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President Barack Obama on the campaign trail. (Photo credit: barackobama.com)
More Washington insiders are coming to the conclusion that Israel's leaders are planning to attack Iran before the U.S. election in November in the expectation that American forces will be drawn in. There is widespread recognition that, without U.S. military involvement, an Israeli attack would be highly risky and, at best, only marginally successful.
At this point, to dissuade Israeli leaders from mounting such an attack might require a public statement by President Barack Obama warning Israel not to count on U.S. forces -- not even for the "clean-up." Though Obama has done pretty much everything short of making such a public statement, he clearly wants to avoid a confrontation with Israel in the weeks before the election.
However, Obama's silence regarding a public warning speaks volumes to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The recent pilgrimages to Israel by very senior U.S. officials -- including the Secretaries of State and Defense carrying identical "PLEASE DON'T BOMB IRAN JUST YET" banners -- has met stony faces and stone walls.
Like the Guns of August in 1914, the dynamic for war appears inexorable. Senior U.S. and Israeli officials focus publicly on a "window of opportunity," but different ones.
On Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney emphasized the need to allow the "most stringent sanctions ever imposed on any country time to work." That, said Carney, is the "window of opportunity to persuade Iran ... to forgo its nuclear weapons ambitions."
That same day a National Security Council spokesman dismissed Israeli claims that U.S. intelligence had received alarming new information about Iran's nuclear program. "We continue to assess that Iran is not on the verge of achieving a nuclear weapon," the spokesman said.
Still, Israel's window of opportunity (what it calls the "zone of immunity" for Iran building a nuclear bomb without Israel alone being able to prevent it) is ostensibly focused on Iran's continued burrowing under mountains to render its nuclear facilities immune to Israeli air strikes, attacks that would seek to maintain Israel's regional nuclear-weapons monopoly.
But another Israeli "window" or "zone" has to do with the pre-election period of the next 12 weeks in the United States. Last week, former Mossad chief Efraim Halevi told Israeli TV viewers, "The next 12 weeks are very critical in trying to assess whether Israel will attack Iran, with or without American backup."
It would be all too understandable, given Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's experience with President Obama, that Netanyahu has come away with the impression that Obama can be bullied, particularly when he finds himself in a tight political spot.
For Netanyahu, the President's perceived need to outdistance Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the love-for-Israel department puts Obama in a box. This, I believe, is the key "window of opportunity" that is uppermost in Netanyahu's calculations.
Virtually precluded, in Netanyahu's view, is any possibility that Obama could keep U.S. military forces on the sidelines if Israel and Iran became embroiled in serious hostilities. What I believe the Israeli leader worries most about is the possibility that a second-term Obama would feel much freer not to commit U.S. forces on Israel's side. A second-term Obama also might use U.S. leverage to force Israeli concessions on thorny issues relating to Palestine.
If preventing Obama from getting that second term is also part of Netanyahu's calculation, then he also surely knows that even a minor dustup with Iran, whether it escalates or not, would drive up the price of gasoline just before the election -- an unwelcome prospect for Team Obama.
It's obvious that hard-line Israeli leaders would much rather have Mitt Romney to deal with for the next four years. The former Massachusetts governor recently was given a warm reception when he traveled to Jerusalem with a number of Jewish-American financial backers in tow to express his solidarity with Netanyahu and his policies.
Against this high-stakes political background, I've personally come by some new anecdotal information that I find particularly troubling. On July 30, the Baltimore Sun posted my op-ed, "Is Israel fixing the intelligence to justify an attack on Iran?" Information acquired the very next day increased my suspicion and concern.
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