03/05/2012 08:34 am ET Updated May 05, 2012

Barack, Bibi and the Election

The bizarre comments of Rick Santorum on everything from contraception to JFK, combined with the tin ear of frontrunner Mitt ("Ann drives two Cadillacs") Romney, have been a gift from the gods to Barack Obama and the Democrats. And not just a random gift. Character, as the ancient Greeks said, is Fate. And the character of today's Republican Party is self-destructive.

Comparing the Romney-Santorum slugfest with the protracted Obama-Clinton contest for the Democratic nomination in 2008, you have to appreciate that 99 percent of the Hillary Clinton supporters were prepared to vote enthusiastically for Obama as eventual nominee, and vice versa. Not so with Romney and Santorum.

The final 2012 election could see three or even four candidates -- a centrist fiscally conservative but socially moderate independent candidate, plus a far right or right-libertarian one, any or all of whom would draw more votes from the official Republican nominee than from Obama.

And yet, this election year is replete with wild cards. A continuing European crisis or an oil price spike could derail the recovery, and with it the prospects for an easy Obama re-election. And the most consequential of the wild cards is in Washington right now, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu.

Obama, in remarks to AIPAC yesterday and in his meeting with Netanyahu today, is endeavoring to walk a tightrope. On the one hand, Obama doesn't share Netanyahu's view that an Iran with nuclear enrichment capability is the same is an Iran with nuclear weaponry. He and Netanyahu have very different "red lines" that would trigger war. Obama is resisting the escalating war fever for a pre-emptive strike either by Israel with the tacit backing of Washington, much less by the United States itself. On the other hand, the price of this is a hardening of his own posture.

Obama has been speaking much more hawkishly, declaring that it would be unacceptable for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and telling AIPAC that "I will not hesitate to use force when necessary...."

Complicating that tightrope is the Republican field, many of whom sound more hawkish even than AIPAC or the Israeli government. And you have to wonder what is going through the mind of Netanyahu as he contemplates his capacity to influence the U.S. election.

For three years, the Obama administration has been pressing Netanyahu to negotiate seriously with the Palestinians and to display restraint when it comes to Iran. This American posture has rankled Israeli and American hard liners alike.

A Republican Administration, by contrast, would give Netanyahu a free hand.

In past crises, when a Democratic incumbent was facing a difficult re-election, Republican operatives did not hesitate to fish in troubled waters. Seymour Hersh's book, The Price of Power, documented that Henry Kissinger signaled the North Vietnamese that Richard Nixon would give them better terms if they held off negotiating a peace deal with the Lyndon Johnson administration. Failure to make progress on peace in the summer and fall of 1968 helped narrowly elect Richard Nixon.

In the Iran hostage crisis of the summer and fall of 1980, there were similar, though unproven, charges that Republicans were signaling the Iranians to wait for a Reagan presidency. Carter's failure to win the release of American hostages until Reagan's Inauguration Day helped bring Reagan's presidency about.

It is inconceivable that leading Republicans today are not in conversations with leading Israelis, if only as private citizens. For Netanyahu, it will be sorely tempting to launch a strike, to provoke an Iranian attack on Israel, which in turn will draw in the United States. In an election year, with both Republicans and a great many Democrats looking for Obama to demonstrate his commitment to Israel, Obama would almost surely oblige.

And, while Americans traditionally back their presidents in time of war, a third foreign war for this president would hardly be good for his re-election. It would enflame the Arab world, drastically increase the price of retail gasoline, douse the economic recovery, and not even conclusively rid the Iranians of nuclear weapons capacity, unless Obama launched a ground invasion -- which would be a true disaster.

Although the U.S. is a large and mighty country and Israel as small and vulnerable one, it is Netanyahu who has the leverage. Given all of his temptations to launch a strike on Iran, both for its military benefit and to tilt the 2012 election to the Republicans, it will take every ounce of Obama's diplomatic and political skills to give the Israelis a commitment that is on the one hand sufficiently strong to dissuade an Israeli attack, but on the other hand not an implicit commitment for a foolish U.S.-led war.

Obama is said to have a capacity for three-dimensional chess. This challenge is somewhere in the fourth dimension. If he pulls it off, he can return to domestic politics and enjoy the spectacle of Republicans destroying each other on Super Tuesday and beyond. If he fails, he could entangle the US in an unwise and unwelcome war, and the election result is anybody's guess.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos. His latest book is A Presidency in Peril.