At the Poker Table with Bibi and Barack

Time for Netanyahu to call the president's bluff.

As Netanyahu’s plane crossed the vast distance of the Atlantic Ocean, he must have thought that the oceanic gap was small compared to the diplomatic gap with the Obama administration. This time around there were no visible hostilities or outbursts. With an election coming up, Obama is less eager to humiliate Netanyahu, and Netanyahu does not seriously expect that a passionate appeal will get through to Obama.

Both men know the nature of the game they are playing, but neither of them expects much of the other.

Netanyahu does not believe that he can get Obama to set a firm “red line” that will trigger military action. For all the talk about “having Israel’s back”, the administration has not been willing to set such a “red line” in public or private, which makes all the assurances completely worthless. Without that “red line”, no actual commitments have been made, except a commitment to the Sisyphean diplomatic track.

And so Netanyahu has not bothered to seriously push for a “red line.” Any possibility of such a thing was off the table even before he arrived.

For his part Obama does not appear to believe that he can dissuade Netanyahu from carrying out a strike against Iran’s nuclear program with more talk of sanctions. The rhetoric that goes over well with Jeffrey Goldberg falls flat in the real world. The sanctions aren’t there to stop Iran; they’re there to stop Israel from doing something about Iran.

The sanctions are busywork and both leaders know it. Obama has sharpened his rhetoric, uneasily mentioning military action, while at the same time warning that talk of military action only helps Iran. His target audience for this sophistry isn’t the man sitting opposite him with a degree from MIT who has already dealt with him enough times not to believe a word he says, it’s the waffling American Jews who are uneasy about him.

For Obama the priority right now is transitioning Assad out of power in Syria. An Israeli strike on Iran would disrupt the Muslim coalition that can make that happen, and that is one of the few honest talking points to come out of the administration and its allied think tanks. But the larger priority is winning the election.

Obama and Netanyahu are both capable of undermining each other’s goals. Obama doesn’t need a political battle with the Jewish community in an election year. That can wait until he wins reelection.  Netanyahu does not need Obama sabotaging an Israeli operation against Iran, but the recent leaks suggest that this administration may be willing to do just that.

Netanyahu’s return to AIPAC came down to mobilizing support for an Israeli strike on Iran. Obama’s appearance at AIPAC was aimed at making such a strike seem dangerous and unnecessary. While Netanyahu laid out a case for war that carefully took on and dismantled the talking points being put out by Obama’s own brain trust at the Center for American Progress, Obama kept trying to sell the same old diplomatic route to Tehran. A route which has worked about as well as the one to the Taliban.

The AIPAC speeches and the meeting between Obama and Netanyahu both laid out the vast gulf between the two tracks. Netanyanu is on a war track with Iran; Obama is on a diplomatic track with Iran. Both men have done their best to sell their way, not to each other, but to the audience. Neither Obama nor Netanyahu have been talking to each other. They have been talking to us.

The surface pleasantries underlie this basic dilemma, and both men are fighters circling each other and looking for an understanding that will let them move ahead. With far more diplomatic experience under his belt, Netanyahu does a much better job of hiding his dislike of Obama, than Obama does of hiding his dislike of Netanyahu. Obama’s innate arrogance and inexperience, as well as his boundless faith in his own charm, make it difficult for him to compromise. What Netanyahu needs from him is non-interference, but it is not at all clear that he is willing to offer even that much.

Obama’s radical background gave him a false sense of familiarity with the Jewish community, which he assumed was much like his left-wing radical Jewish friends. Once in office he assumed that all he had to do was give J Street equal status, kick Israel around a little, and then the majority of Jewish voters would gather round and cheer for him, while AIPAC would fall into obscurity.

Instead Obama finds himself back at AIPAC, once again promising things he doesn’t mean, and trying to sell opposition to an Israeli strike on Iran, without seeming anti-Israel. Selling the idea that the only reliable way to end Iran’s nuclear program is with the willing consent of the Iranian government would be unconvincing even if the administration had not just managed to get led around the nose yet again by North Korea, which has offered to shut down its nuclear program so many times that its weapons of mass destruction must be mounted on revolving doors.

Nearly twenty years ago when the South Korean president arrived in Washington, President Clinton treated him to nearly the same remarks that Obama just offered Netanyahu, complete with all the right noises about “America's unyielding commitment to South Korea's security” and making it clear to North Korea that it faces international isolation and the wrath of the international community if it should go on with its nuclear program.

Netanyahu has no interest in seeing the same “firm resolve” for achieving a diplomatic solution that was applied to North Korea allow Iran to become a nuclear power. That was something he emphasized in both his speech to AIPAC and in his remarks to Obama. And that is the ultimate bottom line.

The only thing riding on this for Obama is his election if some Jews in Florida go rogue in a close race. But for Netanyahu, who has lost elections before, this is about being on the front lines of a nuclear war. Netanyahu is a politician, with all the flaws of the breed, but he also sees the abyss and unlike Obama, he is capable of putting country first.

Netanyahu has the weaker hand, but he also has more at stake. Obama has repeatedly warned American Jews not to believe that he is bluffing when it comes to Iran, but Iran has already called his bluff and won. Now it’s Netanyahu’s turn to do the same.

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