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When Israel Acts, Will the U.S. Have Israel's Back?

12:29 AM, Mar 6, 2012 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Monday night, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said simply and clearly, "When it comes to Israel's survival, we must always remain the masters of our fate."

Barack Obama and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Barack Obama and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But not according to President Obama. His timetable for acting against Iran would precisely undermine Israel's ability to determine her fate. President Obama wants to wait to act until Iran is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. And by that point Iran will have entered what Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak calls a "zone of immunity"—when Israel, with lesser capabilities than the U.S., might well no longer be able to act to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. If Israel is to act, it must be before Iran enters that zone. Otherwise, Israel will be in the position of depending on the U.S. to act later to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. This dependence on another nation is what an Israeli prime minister cannot accept.

The issue is not whether Israel can trust President Obama to do what he says—or whether Israel could trust any American president on a matter of such gravity. The issue is not whether the president is right to be confident that the U.S. would see an Iranian breakout and could act in time. The issue is not even how an Iranian nuclear capability, pre-breakout, would transform the region for the worse. These are all secondary issues.

The Israeli prime minister insists that Israel remain the master of her fate. The American president is willing to let the Iranian nuclear program go to a point where Israel would no longer be master of her fate. This is the fundamental disconnect. And this disconnect can result in only one outcome: Israel will have to act.

It would of course be better if President Obama were not wedded to a timeline that fails to recognize the imperatives of Israel's security. The task of American friends of Israel is first to try to persuade President Obama to act sooner than he now appears willing to do, to persuade him that the United States should stand arm in arm and side by side with Israel. But if President Obama continues to insist that it is Israel who takes the lead, the task of American friends of Israel will be to ensure that President Obama at least lives up to his promise Sunday that "when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back."

The chips will soon be down. When Israel acts on behalf of the civilized world, the least the American president can do is to have her back.

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