Two dozen Israeli fighter jets have just entered Jordanian airspace, apparently en route to Iran, chief of staff Jack Lew tells him. They will enter Iranian airspace, via Iraq, in approximately 85 minutes.
“Damn it,” Obama says under his breath. “Bibi told me he was going to hold off.”
Within 45 minutes, the president’s national security brain trust has convened in the Situation Room. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta informs the group that attempts to reach Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have so far failed but that Israeli military commanders are briefing the Pentagon on Israel’s targets.
Panetta lays out the United States’ options: either persuade Netanyahu to call it off, or shoot down the planes.
“Shooting down the planes is not an option!” Vice President Biden explodes. “Tell Bibi the president of the United States wants to talk to him now!”
Within minutes, Netanyahu’s voice is heard on the speakerphone, and he immediately preempts any attempts to call off the mission.
“I couldn’t wait any longer, Mr. President,” he says firmly. “I am responsible for the security of the Jewish nation.”
As Netanyahu explains the operation, Obama eyes the large electronic map of the Middle East on the Situation Room wall. The coordinates of the Israeli planes show that they’re nearing Iran.
“Mr. President,” Netanyahu says. “I hope we can count on your full support.”
Obama’s face masks his scorn. He pauses for several moments before responding. “You know I respect Israel’s right to defend itself,” he says, “but I need to do what’s in the interests of the United States.”
Panetta orders the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. James Mattis, to activate Operation Gulf Shield, putting America’s military forces throughout the Middle East on their highest defensive posture, bracing for Iranian retaliation.
Obama surveys the room. “What do we tell the Iranians?” he asks. “They’re going to assume we’re behind this.”
The battle lines are quickly drawn. Susan Rice — the ambassador to the United Nations and a close Obama confidante, who is in the running to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state — is the first to chime in, via secure video teleconference: “We need to be clear that the Israelis acted without our knowledge. We need to urge Iran to exercise restraint while we restrain Israel.”
“With respect,” CIA Director David H. Petraeus says, “if we send them that message, they’ll think they can retaliate without us responding. The Iranians need to believe that if they respond, the United States will enter this war — and swiftly and decisively end it.”
“I agree with David,” Clinton says. “The Iranians need to know there is no daylight they can exploit between us and the Israelis.”