03/06/2012 12:45 pm ET Updated May 06, 2012

Obama's Israel Problem

Barack Obama has tried and largely failed to rein in Israel's aggression against the Palestinians while he has been in office. The right-wing Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has continued to build on Palestinian territories, allegedly allowed the execution of Palestinian leaders, and refused point-blank to engage seriously in peace talks. The Obama administration has basically had to shelve any hopes of peace in the region, betting that its energy is better spent on domestic problems and drawing down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the president is finding that Israel's belligerence toward Iran is a far more serious problem that may require a much firmer hand.

Israel has been routinely threatening Iran due to the latter's intent to acquire nuclear energy capabilities. Israel wants unquestioning support from the United States but has stated that it will unilaterally attack Iran.

Speaking at AIPAC Sunday, March 4, Obama addressed the prospect of a nuclear Iran and outlined the United States' support for Israel and a multilateral approach to dealing with Iran. But between the flattering rhetoric and standard placatory language was a line in the sand:

Iran's leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.

Moving forward, I would ask that we all remember the weightiness of these issues, the stakes involved for Israel, for America, and for the world. Already, there is too much loose talk of war. Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend on to fund their nuclear program. For the sake of Israel's security, America's security and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster. Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in and to sustain the broad international coalition we have built. Now is the time to heed the timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt: speak softly; carry a big stick. And as we do, rest assured that the Iranian government will know our resolve and that our coordination with Israel will continue.

Obama's message is simple: Israel cannot bully the United States into attacking Iran. Everyone knows that Obama has little regard for Netanyahu's tactics, but the Israeli prime minister wields disproportionate power in the U.S. due to organizations like AIPAC that are incredibly well-funded and work nonstop to promote Israel's interest in America. But a war with Iran would have consequences so dire that Obama knows he cannot follow Israel blindly into a conflict that there may not be a way out of.

Obama has to be careful here; he is in an election year, and the Republican Party is eagerly looking for anything it can use to paint the president as an anti-Semitic, Muslim-loving terrorist. One false move could open up a flood of attacks that could sway votes in swing states like Florida. Obama has to placate Jewish-American voters while preventing Israel from kicking off another war in the Middle East -- a task easier said than done.

My bet is that Obama will play for time. If he can prevent anything too serious from kicking off before the election, he will have a far easier time in his second term telling the Israelis where to get off. This won't be easy, as Netanyahu seems deadly serious about confronting Iran, but Obama is a masterful politician who specializes in making people play his game, not theirs. Obama knows full well what another conflict would mean in the region, and while it might be politically beneficial in the short term, it would bankrupt the economy, kill hundreds of thousands of people, and destroy his legacy permanently. Obama won't take that risk, and I expect him to use a smart strategy to delay Netanyahu without causing him to lose too much face. Luckily, Netanyahu isn't particularly good at thinking long-term, so he will probably fall into Obama's trap -- an outcome everyone should be praying for.

Ben Cohen is the editor of