USA and Israel at odds over possible Iran attack

President Obama warns the Israel lobby against ‘loose talk’ of war © Getty Images

The spectre of another Middle Eastern war cast a shadow over the Israeli prime minister’s US visit, as the two old allies clashed over Iran’s nuclear programme. Is war on the horizon?

When the leaders of Israel and the USA meet, it is customary for them to exchange assurances of an intimate and irreversible alliance. This Monday’s summit between President Barack Obama and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was no exception. ‘The bond between our two countries is unbreakable,’ promised Obama, and his opposite number went even further: ‘We are you and you are us,’ he said. ‘We’re together.’

Yet as the lightest scratch beneath this glossy surface reveals, there are clear cracks between the two leaders. And the battleground of their disagreement is one that fills diplomats and analysts worldwide with dread: Iran.

Since November, talk of a war in Iran has grown from a steady, distant rumble to a serious possibility – a crescendo that Netanyahu himself has led. Obama chided this ‘loose talk of war,’ but to no avail – Netanyahu’s aggressive rhetoric continued.

Dramatically quoting from diplomatic correspondence dating from 1944, he recalled how America had rejected Jewish pleas to bomb Auschwitz. The implication was clear: Iran is Nazi Germany, and the consequences of inaction could be even worse than war. ‘We’ve waited for sanctions to work,’ said Netanyahu. ‘None of us can afford to wait much longer.’

But fast on the tracks of this bullish talk, flagging diplomatic efforts received a small boost. Iran agreed to allow weapons inspectors from six powers – including America – to visit some of the alleged hubs of their nuclear programme.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, at whose annual conference the leaders were speaking, is one of the most powerful lobby groups in Washington. With an election looming, Obama is under pressure to make a clear threat of strikes; his potential opponents are already using the issue to accuse him of weakness.

Netanyahu is also facing a vote, but for his chances of re-election a conflict might be fatal: Iran’s revenge bombings would target his citizens, many of whom are understandably scared. Curiously, then, both leaders are in some ways pulling against the pressures of their own electorate.

A vicious triangle

Some commentators conclude from this that war is unlikely. Even if Netanyahu is in earnest, he can do little on his own. The two leaders are right, they say: Israel and America can only act as one. As long as Obama is committed to diplomacy and sanctions, this talk of strikes is just bluster.

Don’t be so sure, warn others. Obama has tellingly refused to rule out the military option, and Israel could yet force his hand. If the Israelis were to act without him he would look weak, and Netanyahu knows that. This is no time for complacency, they say: we are teetering on the brink of a major war.

You Decide

  1. Is an offensive war ever justified?
  2. Should alliances be based on shared aims or shared values?


  1. Write a story about a friendship that comes under strain over an important disagreement.
  2. Imagine you are an American politician. Write a short speech for or against attacking Iran.

Some People Say...

“You should always support a friend, no matter what.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Could we be heading for World War III?
The most extreme rhetoric comes close to implying this: Netanyahu has said that ‘this is 1938’ – unless we act now, in other words, we are a year from cataclysmic global conflict. That is surely an exaggeration. But war would add to the instability of the entire region, and Iran has several options for retaliation. As well as bombing Israel, they have threatened to order terrorist attacks on America and its allies. They would also send oil prices rocketing by blocking essential trade routes.
So should we be more scared of Iran getting the bomb?
That’s a judgement call. It would certainly make the Iranians tougher to deal with, and put a lot of destructive power in extremist hands. Again though, fears of a nuclear apocalypse are probably far fetched.

Word Watch

America supported the creation of a Jewish state after the Second World War, and since then the two countries have almost always been close. This is partly because of shared values like democracy and Judeo-Christian religion. But it is also pragmatic: Israel is the USA’s strongest ally in the Middle East, and in turn Israel relies on America to ward off attacks from their many hostile neighbours.
According to Netanyahu, America refused to bomb Nazi concentration camps because they thought the Germans might be driven to ‘even more vindictive actions.’ Few recognised the extent of the Holocaust’s horrors at the time , although there were warnings.
Lobby groups
Lobby groups push for policies that favour the special interests they represent. As well as persuasion, some can also use financial power and the media – this is certainly true of AIPAC, which includes some of the richest donors to American political parties.

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