Is Netanyahu planning an October surprise?

Washington Watch: Is partisan rhetoric is aimed at preventing nuclear Iran and how much at preventing Obama’s reelection?

Democratic National Convention 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Democratic National Convention 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As the Republicans and Democrats held their conventions and the presidential election moved into the home stretch, the rhetoric and pressure coming out of Israel for an attack on Iran intensified like the winds of Hurricane Isaac. It’s difficult to tell how much is aimed at keeping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and how much at preventing Barack Obama’s reelection.
It is highly unlikely that Iranian scientists will make their nuclear breakthrough by November 6, so why the urgency? Israel’s prime minister and defense minister seem anxious to go to war, and the sooner the better, a determination not shared by most of their own generals and spymasters, past and present, a majority of the public, the current and at least one former president of the country and even a sizeable portion of the inner cabinet. So what’s the rush? It may be that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sees a political window of opportunity closing over the next two months, one that serves multiple purposes for him.
He reportedly worries that the United States may not really want to take military action against Iran at this time so by Israel acting first, especially just before the election, Obama would have no choice but to give full backing to a war he may feel is premature and not in America’s national interest at this time.
An October surprise would also give Netanyahu and the Republicans a platform for saying his failure to solve the problem through diplomacy and economic pressure had “forced” Israel to attack.
Channel 10 News reported two weeks ago that Netanyahu “is determined to attack Iran before the US elections.”
A reelected Obama may not feel the same pressure to follow Israel’s lead, and a new Romney administration would need months to get organized before it could be ready, even if it was still willing to “respect” any Israeli unilateral decision, as candidate Romney’s campaign advisor, Dan Senor, has said it would.
The impact on Israel’s relations with the United States, regardless of who wins the White House, could be most damaging at the Pentagon and the intelligence community because Israel needs and relies so heavily on their friendship and cooperation, and they have consistently advised against any attack in the near future.
Obama understands that limited Israeli or American strikes are unlikely to stop Iran’s nuclear program and certain to ignite widespread retaliation, drawing this country into a broader conflict that would likely kill the current, fragile economic recovery, undercut a US military already depleted by two long wars and damage a range of other American interests.
On the political front, the anti-war Left in Obama’s party and others opposed to a new war might well desert him if he is seen as endorsing an Israeli attack.
Netanyahu has a well-deserved reputation for meddling in American politics and has had rocky relations with Democratic presidents during his two terms as prime minister. He has known Romney since their days in finance in Boston and they share a number of friends, advisors and financial backers. With such an overlap, it is not out of the question that the two camps are coordinating their strategy for maximum political impact.
Netanyahu sees Obama at his most vulnerable right now as he heads into a very close election in which Republicans, who are making support for Israel a partisan wedge issue.
The Israeli leader has said that until Iran sees a clear red line that will trigger an American attack it won’t halt its nuclear project.
As if in response, The New York Times reported this week that Obama is considering steps “short of war” that would “forestall and Israeli attack” while forcing the Iranians to quit stalling and begin taking negotiations seriously.
One Israeli paper reported an “angry and stressed” Netanyahu launched into a “tirade” with the American ambassador last monthly accusing Obama of not doing enough to stop Iran.
The Israeli media is almost in panic with reports such as that and another – since denied and debunked – that Obama has secretly sent word to the Iranians that the US will stand back if Israel decides to attack its nuclear facilities as long as Iran doesn’t hit American facilities in the region.
Reports that joint US-Israeli anti-missile exercises planned for next month have been scaled back were interpreted by some as an ominous sign of diminished American support. Both governments have denied that as well, saying the changes had no political significance, but that won’t slow the rumor mill.
Another stream of stories quoting unnamed “senior Israeli officials,” a term often used to describe Netanyahu’s inner circle, says a second-term Obama will “punish” Netanyahu for meddling in the US elections and “make Netanyahu pay for his behavior.”
It is hard to watch the debate in Israel and not come away with the impression that while the Iranian nuclear threat is the nation’s number one strategic concern, the urgency coming out of the top leadership is motivated in some part by a desire to exploit Obama’s political vulnerability by drawing the United States into a conflict the president feels it – and he – can ill afford.
©2012 Douglas M. Bloomfield. [email protected]