Even before the looming confrontation with Iran, Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu have been engaged in their own related tussle — more civilized and subdued no doubt, but arguably no less consequential. Their dueling speeches this week were striking in the degree to which they simultaneously mirrored and defied each other. It was no coincidence.
The U.S. president lavished praise on the one Israeli in the audience who most accurately reflects his own pragmatic views (Israeli President Shimon Peres) while bringing up Netanyahu only fleetingly. The Israeli prime minister enthusiastically applauded the many Americans in the room who share his more belligerent stance (members of Congress) while politely referring to Obama. Each paid lip service to his counterpart’s central claim — Obama, by acknowledging that Israel was entitled to its own sovereign security decisions; Netanyahu by conceding that the nuclear standoff would be best resolved by diplomacy. Both then proceeded to ruthlessly tear it apart: the president, by underscoring the imprudence of precipitous military action and the need to give negotiations time; the prime minister by stating flatly that Israel had waited long enough. Finally, the two leaders took aim at statements they argued were either dead wrong, or deadly dangerous — Obama decried careless talk of war; Netanyahu mocked the endless recitation of war’s perils. Neither bothered mentioning to whom they were referring, but there was no need. Not a day goes by without Israeli officials raising the specter of military action; meanwhile, a succession of U.S. officials have warned about the catastrophe such action might provoke.
For now at least, most commentators in the United States and in Israel have handed this round to Obama. He had two overriding objectives: to deflect Israeli pressure to conduct, or acquiesce in, a premature war; and to neutralize Republican criticism that he is too soft on Iran and too hard on Israel. On those fronts, one might say, mission accomplished.
But victory came at a price. In the longer run, Obama’s nuanced view and the arguments he marshaled on behalf of diplomacy may be less significant than the broader narrative in which, in order to prevail, he felt compelled to embed them. More openly than in the past, he took containment of a nuclear-armed Iran off the table — even before any serious discussion of this option has taken place and just as influential U.S. voices had begun making the case for it. More clearly than previously, he recognized Israel’s right to its own decisions; Netanyahu took the bait — or rather, grabbed it with enthusiasm, turning a banal acknowledgment of reality into an implicit license for Israel to unilaterally initiate action that will have broad and possibly dire consequences for all. And, more forcefully than before, Obama committed America to military action to halt Iran if other means fail to do so.
That day of reckoning may have been delayed. But short of a fundamental shift in U.S.-Iranian relations, it looks as though it will yet come. Israelis, not for the first time, likely are exaggerating the Iranian threat and its imminence. Yet they almost certainly are right in one respect: that sanctions could work and nonetheless fail, inflicting harsh economic pain yet incapable of producing a genuine change in Tehran’s calculus. There is no evidence that Iran’s leadership will yield to economic hardship; the outlook of its Supreme Leader rests on the core principle that the only thing more dangerous than experiencing pressure is surrendering to it. Seen through the regime’s eyes, such stubbornness is easy to understand. From its perspective, measures taken by its foes, including attacks on its territory, bolstering the arsenal of its Gulf enemies, and economic warfare, have a single purpose: namely, to topple the Islamic Republic. Under such conditions, why would the regime volunteer a concession that arguably would leave it weaker in a hostile environment? Even as he fought off the prospect of an imminent confrontation, Obama might therefore have bought himself — or his eventual successor — one down the road. For if and when sanctions fail, what alternative will there be to turn to?
Obama paid a price in other currencies, too. Virtually the entire international security conversation has become monopolized by Iran, turning Netanyahu’s 15-year obsession into a global one. That is an added benefit for the prime minister: for as long as that remains the case, there will be little space left for that other irksome Middle Eastern conflict — the Israeli-Palestinian dispute — and even less American appetite to pressure Israel on it.
It will be tempting to think of March 2012 as the month when the U.S. president stood his ground. Obama gave the better speech. He has by far the better of the argument. He almost certainly won this battle. But who will have ultimately won the war?
Robert Malley is the Middle East and North Africa Program Director at the International Crisis Group. He served as President Clinton’s special assistant for Arab-Israeli Affairs between 1998 and 2001.