Obama, Netanyahu, and the Future of U.S.-Israeli Relations

The Center for Strategic and International Studies CSIS.

Published on Center for Strategic and International Studies CSIS.org, by Anthony H. Cordesman, May 15, 2009;

… The Arab-Israeli Peace Challenge:

One needs to be very careful about assuming that Prime Minister Netanyahu cannot be persuaded to accept a meaningful peace and equally careful about assuming that a meaningful peace is possible as long as the Palestinian movement remains divided and major elements challenge Israel’s right to exist. This, however, does not mean that President Obama is not right in promising a far more active and consistent effort to create such a peace, in focusing on the two-state solution, and in seeing clear U.S. leadership in seeking a final settlement as critical to dealing with the broader threat of terrorism and Arab anger against the United States …

… The United States has not abandoned its own military option, but it would have to be far larger than the one Israeli could mount, involve persistent restrikes as long as Iran continued trying to rebuild its program, and take on the character of a major regional contingency at a time when the United States is already involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan is seriously threatened. It also is unclear that even if diplomacy does conclusively fail, the United States will not be better off by seeking to contain Iran, provide improved regional missile and air defenses, and provide the same kind of extended deterrence it once provided in the form of a nuclear umbrella over Europe. As we have learned, preemption and prevention are not the solution to every problem.

What President Obama should insist on is that Israel recognize that the United States is sending a “red light,” and this is an area where the United States needs time and freedom of action. One key step would be for the president to openly declare such U.S. opposition and speak in very broad terms about the “damage” it would do to the U.S.-Israeli strategic relationship. He could reinforce this with statements by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the secretaries of state and defense, and key intelligence officials.

Perhaps more quietly, however, President Obama needs to be prepared to give Prime Minister Netanyahu the same reassurances that he needs to be prepared to give every state around Iran and our key Arab allies. It should be clear that if diplomacy fails, the United States will provide every possible assistance, it will not react to the improvements in Israel nuclear strike and retaliatory capabilities that may already be taking place, and it is prepared to help all of its allies create far more effective air and missile defenses.

At some point, President Obama should also be prepared to make clear to Iran that it cannot deploy nuclear-armed missiles without having U.S. nuclear forces targeted on Iran; that every step it takes to threaten Israel or any its neighbors will see a far greater increase in the threat to Iran; and that any nuclear strike by Iran on a U.S. ally will lead to retaliation in kind. Diplomacy, dialogue, and friendly relations are the far more preferable options for dealing with Iran, but it should be clear to the world—not just Israel—what the alternative will be. (full text).

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