Gareth Porter writes: President Barack Obama has finally begun in recent months to signal to Israel that the United States would not get involved in a war started by Binyamin Netanyahu without US approval. If it is pursued firmly and consistently through 2012, the approach stands a very good chance of averting war altogether. If Obama falters, however, the temptation for Netanyahu to launch an attack on Iran, indulging in what one close Israeli observer calls his “messianism” toward the issue of Iran.
Netanyahu, like every previous Israeli prime minister, understands that an Israeli strike against Iran depends not only on US tolerance, but direct involvement against Iran, at least after the initial attack. In May 2008, his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, had requested the approval of George W Bush for an air attack on Iran, only to be refused by Bush.
Netanyahu apparently feels, however, that he can manipulate right-wing Israeli influence on American politics to make it impossible for Obama to stay out of an Israeli war on Iran. He has defied the Obama administration by refusing to assure Washington that he would consult them before making any decision on war with Iran.
The Obama administration’s warning signal on the danger of an Israeli attack began flashing red after Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta came back empty-handed from a trip to Israel in September.
US officials then came up with a new strategy for pulling Israel back from the precipice of war by letting Netanyahu know that, if the US were denied a full role in coordinating military policy toward Iran, it would not come to Israel’s aid in such a war.
The first step in the strategy came when Panetta was answering questions after a talk at the Saban Centre of Brookings Institution on December 2. He not only expressed clear disapproval of an Israeli attack as counter-productive – something the administration had avoided in 2009 and 2010 – but went on to indicate that the US was concerned that it “could possibly be the target of retaliation from Iran, striking our ships, striking our military bases”.
Without saying so directly, that remark hinted that the US would take steps to avoid that situation, if necessary. It was evidently aimed at planting the seed of doubt in Netanyahu’s mind that Obama would be willing to respond to Iranian retaliation against Israel in the event of an Israeli strike.