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Domestic and Foreign Politics: Netanyahu, Obama, and Iran

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The build-up to the Obama-Netanyahu summit on Monday, March 5 is in full force. Words like "crucial", "fatal", "last-ditch effort" are in ample supply. Aside from the media need to dramatize an important news story, there is also a genuine sense that the issue of Iran's nuclear project is fast approaching a moment of decision.

Still, I venture to predict that a lot of the drama, whether real or manufactured, is overblown and premature. The coming meeting between the leaders is not the end of the bilateral contacts, and even if they will not meet again in 2012, they will be in close touch directly and through their closest confidants. Even according to the Israeli assessments that the window of opportunity for a military strike against Iran may be closing in the summer, we should remember that we are not in the spring yet. In the Middle East even few months can be an eternity.

So, there is still time for the real big drama. There is also a very significant element of partisan politics connected with the press buildup, and this is an attempt by both Israelis and Americans to use the timing of an impending American presidential election to score points by turning this contentious issue into a political ball game at a very sensitive time.

Just few days ago, it was Anthony Blinken, Vice President Biden's national security adviser, who told a left-of-center pro-Israel think-tank, The Israel Policy Forum (I.P.F.), that "what could really harm U.S-Israeli relations and Israel's national security is subjecting either to the vagaries of partisan politics or election year talking points"... and in a not so subtle reference, he reminded his audience that "there is a decent chance that the Obama-Biden Administration will be around next November"... It seems plausible to assume that this was a remark directed to the P.M. of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, rather than to the pro-Obama audience of the I.P.F.

It should come as no big surprise, that P.M. Netanyahu may have a built-in sympathy to the Republican party on account of closeness of positions on many social and economic issues. That is almost a given, as well as it was true that President Clinton showed much sympathy to the Rabin and Peres governments in Israel. It is also well-known that the personal chemistry between Netanyahu and President Obama leaves much to be desired. Yet the Blinken comment may be somewhat overblown and rather than deterring Netanyahu could achieve the opposite, and this is to encourage the supporters of Israel in the U.S. to intensify their public pressure on the administration, exactly because the comments of Blinken may indicate how sensitive and possibly vulnerable the Administration is to that type of pressure.

This possible scenario poses a challenge to the Israeli leader. Netanyahu can register a major success for Israel's policy by pushing the Iranian nuclear project to the very top of the world attention. The P.M. personally orchestrated this campaign and he has all the reasons in the world to be gratified by its success. At the same time, he has at least one reason to be worried, VERY worried, and this is the fact that as of now, the Iranian project continues relentlessly; therefore, the threat to Israel, which Netanyahu and the vast majority of Israelis rightly view as "existential," continues to be exactly that.

For Israel ,and this is also something which is acknowledged by Netanyahu and most Israelis, a close -- very close -- cooperation with the U.S. in dealing with the Iranian project is of paramount importance. Consequently, the P.M., for his part, and the large pro-Israel community in the U.S., Jewish and non-Jewish alike, should bend over backwards to prevent the impression that any pressure on the Obama Administration to close ranks with Israel is motivated by partisan considerations.

Clearly, with that happening, it will be much easier to the many friends of Israel in the Democratic Party to raise their voice before and after the coming meeting. There already are hectic contacts behind the scenes to ensure that the meeting will end in a way, that enables the two allies to continue their efforts to cement a unified policy about Iran even if there still are differences of nuance and approach.

Removing from the equation any opening to cry foul about mixing domestic politics with an issue of national security to both Israel and the U.S. will go a long way towards achieving this goal.

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