The power of first impressions


Elliot Abrams has a comprehensive analysis of the upcoming meeting between Obama and Netanyahu in the Wall Street Journal. Abrams says the outcome of the talks, the first between the pair after their respective elections, won’t be known for some time, but one should look for clues in what aides from both sides leak to the press.

On the most consequential issue for the Israeli premier, Iranian nukes, Abrams had this to say:

Israelis see an Iranian bomb as an existential threat, for two reasons. First, they cannot be sure an Iranian leader waiting excitedly for the Mahdi’s return will be using game theory and mathematical calculations to decide whether it’s sensible to strike the Jewish State. Even former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom European diplomats view as a wonderful moderate, called Israel "a one-bomb country."

Even if they assume Iran would not "nuke" Israel (out of fear that a counterstrike would end this brief period of growing Shia ascendancy in the Islamic world), Israelis fear what Iranian possession of a nuke would do to the morale of their society. That is, take today’s threats ("cancerous tumor" that must be removed, says the Supreme Leader) and add a nuclear bomb, and Israelis would be living under threat of annihilation — call it Holocaust? — every day. Can such a place attract immigrants, or deter brain drain? Does it seem like a place with a real future? Can the children of Holocaust survivors sit around and take a chance on Iran?

Mr. Netanyahu will tell the president that the answer is no; Iran can’t be allowed to have the bomb. He will urge Mr. Obama to adopt a far tougher program of economic sanctions than now exists, and accept the use of force as a last resort. This portion of the meeting will be fateful. In June 1961, when John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev met in Vienna two months after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Soviet leader concluded that Mr. Kennedy was a pushover. Just over two months later Mr. Khrushchev gave the go-ahead for building the Berlin Wall, and just over a year later he was putting missiles into Cuba. Mr. Khrushchev had decided that Mr. Kennedy was "too intelligent and too weak." If that’s the assessment Mr. Netanyahu makes — that Mr. Obama is plenty smart, but will never risk confronting Iran — he may resolve that an Israeli strike on Iran is unavoidable.

Israel’s military options and capabilities against Iran — and the state of its intelligence about the Iranian nuclear program — are of course state secrets, but the Israeli air force has been practicing long-range bombing runs. Israel’s surprise attack on the secret Syrian nuclear reactor at al-Kibar in 2007 was gutsy and beautifully done, but far simpler than an attack on Iran — which is much farther away and presents multiple targets. Israel must also assess how Iran, and its agents in Hezbollah, would react to such an attack. Syria, like Iraq after Israel hit the Osirak reactor in 1981, did not react by trying to strike Israel; indeed Syria even hid the fact of the bombing, trying to save face. Iran might do likewise, might respond with acts of terrorism against Israel, or might unleash rockets attacks on Israeli military sites or even Israeli cities. So the decision on this subject is the most difficult one facing Israel’s government and the one Mr. Netanyahu will most wish to discuss with President Obama.

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