By John Rapley
In a speech to the United Nations last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu produced a Wile E Coyote drawing of a bomb and drew a red line through it. Thereby, he dramatised the point that Israel is preparing to bomb Iran.
Iran has been developing a nuclear programme which will, in coming years, enable it to build a bomb. Given Iran's express opposition to Israel, and its long-range missiles, the Israeli government regards the possibility of a nuclear Iran with alarm.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has been pressing the Obama administration, which shares its concern, to declare when it will bomb Iran to thwart its programme. However, the Obama administration has resisted setting a clear "red line". Thus, Mr Netanyahu declared, in effect, "If you won't, we will."
The Israeli prime minister apparently took the possibility of an imminent strike, which could have upended the US election, off the table. Most observers reckon Israel is now looking at a spring attack. Nonetheless, Mr Netanyahu, with his keen eye for the spotlight, used his speech to influence the US campaign.
Put simply, Mr Netanyahu and US Pre-sident Barack Obama don't like each other much. They have diffe-rent responsibilities. It may reassure Israel to get a clear commitment from its principal ally on a timetable for an attack on Iran. America's superior military capacity gives it more time to wait than Israel, but Israel doesn't want to wait forever.
However, the Obama administration would prefer to first pressure Iran to abandon its programme - and it has enough reason to believe its sanctions policy may yet have that effect. In the meantime, few in the Washington foreign-policy community believe a clear declaration of a deadline would serve American interests.
So Mr Netanyahu says Israel will act alone, if it must. But it would appear that he's also hoping that, by drawing attention to his differences with the Obama administration, he might persuade enough Jewish-American voters to vote for Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Because a Romney administration would likely move in lockstep with a Netanyahu government.
It's high-stakes poker for the Israeli prime minister. By making his preference for a Republican president clear, he risks placing his country's security interests in the hands of the American electorate. Not surprisingly, many in the Israeli political Establishment are alarmed that he is putting the country's relationship with the US in danger.
Interestingly, much of the Israeli security Establishment doesn't share Mr Netanyahu's strategic vision. While hardly anyone in Israel likes the idea of a nuclear Iran, many in the country's military and intelligence communities believe that Mr Netanyahu is overstating the threat. Their hard-nosed assessment is widely shared in Washington.
In the American capital, in both the corridors of power and the seminar rooms of its think tanks, the view that a nuclear Iran would necessarily bomb Israel is not widely shared. Again, nobody much likes the idea of a nuclear Iran.
But while Tehran's mullahs and politicians love to spout messianic rhetoric about the destruction of Israel, many analysts believe that at the end of the day, the Iranian regime is hard-headed in the defence of its interests. They're not persuaded the regime will launch what would end up being a suicidal attack on Israel.
Besides, not only are America's military and foreign-policy leaders aware of how messy an attack on Iran would be. Some recent war-gaming revealed how a concentrated assault could quickly escalate into a wider war, with obvious consequences on world oil prices - and thus, the world economy. They are also unconvinced it could have the intended effect. By rallying Iranians around an unpopular regime, an attack on Iran could strengthen the resolve of Tehran to press ahead. And even the Israelis admit that an aerial bombardment can, at best, delay but not prevent Iran building a bomb.
Not surprisingly, living as it would under the shadow of an Iranian bomb, Israel might not feel such intellectual detachment from the potential threat. However, in stating his government's intentions so clearly, Mr Netanyahu may have opened a rift with his US ally. His gamble may pay off. But so, too, could the American electorate take all his chips off the table.
John Rapley is a foreign affairs analyst. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.