Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert once told me that all Israeli prime ministers sleep with one eye open. Israel is a tiny country in a dangerous neighborhood. Worrying is a big part of the job description.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already expressed serious concern about wily Iranian mullahs bearing gifts. So when he sits down with Barack Obama on Monday at the White House, should he be worried that the president is planning to cut a deal with Iran at Israel’s expense?
Absolutely not. Either there will be a very good deal that will take care of both U.S. and Israeli concerns on the nuclear issue, or there will be no deal at all. And here’s why.
First of all, the president worked hard to reset his relationship with Netanyahu and Israel this past year, so he isn’t going to undo the progress he’s made without a compelling purpose. Tensions with Israel during his first term not only brought zero benefits on foreign policy, but actually became gratuitously harmful, gave Republicans a chance to hammer him, and raised concerns within his own party about his pro-Israel credentials. Given his domestic travails and the 2014 midterms, the last thing he wants or needs is a fight with Israel.
For another thing, in his recent address to the U.N. General Assembly, the president identified two key foreign policy priorities in his second term: Iran and the Palestinians. Israel sits at the nexus of both. Managing, let alone resolving, those issues requires close understandings with Israel. To put it more bluntly, if Obama is to have any hope of avoiding war with Iran on the nuclear issue, he will have to keep Israel close. And any chance that Secretary of State John Kerry may have to push the peace process forward depends on getting along with Netanyahu, not alienating him.
Then there is the fact that Hasan Rouhani isn’t Anwar Sadat. And Iran isn’t Egypt in 1977, suing for peace with Israel — or the United States for that matter. The mullahs aren’t going to charm anyone for very long, let alone transform public attitudes in Israel or America without significant and tangible deliverables. And that’s not going to happen quickly or easily given the withholding nature of the Supreme Leader, who may actually see benefits in keeping the U.S.-Iranian relationship in a kind of managed tensions.