Playing With Red Lines Can Is Becoming Very Dangerous

Playing With Red Lines Can Is Becoming Very Dangerous

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.


Netanyahu and Obama appear to be locked in an outrageous confrontation over who is or is not sincere about who is more honest with the other with respect to their country’s policy toward Iran. Leaving aside, for the purpose of this discussion, the actual threat currently posed by Iran—and I continue to believe that at this moment there is a far more immediate threat from the CBW in Syria than from nukes from Iran—why are the U.S. and Israel continuing to argue over the drawing of red lines.  Israel wants red lines articulated to Iran and the U.S. believes that defining the red lines will only elevate the hostility level and accomplish nothing. There is little disagreement that at the end of the day both countries need to make their actual decisions according to what is in their own national interest. As long as Israel and the U.S. understand each other, they appear to be addressing either the rest of the world, Iran, or the American electorate—specifically American Jews.

So why does there appear to be a screaming match between the U.S. and Israel over red lines, which today produced a White House announcement that due to the President’s swamped schedule there will not be a private meeting with Netanyahu during the two and half days he in the States.  In other words all of these personal attacks and demands coming from Jerusalem finally blew the lid off of Obama’s patience with Bibi—personally.

As far as Iran is concerned, for Bibi, there are un-discussed but evident non-strategic issues that have entered the Iran debate. Israel needs to have a comfort level with U.S. policy; but pushing the U.S. to take public position which it does not want to enunciate publicly is no way to endear yourself to an Administration with which you may well have to deal for four more years.  Netanyahu’s style annoys and even angers some of his best friends and supporters in Washington. If he is still betting on a Romney victory he may well find he bet on the wrong horse and/or he may well find that even were Romney to win, his policy towards Iran may be much closer to that of Obama’s than Bibi would like to believe. U.S. policy is and will continue to be largely determined by the very same defense and intelligence estimates which the current Administration is receiving. The atmospherics and the politics may change, but Bibi will still be dealing with the same set of operational variables and Pentagon operators.

So is it still possible that Bibi is playing this aggressive attitude because of internal political squabbling in Israel? Perhaps, but given that elections are probably not until 2013, and there is no real opposition even on the horizon at the moment, that seems unlikely. This then suggests that there well may be a rather strange political agenda at work here which is tied to Israel’s legitimate security consideration.

Bibi is frustrated because he wants the Obama Administration to take action in Iran rather than Israel needing to do it on its own. Everyone understands that American military capabilities significantly exceed those that Israel could employ. Some of Bibi’s most important and influential financial supporters who also support Romney—including but not limited to Sheldon Adelson—believe that to maximize prompt U.S. action, Israel needs to make explicit demands on this Administration. They also must have convinced Bibi that there is no downside for U.S.-Israel relations if Obama is embarrassed. If indeed conversations during his forthcoming U.S. visit meeting do not produce the desired results—either an attack or the red lines—Romney, albeit mistakenly, could take this as evidence of presidential weakness and the deterioration of a strong U.S.-Israel partnership. Politically, Bibi’s American friends believe this might help Romney in some of the swing states. Given the seriousness of the Iranian threat, this seems to be a strange way win friends and protect your people.

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