Israel versus America versus Iran

TEL AVIV – Israel’s concern about the specter of a nuclear Iran has now degenerated into a crisis of confidence concerning the United States. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has embarked on a campaign to force President Barack Obama to set a red line that Iran must not cross, lest it risk unleashing an American military response. Implicit threats of a unilateral Israeli attack, together with conspicuous meddling in the US presidential election campaign, have compounded Netanyahu’s effort to twist Obama’s arm.

The controversy between the two allies partly reflects their divergent timelines: for Israel, the red line is Iran’s imminent burial deep underground of its uranium-enrichment facilities; for the US, it is the start of a dedicated weapons program. But, equally important, the dispute underscores their different objectives.

For Israel, war with Iran is not about neutralizing an existential threat; it is about reasserting its regional status. Israel’s leaders see their country’s standing in the region being seriously threatened by the emergence of a hostile Islamist regime in Egypt; the possibility that a similarly hostile regime will eventually emerge in Syria; the fragility of traditionally friendly Jordan; and the dangerous boost that the regional Islamist awakening has given to Israel’s sworn enemies, Hamas and Hezbollah.

Both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak thus regard an attack on Iran as a major strategic move aimed at the broader Middle East, which implies that they would not discount a military campaign that goes well beyond surgical air strikes. Indeed, they probably contemplate land incursions into Iran, and possibly a decisive – and, from their perspective, long overdue – showdown with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.