Editor's Notes: Thinking the unthinkable

Is President Bush prepared to defy conventional wisdom about lame-duck presidents sitting with their arms folded in their final months?

In the baking heat outside the Washington, DC, Convention Center on Tuesday afternoon, a single, bearded protester stood on the pavement holding a single, homemade placard proclaiming that a president Barack Obama would be "bad for Israel, bad for America." Inside the center's vast main hall the next day, some 7,000 participants in the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC, gave the would-be president himself every reason to believe that they did not share this bleak assessment. A year ago, at this same event, when Obama was only one of half a dozen presidential candidates who held receptions late one night designed to persuade these leading American Jewish activists of their pro-Israel credentials, several of AIPAC's leading lights demonstrably attended Obama's gathering and stood applauding warmly when he addressed an overcrowded room; some of them had even had their names printed as Obama supporters on his reception invitations. Since then, of course, Obama the largely unfamiliar force for change has also become Obama the Jeremiah Wright congregant, Obama the candidate with the problematic Middle East advisers and Obama the innocent abroad who hopes to talk President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad out of pursuing the nuclear bomb. But on Wednesday before the AIPAC full house, the senator from Illinois plainly set out to silence the critics and assuage the doubters. In what had coincidentally turned out to be his first major address since effectively securing the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama presented himself as a lifelong friend of Israel who would preserve the "unbreakable" bond between the US and the Jewish state. He was the candidate whose great-uncle had liberated the Ohrdruf concentration camp, who had been seared by his visit to Yad Vashem and who, to insure that the words "never again" kept their meaning, would "never compromise when it comes to Israel's security." In his meticulously crafted speech, Obama was also the candidate who would isolate Hamas unless it accepted Israel and abandoned terrorism, and who would push for a two-state solution under which Jerusalem would remain Israel's "undivided" capital and Israel's identity as a Jewish state would be paramount - in other words, with no place for a Palestinian refugee "right of return." Most importantly of all, he was the candidate who would seek to "eliminate" the "grave" and "real" threat posed to Israel by Iran. "I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," he vowed, repeating that word "everything" as the applause swelled. Obama did not entirely back away from his readiness to sit down with Ahmadinejad, but stressed that he would not do so "just for the sake of talking." Rather, he would "lead tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leader at a time and place of my choosing - if, and only if, it can advance the interests of the United States." And the audience, those assembled thousands of American Jews for whom Israel's well-being is paramount, rose time and again to applaud him and endorse the thrust of his remarks, giving him a more sustained and enthusiastic reception than it had afforded his Republican opponent John McCain the day before. DESPITE A series of dubiously sourced reports asserting that official Israel is dismayed by the prospect of an Obama presidency, the fact is that official Israel has no formal position and that there are innumerable views in the Israeli upper echelons on the likely impact of his ascent to the leadership of the free world. There are those who privately express profound concern that a president Obama would make a concerted, personally engaged effort at Israel-Palestinian peacemaking that would cause more harm than good, and then blame Israel for its failure, and that his naiveté on Iran would give the regime enough time to complete its bomb program. Others, though, believe that Obama might oversee a more sophisticated approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the current administration's intense effort to secure a thoroughly unimplementable "shelf agreement," and that his willingness to employ face-to-face diplomacy with Iran is a necessary precondition for galvanizing domestic and international support for an ultimate resort to military action when diplomacy fails. Among the doubters, the idea has been floated of Israel somehow seeking to encourage Jewish voters in electoral battleground states such as Florida to resist Obama's compelling rhetoric and be sure to plump for McCain on polling day. Some of those around McCain, too, are said to have discussed with their Israeli political allies the ostensible need to make America's swing state Jewish voters aware of how important it is for Israel that their man is triumphant. Any such meddling, however, seems both dangerously irresponsible and, especially given the significance that Obama attaches to the Jewish vote and the sensitivity with which he is wooing it, highly unlikely to succeed. THOUGH THE question of what president Obama might do is compelling, a more urgent question, in the months before the current administration gives way to its successor, is the degree to which President George W. Bush considers Israeli and American security would be safe in Obama's hands. By extension, this raises the issue of whether Bush will feel obligated to act in these last months against Iran. The notion of the outgoing administration employing military force against Teheran as its final, devastating act is, of course, unthinkable. It