The most liberal US President since John F. Kennedy has taken office with plans to revamp his country's Middle East policy, placing peace, Palestinian statehood and engagement with Iran high on his agenda. In comes Israel's new Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, a man known for his aversion to Palestinian statehood. Is this not the perfect storm?
At first glance, there is every indication that the US and Israel could be on a collision course over Iran. First, there is disagreement over the timeline of Iran's nuclear programme. Second, there is disagreement over the timeline of President Obama's engagement efforts. Third, there is disagreement over whether, in case of failure, US policy should still be prevention rather than deterrence. And, finally, there is disagreement over whether the US might help or hinder an Israeli decision to launch a military attack against Iran's nuclear installations if it feels that any further delay would allow Tehran to cross the finishing line.
Israel's assessment of Iran's nuclear programme is that there is not much time left for polite diplomacy. Initially, Israel will no doubt acquiesce in US efforts to engage Iran. Over time, however, acquiescence will give way to impatience, especially if Jerusalem believes Tehran may be edging too close to the finishing line. Israel might wish to act swiftly, and this may clash with the US assessment of Iran's nuclear timeline. Israel may be seen as a hindrance to American efforts and its decision to act — quite aside from its chances of success by going it alone — will be judged as detrimental to American interests. If Israel acts before America concludes diplomacy has become futile, it might incur Obama's wrath.
Tied to this disagreement is Israel's insistence that Obama should impose a stringent timetable for engagement, after which America's engagement should be replaced by pressure — economic if possible, military if necessary. But America's considerable delay in completing the policy review has resulted in a comparable delay in co-ordination with allies, thus giving Tehran additional time. Elections in key countries — in Iran this month, in Germany in September — could further delay decisive action. It seems that even a short timeline could be longer than is tolerable to Israel, putting the Obama administration out of sync with the Netanyahu government.