Charles Dharapak/AP

Bibi Netanyahu is Forcing Obama to Decide Between Iran and Palestine

The administration sees its diplomatic work on both issues as the lynchpins to stability in the Middle East. Too bad Jerusalem isn't on the same page. By Michael Hirsh

The problem is not so much that Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama don’t like each other. The problem is they don’t trust each other. Which explains the Israeli prime minister’s fulminations last week in blasting, from afar, a temporary deal being negotiated in Geneva that would have frozen Iran’s uranium-enrichment program. But if Netanyahu exacts revenge, it may not be on the Iranians. It may well be on the Palestinians.

Ever since he first met then-candidate Obama in mid-2008, Netanyahu has lumped the Iran and Palestinian issues together and insisted they be solved sequentially—Iran first, peace and statehood second. “If Iran became nuclear it would mean the victory of the militants in Hamas and Hezbollah and undercut the moderates,” Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s then-national security adviser, explained in an interview at the time. So now Netanyahu, in his umbrage, has an excuse to put off the issue of Palestinian statehood yet again—and, frankly, the Israeli-Palestinian talks are going so poorly that not too many Israelis would blame him.

The hard-line Netanyahu, son of an ultra-rightist scholar who brooked no rapprochement with Arabs and believed that Jewish history was simply one holocaust after another, has rarely seen a negotiation he likes, whether on Iran or Palestine. (Former top U.S. peace negotiator Dennis Ross called him “insufferable” during Netanyahu’s first tenure as PM in the 1990s.) And yet for all Israelis, the issue of trust is a very real one. Do they really believe Obama’s “got their back” against Iran—in other words, will he ensure that Tehran never gets a bomb—as the president pledged in 2012? Or will they, in the end, decide they have to take action against the Iranian nuclear program themselves, negotiations or no?

(Read more: Everyone Is Posturing on Iran (and Everyone Wants a Deal)

It didn’t help to inspire trust last week when French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius—one of Bibi’s new buddies— publicly slammed the nuclear deal as a “sucker’s bet” almost as soon as he arrived in Geneva, embarrassing Secretary of State John Kerry and enraging the chief Iranian negotiator, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Some of this was posturing. Paris gets piqued when it’s not fully consulted on major Middle East issues, especially since it has taken a muscular lead in addressing recent flash points from Libya to Mali. And French President François Hollande is still fuming over the way Obama suddenly spurned military action against Syria a day after Hollande endorsed it, making the latter look a little foolish at a time when he is already deeply unpopular at home. Gallic pride is sorely in need of a patch-up.

Netanyahu is doing some posturing, too. Whatever threats he might make about Israeli military action against Iran, he knows that’s not going to happen in the middle of these negotiations. Nor is it likely to happen any time soon: His martial bluster can’t hide the fact that most of Israel’s defense/intelligence apparatus is resisting a strike—because an attack could, in the end, achieve the precise opposite of what Israel needs. It might damage Iran’s nuclear facilities only partially, marginalize the moderates in Tehran, and send Iran racing even faster toward a bomb, many Israeli officials fear.

And yet the trust issue is not going to go away. Most signs point toward some kind of temporary pact between the West and Iran, especially since Obama and Hollande spoke by phone Wednesday. But the Israelis fret that as more time passes in negotiations, not only does Iran get closer to industrial capacity to produce a bomb, but Israel’s retaliatory options weaken as well. The Israeli military may not have the bunker-busters and other firepower necessary to take out deeply buried enrichment facilities such as Fordow, near the city of Qom, once they become fully operational. Thus, what Israel wants from Iran is something close to total surrender of its nuclear facilities before anyone discusses easing sanctions at all.

Obama administration officials say the only sanctions relief they are discussing in exchange for a freeze is temporary and can be turned on and off like a “spigot,” in the words of Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, at the pleasure of the U.S. government if Tehran doesn’t halt all nuclear-weapons work. But officials around Netanyahu suspect that Obama and Kerry are both a little too eager for a deal that in the end will still allow Tehran to slip quietly toward nuclear capability—a suspicion highlighted when Fabius insisted that construction of the heavy-water reactor at Arak be included in the six-month freeze agreement.

All of which brings us back to the Palestinians. Kerry badly wants to push peace talks, knowing they are a crucial part of the stability equation in the unraveling Middle East. And just because Netanyahu is mostly blustering on Iran (although he has some powerful enemies on Capitol Hill who are threatening to add new sanctions), the Israeli knows he has some real leverage. Netanyahu claimed to have been taken by surprise Tuesday when his housing ministry suddenly announced plans for another 20,000 units in West Bank settlements, prompting Palestinian negotiators to threaten a walkout. But the move was all too reminiscent of other such calculated rebuffs, like the time the Israeli interior ministry announced construction of an additional 1,600 apartments in East Jerusalem in 2010—in the middle of a visit by Vice President Joe Biden.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu is playing a dangerous game, gambling with both Israel’s future and his own reputation. Indeed, the chief victim of the prime minister’s efforts to shoot down Palestinian talks could well be his own foot. Putting off a two-state solution, however satisfying to hawks, could still someday turn Israel into a Middle East version of an apartheid nation, and possibly even destroy the Jewish nature of the state. The Iranians are hardly the only existential threat.