This morning President Obama will speak to the American Israel Political Action Committee’s annual conference, a prelude to his meeting tomorrow with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
As this backgrounder from Haaretz on the diplomatic preparations for tomorrow’s meeting makes clear, what the Israelis want from Obama is an explicit statement about what redlines would trigger a US attack on Iran. As Omri Ceren explains at Commentary — despite Obama’s suggestion to the contrary in an interview this week — the White House has refused to give the Israelis assurances that they’ll take military action if it’s determined that it’s necessary to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Israeli policy in recent years (in addition to covert attacks on the Iranian nuclear that have pretty clearly been directed in part by Mossad) has been to suggest that they might bomb Iran at any time. That strategy has been diplomatically successful, as is demonstrated most clearly by the imposition of European sanctions, but its efficacy is running out, both because of the boy-who-cried-wolf factor (there are only so many times one can make a threat and be taken seriously) and because Israeli air power is simply not extensive enough to do much damage to the Iranian nuclear program through a strike after this year.
Even this year, Israel can only hit a few targets, and it’s not at all clear that the nuclear program would be delayed by all that much. The consequences would be serious; the Iranian government could lash out in unpredictable ways, drive up the price of oil, and so forth. This, from the New York Times, gives a flavor of the possible blowback just for Israel:
A former Israeli official said the best way to think about retaliation against Israel was through a formula he called “1991 plus 2006 plus Buenos Aires times 3 or 5.” The reference was to three instances in the last two decades when Israel came under attack: the Scud missiles sent by Saddam Hussein into Israel in 1991 during the first gulf war; the 3,000 rockets fired at Israel by Hezbollah during their 2006 war; and the attacks on the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish center in Argentina in the early 1990s. Those attacks each killed 100 to 200 people, wounded scores more and caused several billion dollars of property damage. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the north had to be evacuated from their homes to bomb shelters or further south during the 2006 war.
Still, from the Israeli perspective, even delaying the Iranian march to nuclearization is worth the consequences if push comes to shove; no Israeli Prime Minister can allow a regime that talks about wiping the Jewish State off the face of the Earth to develop the capability to do so. But can Israel be sure that the US — which has the military might to do much more serious damage than Israel could, and thus plenty of time before that becomes a necessary move — is really, truly unwilling to allow Iran to nuclear?
Many at AIPAC are hoping that, in this morning’s speech, Obama will lay out the kind of explicit statements that would give the Israelis confidence, and avert a war in the immediate term. Stay tuned for an assessment later today of whether he’s done that.