Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert once told me that all Israeli prime ministers sleep with one eye open. Israel is a tiny country in a dangerous neighborhood. Worrying is a big part of the job description.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already expressed serious concern about wily Iranian mullahs bearing gifts. So when he sits down with Barack Obama on Monday at the White House, should he be worried that the president is planning to cut a deal with Iran at Israel’s expense?
Absolutely not. Either there will be a very good deal that will take care of both U.S. and Israeli concerns on the nuclear issue, or there will be no deal at all. And here’s why.
First of all, the president worked hard to reset his relationship with Netanyahu and Israel this past year, so he isn’t going to undo the progress he’s made without a compelling purpose. Tensions with Israel during his first term not only brought zero benefits on foreign policy, but actually became gratuitously harmful, gave Republicans a chance to hammer him, and raised concerns within his own party about his pro-Israel credentials. Given his domestic travails and the 2014 midterms, the last thing he wants or needs is a fight with Israel.
For another thing, in his recent address to the U.N. General Assembly, the president identified two key foreign policy priorities in his second term: Iran and the Palestinians. Israel sits at the nexus of both. Managing, let alone resolving, those issues requires close understandings with Israel. To put it more bluntly, if Obama is to have any hope of avoiding war with Iran on the nuclear issue, he will have to keep Israel close. And any chance that Secretary of State John Kerry may have to push the peace process forward depends on getting along with Netanyahu, not alienating him.
Then there is the fact that Hasan Rouhani isn’t Anwar Sadat. And Iran isn’t Egypt in 1977, suing for peace with Israel — or the United States for that matter. The mullahs aren’t going to charm anyone for very long, let alone transform public attitudes in Israel or America without significant and tangible deliverables. And that’s not going to happen quickly or easily given the withholding nature of the Supreme Leader, who may actually see benefits in keeping the U.S.-Iranian relationship in a kind of managed tensions.
Finally, Obama simply can’t afford to be played the fool by Tehran. It’s true Iran plays three-dimensional chess in its foreign policy while we seem to play checkers. But the alert level on the Iranian charm offensive is incredibly high, and Obama is likely to be cautious and risk averse when it comes to the nuclear issue. Besides, there’s no issue that unites Congress like its mistrust of Iran. The administration would be hammered for showing signs of weakness without tangible and compelling concessions from Tehran. And Obama himself has staked much of his personal credibility on stopping Iran from acquiring a weapon. He has a huge incentive to make a deal — but only if it can credibly accomplish that end.
Netanyahu does face significant challenges. But neither has much to do with Barack Obama. First, the Israeli prime minister confronts a tough and wily Iranian regime that’s close to crossing the nuclear threshold but is probing to see whether it can get sanctions relief without giving up all of its nuclear gains. It’s far from certain that despite the pain of sanctions, the Supreme Leader is in any hurry to drop the program’s military aspects without major concessions from the United States.
And then there’s Netanyahu himself — a man who can also be his own worst enemy when his suspicions and inflexibility get the better of him. Whether the Iranian charm offensive is a trap or an opportunity isn’t clear.
But, regardless, right now Israel needs a strong, confident, pragmatic hawk to deal with that dynamic — a leader who is suspicious of Iran’s opening, but who’s also open to a deal, to probing whether what Iran is selling is real, marketable, and profitable for both sides. Israel needs a leader who’s willing to trust and verify the motives of its close ally and then, if an agreement makes sense, to concede what he must. If — and it’s a galactic “if” — an agreement that ends the military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program with comprehensive inspections is to be reached in return for dismantling of sanctions and Iran’s right to enrich uranium for civilian use, everyone — the Iranians, the Americans, and the Israelis — will need to concede something significant.
The art of diplomacy is having the courage, wisdom, boldness and prudence to determine whether the price you have to pay is worth what you’re getting in return. It’s a weighty decision indeed, particularly when the alternatives seem to be an Iran with a bomb or bombs over Iran.
Aaron Miller, a Foreign Policy columnist, is vice president for new initiatives and a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His forthcoming book is titled “Can America Have Another Great President?”