US brings some sense to a risky debate on war

The rush to war advocated by Israeli hardliners and Republican presidential candidates received a much-needed check in Washington on Sunday. Cooler heads, for a day at least, prevailed.

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There were the usual platitudes: America's support for Israel is bipartisan, resolute, unwavering; Israel's security is non-negotiable. These words are so often repeated that they are almost obligatory in Washington's political circles.

But on Sunday, US President Barack Obama had something more to say to the annual gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The rush to war advocated by Israeli hardliners and Republican presidential candidates received a much-needed check. Cooler heads, for a day at least, prevailed.

"Already, there is too much loose talk of war," Mr Obama said. "Now is not the time for bluster."

Threats to obliterate Iran's nuclear programme have only served Tehran's regime, not least by driving up the price of oil, which funds its nuclear programme. The hardliners, triumphant in Iran's recent election, only gain support when they are seen as standing up to the United States and Israel.

The belligerence of recent months has been remarkably counterproductive, as well as potentially dangerous. New sanctions that are putting increasing pressure on Iran have hardly been given a chance.

Keeping "all options on the table" may be Washington's prerogative - indeed, what would be the point of ruling out options? - but after months of sabre-rattling, the foolish rhetoric has to be tamped down.

Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister, hit back against Mr Obama as was to be expected: Israel would decide on its own whether to strike, Mr Lieverman said, and it does not need US approval. Theoretically true, but without US support, an Israeli attack on Iran would be a tactical as well as political folly.

Of course, Iran can still provoke an attack through folly of its own. As the IAEA has made clear, Tehran continues to enrich uranium in defiance of international law, and conceals large portions of its programme. Iran may not have decided to build a weapon, but its policy of ambiguity carries many risks.

Mr Obama has performed a delicate diplomatic dance in recent days. His reward, quite likely, will be that no one will be pleased. Hawks will criticise him for perceived weakness, a spurious and serious charge during a campaign. More level heads will rightly note that he repeated the same promises that have enabled Israel to continue its occupation of Palestinian territory and belligerent posturing.

But given the politicking of recent months, Mr Obama's quiet rebuttal deserves credit as a counterpoint to the clamour for war.