Lost in the discussion of Mitt Romney's Olympic gaffes were the larger geopolitical ramifications of the Israeli leg of the GOP candidate's grand tour. In Jerusalem, the Republican Presidential candidate called blocking Iran's nuclear ambitions a "moral imperative," adding "In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded. We recognize Israel's right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with you."
As heard by Americans, these lines in Romney's Iran speech are a swipe at President Obama which also translates into pitch to Jewish GOP donors like Sheldon Adelson, the biggest whale on the trip, to write more checks. But this is a pitch that Romney has made with plenty of success at home. So why, exactly, was he in Jerusalem?
One reason -- aside from the obligatory photo op at the Western Wall -- may be that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted him there. Adelson, one of the Romney campaign's biggest donors, is closer to Netanyahu than he is to Romney. Dan Senor, Romney's chief foreign policy advisor, who arranged the GOP candidate's visit, also has close ties to Netanyahu's inner circle. Given these facts, it is perhaps more interesting to think about what Netanyahu may have gained from Romney's visit.
The most immediate and tangible payoff the Israeli prime minister received came last Friday from the Obama administration, which was eager to show Jewish voters in America -- and the Israelis -- that it, too, is tough on Iran. In a televised speech, the President promised Israel an additional $70 million -- in a sign of his eagerness to seem strong, Obama accidentally promised "$70 billion" -- to fund Iron Dome, the anti-missile system that US policymakers have come to understand as a magical machine that, if fed regularly, forestalls aggressive Israeli military actions.
Obama also sent Netanyahu the gift of a helpless Leon Panetta, who came in handy as a theatrical prop for a prime-time Netanyahu television appearance in which the Israeli leader blasted the Obama administration for having effectively done nothing to stop Iran's march towards a bomb. Score: Netanyahu 2, Obama 0.
But the greatest benefit Netanyahu received came from the content of Romney's speech itself, which was later amplified by Dan Senor, who stated that "If Israel has to take action on its own in order to stop Iran from developing the capability, the governor would respect that decision." By getting the GOP candidate more or less on record as supporting an Israeli military strike against Iran, Netanyahu opened up some politically-useful daylight between the Obama administration's Iran policy and the perceived internal American consensus about whether an Israeli strike on Iran would deal a blow to America's national interests. In other words, Netanyahu re-framed Obama's Iran policy as a campaign issue, with the Obama campaign on one side and the Romney campaign on the other side. While an Israeli attack might be controversial within such a frame, it would be much harder to inarguably construe it as an attack on America. Obama's anger in such an event would simply be the anger of a politician scorned in the middle of an election campaign, not the anger of an American President on behalf of his entire nation.
My own reporting has long suggested that Israeli noises about a possible, likely or imminent attack on Iran are part of a sometimes scripted, sometimes unspoken cooperative interaction with successive American administrations which have used the threat of an Israeli strike to gain support for meaningful sanctions. "You know how crazy those Israelis are," American envoys have been whispering in European and other capitals for the last decade or so. "If we don't stop them with sanctions, there's no telling WHAT they might do. Why, only last week, Barak was telling some reporter that Iran getting the bomb would be just like THE HOLOCAUST . . .."
Every few months, when the Israelis sense that US resolve in the sanctions department is weakening, or the Iranians enrich uranium to new levels, they ratchet up the rhetoric without any proper coordination, and cause political problems for the US President. This trick works because it forces Obama to prove that he is strong by pushing harder for stronger sanctions or else face the ire of potential voters and donors -- some of whom are Jewish, and some of whom are not. The diplomatic tango between the US and Israel over the Iranian nuclear program is a dance between friends who know each other's moves well.
The common understanding behind this loose choreography is that a full-on Wagnerian attack with 120 warplanes that would probably invite a large-scale Iranian retaliatory response is too much of a gamble for even the most cocksure Israeli government to take. This would be true even if a large number of Iranian sites were seriously damaged and scientists and other key personnel were killed in a strike, and especially true if the attack could be framed as a failure. Given the IAF's performance in the 2006 Lebanon war, in which Hezbollah's command and control structure continued to function and Israel failed to kill a single key political or military leader of a relatively minor guerrilla force, which lacked serious weapons of the kind that the Iranians possess, failure, however defined, seems quite possible. The idea of an Israeli attack on Iran has therefore seemed like a useful fantasy that helps sell newspapers.
So the question that occurs to me is whether something has changed in the last six months or so that might explain the increasingly harsh and uncompromising rhetoric of both Netanyahu and Barak, who by all accounts have become quite close, and run the Iran portfolio together.
The easy answer -- as per Romney's visit to Jerusalem -- is that it is an American election year. Obama's need to conform to Israeli demands will never be greater, and his ability to punish the Israelis -- in any scenario short of an actual attack -- will never be more constrained. For Netanyahu, pressuring Obama through any and all available means, including Mitt Romney, is a way to produce very tangible results for his country -- like bunker busters and more money for Iron Dome -- while also scoring political points at home, which he doesn't mind doing. The fact that he might also damage the political prospects of a man he neither likes nor trusts probably doesn't keep him up at night either.
Yet the alarm with which this shift in rhetoric has been greeted by key figures in the Israeli security establishment, like former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, and credible news reports of stepped-up NSA and CIA surveillance of Israeli military personnel and movements, suggests to me that something more than election year politics may be involved here. Subsequent to their poor showing in Lebanon, the Israelis appear to have taken out a Syrian nuclear facility, and killed a half-dozen key nuclear scientists in the heart of Tehran, as well as found clever ways to make centrifuges explode inside of Iran's own nuclear facilities. Israel's military planners can be disorganized and lazy, but they aren't dumb.
What the evidence suggests, I feel, is that something big and technology-related has changed in Israeli strategic thinking that has generated a clever new attack plan which seems plausible to Israel's leaders -- and which has made Obama's people worried about the political and economic effects of an Israeli strike. If that's true, then the question is whether that change is more likely to result in an Israeli strike, or a pre-emptive American strike -- and whether the Iranians will provide the necessary pretext for a war that no one in the region actually wants, but which appears much more likely than it did six months ago, given the continuing Iranian drive for a bomb.