By Jeremy Herb and Amie Parnes - 02/26/12 11:15 AM EST
When President Obama sits down face-to-face with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next week to discuss Iran, he will be staring down the greatest challenge on Israel he’s faced during his presidency.
It is the first time Obama has met Netanyahu since last spring, when the Israeli leader appeared to lecture the president on his country’s history in front of cameras at the White House.
Whatever tensions exist could be exacerbated by the looming crisis that provides a backdrop for the election-year meeting.
Administration officials acknowledge the Iranian nuclear issue is coming to a head, but U.S. officials have cautioned Israel against a strike that would threaten stability in the Middle East and the global economy.
It’s possible the Obama-Netanyahu meeting next week could determine both countries’ course of actions for Iran.
“The relationship between and Obama and Netanyahu is going to be tested like never before,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It doesn’t have to happen on March 5… but if they don't see eye-to-eye, the prospect of Israel going off on its own dramatically increases.”
Iran has been defiant in the face of economic sanctions, threatening a pre-emptive strike against countries that would attack, moving uranium operations underground and not allowing nuclear inspectors access to a military site.
Both Israel and the United States have said they want stiff economic sanctions imposed on Iran to convince the country not to pursue nuclear weapons.
But the two countries view the threat of a nuclear Iran differently, and Israel has less capability than the United States militarily, analysts say, giving the Israelis a shorter potential window to intervene.
“Israel sees this as a very stabilizing significant event, and Israel also lacks the capacity to be able to deal with it in an effective way with diplomacy or economic measures,” Gen. Wesley Clark, a former Democratic presidential candidate, told The Hill.
“The United States sees it as part of a broader counter-proliferation strategy. Certainly it’s well aware of regional risks imposed by Iran… It also has other tools for dealing with it. So, some differences in perspective are inevitable.”
An Israeli strike against Iran has the potential to upend Obama’s presidency — and his reelection campaign.
Iran presents both a real world and political conundrum for Obama, who must balance the threat of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon against the upheaval in the oil market and larger economy that could be a repercussion of a military strike.
“No one’s naïve about what the consequences would be,” said one administration official. “Are we well aware of what would be at stake if a strike occurred? Absolutely.”
A potential Israeli attack risks undermining the U.S. argument for sanctions and pushing Iran to expedite its nuclear production, analysts say.
Senior administration officials maintain the relationship with Israel is “rock solid” and coordination between the two countries is as good as it’s ever been.
And while Obama and Netanyahu do not have a good relationship, one source who has been active in U.S.-Israel relations said personal tensions won’t necessarily harm their ability to work together on Iran.
“It’s not FDR and Churchill,” said the source. “But it doesn’t need to be. The fact that they can disagree is a strength of the relationship.
“Nobody wants a fight here,” the source added. “A fight is in nobody’s interest.”
Obama’s potential Republican opponents have hammered the president on both Iran and Israel.
Mitt Romney said at Wednesday’s presidential debate that Iran would obtain nuclear weapons if Obama is reelected.
“We must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon,” Romney said. “If they do, the world changes. America will be at risk. And some day, nuclear weaponry will be used. If I am president, that will not happen. If we reelect Barack Obama, it will happen.”
Republicans have also been critical of Obama’s stance toward Israeli negotiations with the Palestinians, after the president called for the 1967 borders to be the starting point for peace negotiations. That led to the chilly meeting between Obama and Netanyahu at the White House last year.
Yehuda Ben Meir, a former Knesset member and senior research fellow at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, said that relations between Netanyahu and Obama seem to have improved in recent months, particularly when Obama rallied against the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN last year.
Ben Meir said public opinion in Israel is virtually split on whether Israel should attack Iran.
Administration officials stressed that even if Israel goes its own way on Iran, the United States will still support Israel.
“At the end of the day, there’s no closer ally than Israel,” the administration official said. “We’re never going to abandon Israel, that’s unwavering.”