07/06/2010 05:07 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Obama and Netanyahu Should Discuss

This piece was co-written with Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Brian Katulis and originally appeared on Foreign Policy Magazine's MidEast Channel.

This week's meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu comes at a sensitive juncture -- Middle East peace efforts remain largely stuck, Iran continues to move forward with its nuclear program, and the United States and Israel are looking to patch up their bilateral ties after one of the rockiest years in recent memory between the two countries. The fundamental goal of the meeting is to bring the two countries towards closer strategic alignment on these issues. Doing so will require both Obama and Netanyahu to learn lessons from the events of the past few months.

First, the latest round of United Nations, American, and European sanctions mark a new and sensitive phase on Iran policy, and there is deep uncertainty about what comes next. Yet while the United States and its allies cannot afford any surprises or miscalculations, the recent experience during the Gaza flotilla incident should provide reason for concern. The strategic blowback from that incident demonstrated the downsides of how Israel's current government seeks to safeguard its security. One pressing question is what lessons Israel takes from the flotilla incident as both it and the U.S. consider their options on Iran. Regrettably, if Israel's raid on the flotilla is an indicator of what can go wrong when Israel tries to secure its southern border, then the international community should be doubly concerned by any military action Israel might take against Iran.

Second, the Gaza flotilla raid demonstrated that Israel does not always effectively game out the strategic and political consequences of its military operations -- something that also witnessed in the 2006 war against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, a finding affirmed by Israeli government inquiry. At times, the Israeli political and security leadership have made decisions that lacked sound military strategy without thinking through the likely international reaction. This ultimately undermines Israel's own security by undercutting its support around the world. Neither Israel nor the United States can afford to see a replay in Iran of what happened in Lebanon four years ago or off the shores of Gaza five weeks ago.

Third, there is a clear risk that Israel might move ahead with a military strike against Iran that would not likely succeed in improving either its security or strategic position -- similar to the results it achieved from the flotilla incident. From an operational, tactical, and strategic standpoint, Israel's handling of the flotilla incident did not improve its overall security -- it only maintained an unsustainable and fragile status quo. In turn, it is not clear that it would obtain better results through a strike on Iran, especially as few analysts think that military action against Iran's nuclear infrastructure would stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The most obvious nuclear targets -- above ground nuclear facilities -- are only one part of a vast and growing network of facilities, many of which are underground. The hidden facilities would remain and a preemptive strike would probably both motivate the regime to redouble its efforts to seek the bomb and bestow Tehran with more room to maneuver from the international community than it deserves.

Given these realities, the Obama administration should place a higher premium on enhancing its political and military coordination with all key allies in the region, particularly Israel. President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu need to make sure that their teams have honest, frank, and proactive strategic discussions about the benefits and costs of all options in dealing with Iran. A more thorough preparation for all contingencies -- ranging from military action and regime change to unconditional diplomatic engagement with offers of security guarantees -- should be quietly discussed. But the two leaders should also have their teams discuss the costs and benefits of an eventual containment strategy should Iran acquire a nuclear weapon. Such discussions should set clear red lines to avoid surprises, and ultimately should also include the perspectives and likely reactions of other key American allies in the region.

For too long, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has been stuck in a tactical mode, reactive to events like the flotilla incident. This has not enhanced American or Israeli security, despite the urgency of the threats our countries face. Last month's raid on the Gaza flotilla was a wakeup call. The United States cannot afford any additional surprises on the multiple fronts of its Middle East strategy -- it has come to expect the unexpected from countries like Iran and Syria -- but it is not helpful when our closest allies offer their own surprises.

The Obama-Netanyahu meeting should therefore seek to establish a new bilateral strategic coordination group consisting of senior members of both security teams -- and the first issue this new group should discuss is next steps on Iran. Our two countries cannot afford to surprise each other in this dangerous part of the world.