embarrassed enough by it not to regret diminishing it. In fact, we have achieved pre-eminence not simply to preen our American ego, but to defend our interests and those of like-minded allies. Ceding America’s role in world affairs is not an act of becoming modesty but a dangerous signal of weakness to friends and adversaries alike. Israel may be the first ally to feel the pain.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.
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