Even as the United States and Israel patch up their latest rift—with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited to meet President Obama on Tuesday—considerable confusion remains about what caused it. Various reasons have been given for why the president was so incensed by the embarrassing announcement of new settlement construction during Vice President Joe Biden's trip two weeks ago. Obama was said to be particularly upset because he thought he had Netanyahu's understanding, following a similar imbroglio last fall, that Washington wouldn't be taken by surprise by such an announcement again. Other reports suggested that Biden had warned Netanyahu that U.S. troops in the region were being endangered.
But the main reason for Obama's ire, according to a senior administration official, who asked not to be named, was that Biden had gone to Israel specifically to deliver a message to Netanyahu: the main issue is now Iran and its nuclear program, and we can't allow ourselves to be distracted by other issues or to jeopardize the emerging alliance against Tehran in support of tough sanctions—an alliance which includes most of the leading Arab states. In particular, Netanyahu—who campaigned for office himself on the primacy of the Iranian nuclear issue—can't afford to allow Israel's leading defender on this issue, the president of the United States, to look as if he's weak or lacking influence. (Haaretz's Aluf Benn first suggested Biden's secret message in an essay for NEWSWEEK last week.)
And that of course is precisely what happened. Netanyahu's government made Obama look bad, undermining the effort against Iran. After the Israeli Interior Ministry announced the construction of an additional 1,600 apartments in East Jerusalem, the headlines were dominated by the apparent breach between the United States and Israel, the outraged protests of Arab leaders and Palestinians, and all anyone could talk about was how U.S.-Israeli relations were at a 35-year low, and the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian dispute that has fed both Iranian and Al Qaeda propaganda for years.
That was nothing less than a strategic bungle by Netanyahu's government, Obama administration officials believe. "They need to keep their eyes on the ball over the next 12 months or so," the senior administration official told me. "It's make-or-break time. Iran is the No. 1 priority, it's the No. 2 priority, and it's the No. 3 priority. Everything we do needs to be seen through the lens of how to stop Iran from getting nuclear capability. So they need to keep their focus. Why would you want to do anything now to make the president look less strong or effective?"
All of this comes as the Obama administration is quietly lining up a new set of measures against Iran beyond what is being discussed in the U.N. Security Council, administration officials say. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continued to attack Tehran rhetorically Monday, describing Iran as a "menace" in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's (AIPAC) annual convention and calling for sanctions that "bite." Stuart Levey, the Treasury undersecretary who has led this effort for both the Obama and Bush administrations, is expected to implement a new series of sanctions against Iranian companies controlled by the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps and other entities. Both U.S. and foreign officials say the new measures will likely add to whatever sanctions are imposed in any forthcoming U.N. Security Council resolution.
Perhaps the most ironic dimension of the current U.S.-Israeli tensions is that before both men took office, it was Netanyahu who sought to impress upon then-candidate Obama the primacy of the Iran issue. Netanyahu hammered that point home to candidate Obama during their first meeting in July 2008 at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, according to Uzi Arad, Netanyahu's national-security adviser. Without addressing Iran's attempted rise as a nuclear-powered regional hegemon, there can be no security, Netanyahu said. "Should one fail to neutralize that Iranian threat now, it would undercut anything that would be achieved with the Palestinians, Syria, or Lebanon," Arad told me at the time, relating Netanyahu's message. "If Iran became nuclear it would mean the victory of the militants in Hamas and Hizbullah and undercut the moderates."
Obama apparently took that message to heart. Netanyahu, who maintains he didn't know about the announcement during the Biden visit, should remember it as well.
Michael Hirsh is also the author of At War with Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World.