National elections have long caught the attention of both domestic and foreign populations, and nowhere has this been more evident than in U.S. presidential elections. The man or woman that Americans vote into office can have a significant impact on the policies of countries around the world. America's adversaries, in particular, have been aware of this reality for quite some time. Examples abound, and include Ayatollah Khomeini and Jimmy Carter, Nikita Khrushchev and JFK, Kim Jong Il and Bill Clinton, and of course, Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush. But rarely has an election played such a significant role in the policies of an American ally. For the first time in recent history, the presidential elections are playing a momentous role in the decision-making process of one of the United States' strongest allies, Israel.
There is no question that the relationship between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been lukewarm. Even as the two countries increase military, intelligence, and economic cooperation, the leaders have disagreed both publicly and privately regarding everything from peace negotiations with the Palestinians, to the "Arab Spring," to how to effectively deal with Iran. Although the handling of the peace process was the first and most public of riffs between the two countries, it has now taken a backseat to what most consider a more pressing issue at this time: Iran's nuclear program. Despite their recent meeting at the White House, Obama and Netanyahu do not appear to have successfully hashed out their differences over how to handle Iran.
While both the United States and Israel now agree that Iran is covertly working towards developing a nuclear weapon, they disagree about where is the point of no return, i.e., at what time an outside power will be able to militarily prevent Iran from "going nuclear." For Israel, there are two red lines. The first is when the Iranians develop the necessary know-how and enriched uranium to develop a nuclear weapon. The second is when Iran is able to successfully move its nuclear program into bunkers deep enough to prevent Israeli weaponry from being able to feasibly destroy it.
For the Americans, these red lines are different. For one, the Obama administration has been wishy-washy about whether it will accept an Iran with the capability to assemble a nuclear weapon, as long as it does not actually build one. Japan is one such country capable of doing so, and many EU nations have at least privately declared that they would be willing to accept such a situation if the Iranians agreed not to go "all the way." Secondly, the United States has greater military capabilities than Israel. With its more powerful "bunker buster" missiles, stealth fighters, aircraft carriers, and refueling capabilities, it has the ability to strike more hardened Iranian targets.
And herein lies the major debate taking place in Israel, the United States, and around the world: how long will the Jewish state be willing to wait for all diplomatic options to be exhausted before it takes the unwanted, but in its eyes necessary decision to launch a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear program? According to Netanyahu's AIPAC speech this week, he will not wait much longer. But to really answer this question, one must understand the significance of the upcoming presidential elections. Members of the Obama administration have leaked on numerous occasions that there will be no significant pressure placed on Israel with regards to the Palestinians or other foreign policy issues until after the November elections. To Israelis, this is a telling statement.
The Obama administration's policies regarding Iran have thus far been conflicting. In 2008 the president tried to diplomatically engage the Iranians, but his attempts were rebuffed. Since then, he has managed to successfully ratchet up international sanctions against the Islamic state. And while his administration has stated time and again that all options are on the table, his administration has also gone out of its way to declare that an Israeli strike on Iran would be "destabilizing," to use the most recent wording of chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. What's more, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta actually stated publically what he believed was the timetable of when an Israeli strike would take place -- an action almost unthinkable for Israel's closest ally as it greatly reduces any element of surprise.
On the other hand, Republican presidential candidates and leadership have declared their undying support for Israel and its right to act as it sees fit. In Israel the other week, Senator John McCain deplored the "daylight" and "tension" between Israel and the United States regarding the two countries' policies towards Iran. McCain's colleague, Senator Lindsay Graham went on to criticize Dempsey for calling Iran a rational state. Graham went on to explain that, "People are giving Israel a lot of advice here lately from America. I just want to tell our Israeli friends that my advice to you is never lose control of your destiny. Never allow a situation to develop that would destroy the Jewish state."
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has coined the term "immunity zone" to describe the period of time when a military strike against the Iranians will no longer be effective in preventing Iran from being able to develop a nuclear weapon. According to most estimates, the Israelis view this immunity zone as coming into play sometime in the spring or summer of 2012. When taking into account the political jockeying for pro-Israel voters taking place in the upcoming elections, along with the impending arrival of Iran's "immunity zone," the likelihood of Israel preemptively striking Iran's nuclear program before November is greater than ever before. And U.S. presidential elections may serve as the final impetus for Israel to take that historic step.