By Joel Brinkley

Despite extraordinary election-year pressure, President Obama stood up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week and refused to be dragged into still another war -- this one against Iran.

And for that I admire him because, should Israel's right-wing government make the great mistake of attacking Iran -- as some Israelis leaders are tacitly threatening to do -- the United States is almost certain to be drawn into the fighting.

Over several days, Obama repeatedly pledged that he would attack Iran if no other choice remained, and we should take him at his word. But "for the sake of Israel's security, America's security and the peace and security of the world," he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Sunday, "now is not the time" for "loose talk of war."

Newt Gingrich, the now-irrelevant Republican presidential candidate, immediately shot back that Obama is being "played for fools" by Iran.

Meeting with Netanyahu in the Oval Office on Monday, Obama urged him to give more time for sanctions to work. Netanyahu, on the other hand, seemed to suggest he's not willing to wait. "Israel must have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat." he declared.

"We've waited for diplomacy to work," Netanyahu told the AIPAC meeting Monday night. "We've waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer."

In the days leading up to his visit, Israeli officials had displayed deep anger with Washington for downplaying the Iranian threat and publicly chastising Israeli officials for their bellicose talk. Several American officials visited Jerusalem and reported on their pique.

"The Israelis are unnerved," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

Particularly galling was Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who called Iran a "rational actor," adding that the U.S. believes "it's not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran."

Israel rightly views Iran as an "existential threat" and resents Washington's seeming insensitivity to that. After all, now more than ever, any uncertainty over Iran's intentions should be swept away. One recent event closed the door. After years of stalling, Iran finally allowed United Nations nuclear-agency inspectors to have a look at their facilities last month. When they asked certain difficult questions, the Iranians refused to answer. When they requested to see certain suspect facilities, the Iranians refused. If Iran wanted to demonstrate that its program was peaceful, as it implausibly claims, that was its very best chance.

The U.N. declared the mission a failure. And in the days since, Iranian officials have been bragging that they are galloping ahead with uranium enrichment, producing far more than they need for any conceivable peaceful purpose -- almost seeming to be daring Israel to attack.

Nonetheless, an Israeli attack would be a great mistake -- for Israel, and potentially for the U.S. Remember last year, when Robert Gates, then the secretary of defense, revealed that Hezbollah, the Iran/Syria militant proxy in southern Lebanon, "has tens of thousands of rockets and missiles, more than most governments in the world."

Last August, I stood on a bluff overlooking Israel's border with Lebanon as an Israeli military officer pointed to buildings and other sites that he said were bristling with rockets. He said Israel destroyed some new long-range missiles that had been left on launchers, out in the open. Now, the officer added, Hezbollah keeps them hidden.

Those missiles are there for only one reason: They sit in wait for the moment, the excuse, to attack Israel.

"The Zionist scheme poses a danger to this entire region, to its governments and people," Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, said on Lebanese television last month. "We should all confront this danger" and "foil this project."

At the same time, for years now Iran has been developing intercontinental ballistic missiles that obviously would have no trouble reaching Tel Aviv. North Korea helped design and build them.

Nothing would make both Iran and Hezbollah happier than to be handed the excuse to fire everything they have at Israel. For Iran, particularly, destroying the "Zionist entity" has long been its single-minded goal.

Ehud Barak, Israel's defense minister, said the counterattack would be "bearable." I doubt it. All that firepower would decimate the state. And that would almost certainly force the U.S., Israel's only true ally, to come to its aid -- drawing American forces into the conflict.

I agree with Meir Dagan, the recently retired chief of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. An Israeli attack on Iran, he said a few weeks ago, is "a stupid idea."


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