It has been a tumultuous couple of weeks in the Iran-Israel War, and it hasn’t even started yet.
Over the past few days, Iranian leaders have promised Israel’s coming destruction about half a dozen times, and have gotten so overheated they’ve begun to mix metaphors: There has been much talk about wiping the cancerous tumor of Zionism from the map, and so on. The Iranians’ language has become sufficiently genocidal that even the secretary general of the United Nations, not generally known as a hotbed of Zionist feeling, said he was "dismayed by the remarks threatening Israel’s existence."
Israel’s leaders are also "dismayed." But their dismay is prompted by something much deeper than rhetoric. They understand that much of the civilized world is prepared to live with a nuclear Iran, and they harbor seemingly ineradicable fears that President Barack Obama, and his Western allies, might secretly be willing to do the same.
The Israelis - Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in particular — have been suggesting to the news media these past two weeks that the time is nearly at hand for a strike on Iran’s nuclear sites. Of course, Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been discussing the existential threat posed by Iran since they came into office. (Netanyahu, in an interview with me three years ago, said Iran was led by a "messianic, apocalyptic cult," and told me he thought the two great tasks before Obama were fixing the U.S. economy and stopping Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold.)
Which is partly why the White House seems to be taking the most recent Israeli statements and strategic leaks in stride — a bit too much in stride, in fact. They seem to be discounting the rhetoric as idle threats. It’s clear to the White House that "the Israelis feel the need to elevate the urgency on the Iranian timeline," according to a senior administration official who declined to be identified. "They tend to do this from time to time. It’s something we’ve learned to live with."
There is, naturally, an element of gamesmanship to the Israeli government’s media campaign. But one way to tell that Netanyahu and Barak may actually be intent on striking Iran in the coming weeks is that those Israelis who oppose a unilateral strike appear to be panicking. Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, is the most prominent. The Israeli presidency is mainly a ceremonial post, and Peres crossed the line into overt political interference last week when he said that Israel "cannot do it alone." He went on, "It is clear to us that we have to proceed together with America."
The Obama administration is adamantly opposed to an Israeli strike this year, and is obviously also opposed to launching its own attack in 2012. Administration officials believe that Netanyahu and Barak should have faith in Obama’s assurances that he’ll stop Iran, and that the United Statese has time before Iran crosses the nuclear threshold. So far, though, the administration has failed to convince the Israelis — or the Arabs of the Persian Gulf, who also quake in fear of Iran — that it will take preventive military measures.
I think the president is serious about confronting the threat. I also understand why Israel’s leaders are conditioned to disbelieve him: Jewish history is strewn with examples of promises unfulfilled and outright abandonment.
There is one sure way, though, that Obama can get his message across, and that is to deliver it in Israel, and soon.
Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence (and one of the pilots in the 1981 Israeli raid on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor), argues that Obama should visit Israel to deliver a face-to-face message that stopping Iran is a vital U.S. national security interest.
A visit to Israel would do more to delay a strike on Iran than any other step the administration could take. The beauty of this idea is that Obama won’t have to say anything new. He’s on record explaining why the idea of containing a nuclear Iran isn’t an option; he’s on record promising to stop Iran by whatever means necessary; and he’s on record explaining why a nuclear-free Iran is in the interests of the U.S.
"If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, this would run completely contrary to my policies of nonproliferation," he told me in an interview this year.
When I asked him what his position would be if Israel were not in the picture, he answered: "It would still be a profound national-security interest of the United States to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon."
These words, delivered in the Oval Office, are powerful. But delivered in Jerusalem, before the Knesset, they would deeply reassure the prime minister and the Israeli public. What could be more effective than the U.S. president explaining to Israelis, in Israel, that their two countries share the same interests?
Yes, Obama is running for re-election, and it is hard to leave Ohio and Florida. But a trip to Israel - a place he hasn’t visited as president - would put Iran on notice that Obama is deadly serious about thwarting their plans. Combined with stops in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, such a visit would also allay the fears of our Arab allies. Most important, such a visit could prevent war. Which, of course, is a very presidential thing to do.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic.