The strategy of the new Israeli government is to avoid making a deal with the Palestinians by changing the subject. Instead of talking about Palestine, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman want to talk about Iran.

Unfortunately, General Petraeus is helping them change the subject. In remarks yesterday, Petraeus said:

“The Israeli government may ultimately see itself so threatened by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon that it would take preemptive military action to derail or delay it.”

Rather more calmly, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said:

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates estimated in a Financial Times interview that Israel will not attack Iran this year. “I guess I would say I would be surprised…if they did act this year,” Gates said.

Asked whether Iran would cross a nuclear “red line” this year, Gates said: “I don’t know, I would guess probably not. I think we have more time than that. How much more time I don’t know. It is a year, two years, three years. It is somewhere in that window.”

Actually, there is plenty of time, as Gates suggests. Iran hasn’t enriched an ounce of uranium to weapons grade. It doesn’t have the means to deliver a weapon, even if could build one. And it’s unclear that Iran has the technical knowhow to build a bomb, even if it did manage to enrich the uranium it possesses.

Netanyahu, eager to change the subject from Palestine, is already blustering — on his first day in office — that he’s contemplating an attack on Iran. He told The Atlantic, which titled its bombastic interview “Netanyahu to Obama: Stop Iran–Or I Will”:

“The Obama presidency has two great missions: fixing the economy, and preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. … You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran.

“Iran is a composite leadership, but in that composite leadership there are elements of wide-eyed fanaticism that do not exist right now in any other would-be nuclear power in the world. That’s what makes them so dangerous.

“Since the dawn of the nuclear age, we have not had a fanatic regime that might put its zealotry above its self-interest. People say that they’ll behave like any other nuclear power. Can you take the risk? Can you assume that? You see a country that glorifies blood and death, including its own self-immolation.”

Writing in Haaretz, Aluf Benn says:

In political circles the view is that yes, Netanyahu as prime minister brings Israel closer to war with Iran. Politicians in touch with Netanyahu say he has already made up his mind to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations.

The fear-mongering about Iran is partly designed to undermine the US-Iran negotiations dance that’s underway, and which took concrete form this week at a meeting in the Hague in which US and Iranian officials met for the first time in person. The neoconservatives, and their Netanyahu allies, realize that President Obama is serious about talking to Iran. They also realize that those talks will take a long, long time. For that reason, they’ve been warning for months that any US-Iran dialogue be placed on a short fuse.

Sadly, a group of top congressional Democrats, including several former campaign advisers to Obama, have signed on to the short-fuse strategy:

The signatories include some hugely important House Dems, including House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (Calif.), House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Silvestre Reyes (Texas), House Armed Service Committee Chairman Rep. Ike Skelton (Mo.), House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), House Foreign Affairs Middle East and South Asia subcommittee Chairman Gary Ackerman (N.Y.) and Rep. Robert Wexler (Fla.), a close Obama ally and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe.

Their letter read:

Engagement must be serious and credible, but it cannot be open-ended. Our goal should be to bring about Iran’s near-term suspension of uranium enrichment, and we should offer Iran meaningful incentives in order to achieve this goal. But we cannot allow Iran to use diplomatic discussions as a cover for continuing to work on its nuclear program. Iran must verifiably suspend its uranium enrichment program within at most a few months of the initiation of discussions.

We urge that the talks begin as soon as possible, so that we will have the earliest possible indication of whether they will succeed in halting Iran’s nuclear program. American action on this matter cannot be deferred. Waiting until after the Iranian presidential elections in June would give Tehran as much as six more months of unhindered enrichment and stockpiling.

Should the process of engagement not yield the desired results, we would urge you to immediately apply the tools at your disposal to increase economic pressure on the Iranians.

Note the use of the phrase “at most a few months.” No serious diplomat believes that the US and Iran will work out a deal within months. There’s no other way to read the letter from Hoyer, Wexler, et al. as a deliberate effort to sabotage the talks before they begin. The big question is: Did Dennis Ross, the US special adviser for Iran and a hardliner, encourage the members of Congress to send the letter?