would shatter the norm under which an administration that is winding down moves into a holding pattern so as not to saddle its successor with the repercussions of dramatic, eleventh-hour activities. Furthermore, last year's National Intelligence Estimate, however poorly drafted and however subsequently "recalibrated" by National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell, essentially deprived Bush of any legitimacy for action by so downplaying the nature of the Iranian threat. And American public support, desperate for resolution in Iraq, is utterly resistant to the idea of the curtain going up on yet another theater of war. Thus the conventional wisdom, in both Washington and Jerusalem, is that the problem of the ayatollahs and the atom will be left for the attentions of president McCain or president Obama. And yet the unthinkable is being thought. Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, the fact is that shortly before Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Bush on Wednesday, "sources close to the prime minister" were being quoted as saying that Olmert would urge the president to prepare to attack Iran in the next few months if concerted international pressure fails to deter the ayatollahs. In his address to AIPAC on Tuesday, Olmert spoke dramatically of the imperative to stop Iran "by all possible means" and said the US and Israel were "working closely in a concerted, coordinated effort to prevent Iran from becoming nuclear." And briefing Israeli reporters after his White House talks, Olmert said he now had far fewer questions regarding the determination of the administration to confront the Iranian threat, the time-frame for such action, and the ways and means by which it would be pursued. Even as Olmert was heading home from Washington, intelligence chief McConnell was holding talks in Israel - and being told by everyone from Defense Minister Ehud Barak on down not only that Israel regards the NIE as having been downright wrong in asserting that Iran froze its nuclear weapons program in 2003, but also why. Israel, in other words, is making plain to its American allies just how acute and urgent is the need for action, and also providing the hard evidence to underline that assessment. As Olmert also told AIPAC, "Israel will not tolerate the possibility of a nuclear Iran." And military chiefs have made plain in recent months that Israel is capable of doing "whatever is necessary" to protect itself, and preparing for "every eventuality." But while Israel may have a military option for Iran, it is a highly complex one. Iran's nuclear sites are numerous, well-defended and a very long way away. For the United States, given its military bases in the region, the task would be far more straightforward. Israel would expect to feel the consequences - in the shape of conventional or even chemical missile attack by Iran. Our missile defenses would be at least partially effective, but there could still be dozens or even hundreds of fatalities. Yet the firm consensus here is that paying a grave price today is preferable to a terrible price should Teheran get the bomb and, directly or via a third party, use it toward its declared aim of eliminating Israel. IN THE final months of his presidency, it may be that Bush confines himself to ensuring that he gives Israel the best chance of successfully neutralizing the Iranian threat should it need to act once he has left the White House. This would involve, for instance, guaranteeing that Israel is able to purchase F-22 stealth bombers - the world's most advanced fighter jet and a vital asset in the face of Iran's advanced radar and other defense systems. Or it may be that Bush, who constantly stresses the moral imperatives that have guided his presidency and his own indifference to outside criticisms of the paths he has followed and the actions he has taken, is prepared to defy conventional wisdom about lame-duck presidents sitting with their arms folded in their final months. He has always had his own misgivings about the NIE, and will have noted that the International Atomic Energy Agency is now expressing profound concern about the military aspects of Iran's purportedly peaceful nuclear program. Media outlets as diverse as Time magazine, the Asia Times and Israel's Army Radio have all carried reports in the last couple of weeks related to a supposed readiness on the part of the Bush administration to launch military action against Iran's nuclear sites in the coming months. Late last month, when The Jerusalem Post's Web site picked up the Army Radio report, which claimed a senior official in Bush's entourage on the recent Israel visit had told his Israeli counterparts about the president's intention to hit Iran, the White House issued a furious denial that amateurishly misidentified the source of the article as the "Army Times," prompting other reporters in Washington to wonder whether the administration doth protest too much. Coming back full circle to Obama, there is some speculation in Israeli circles that the key consideration for Bush will be the identity of his successor - that he would be much more sanguine turning over the Iran file, unresolved, to president McCain rather than to president Obama. The president has himself been known to express vague concerns regarding the way subsequent US governments might deal with the Middle East. But such an assessment would suggest only the briefest window of opportunity for American military action - in the two months between the presidential elections in November and a new administration taking office in January. The idea of the departing Bush administration taking aim at Iran at that late hour - that surely is unthinkable? Isn't it?