Iran Crisis: Did Bibi just blink?

In recent weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in tandem with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, have been playing a high-stakes poker game, including leaks and provocations aimed at President Obama, with the apparent intent of getting the U.S. to back attacks on Iran’s nuclear sites this autumn. It was all playing out as some members of the Israeli media had predicted eerily back in March, including a Bibi-led “conspiracy” to get the U.S. to back a war with Iran late this summer.

Yet in the last week Bibi’s machinations haven’t been working out as planned, in the face of unexpected public pushback from the Pentagon and even an apparent watering down of support for Likud positions in the revised Democratic National Committee platform. It looks like a clear setback for Bibi and his retinue of hardliners.

But has Bibi blinked? Evidence has just emerged that the tough-talking former commando has backed down, and that Obama may have pushed back Israel’s plans for war with Iran. Orly Azoulay, Washington bureau chief for Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s top daily, and a longtime Obama watcher, today ran a detailed account of what’s been going on behind the scenes between DC and Jerusalem, and how Bibi’s October Surprise has been thwarted.

Based on the accounts of unnamed U.S. senior officials, Azoulay asserts that last week, after “intense” negotiations, the Administration promised that Obama soon would publicly present the “red line” Bibi has been clamoring for, which if crossed would bring unspecified “severe consequences” for Iran. However, Obama was not willing to back Israel’s demand that the US join in an attack on Iran if the ayatollahs refuse to cease uranium enrichment. An unambiguous ultimatum from the White House, sought by Netanyahu, may not be in the offing.

A senior American official involved in the talks explained that Netanyahu had toned down his warlike rhetoric “because he realized that he cannot drag the United States into a war that it is not interested in.” The official added that Obama was personally hurt that no one in the Israeli leadership came to his defense when GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said that the president had forsaken Israel’s security and “thrown it under the bus” – when, in fact, Obama gave Israel farther-reaching military and intelligence benefits than any previous American president. Obama has realized that it was a mistake not to visit Israel when he stopped in Cairo in 2009, and if reelected he will visit the country early in his second term.

Azoulay’s account was bolstered by Ma’ariv, Israel’s other major daily, which reported that the White House and Bibi’s staff have been working towards a series of measures that will push any military solution to the Iran nuclear crisis into 2013. In addition to more advanced U.S. weapons for Israel, Netanyahu wants DC to give the Iranians an explicit ultimatum regarding talks with the international community – which, if Tehran refuses to follow, will result in the closing of any diplomatic “window of opportunity” on the nuclear issue. This would be the “red line” which Netanyahu has spoken of repeatedly in recent days as the only way to avert a preventative Israeli war on Iran.

Has that war, which could bring untold consequences for the region and the world, just been averted? Looks very possible … stay tuned.