Friday, September 14, 2012

Netanyahu is WAY Out of Line (plus the Mittster's Missteps)

Convalescing from surgery, trying to keep up on various situations across the Middle East via news outlets, Twitter and Facebook - and I hope to weigh in soon.

But recent days have seen huge focus on the Mittster's missteps in the wake of the attacks on the US embassies in Cairo and Benghazi (and now Sana'a and Tunisia).  In essence, he had to take a pop quiz on national leadership vis-a-vis the Middle East.  He flunked it, miserably.  And this is not the judgment of liberal commentators alone. Even Fox News/WSJ contributor (and former GOP speech-writer) Peggy Noonan opined that Romney really put his foot in it.

The other point of mega-focus has been Bibi Netanyahu's ham-handed attempts to force Mr. Obama to some sort of red line on the development of Iran's nuclear program.  He plainly has inserted himself, with both feet, and firmly, into US electoral politics, where he plainly is trying to force Obama's hand as well as boost the electability of the Mittster, with whom he once palled around at Harvard, where Romney knew him as Ben Nitan.  It has been electrifying to see the push-back now coming against Bibi, from Barbara Boxer's letter to the broadsides of various commentators.  Paul Pillar (at the National Interest) provides a scathing essay about Netanyahu's "arrogance."

Perhaps there is seeping into the consciousness of more and more informed Americans the realization that Netanyahu—with his drum-beating, his complete rejection (in defiance of the policies of the United States and other Western powers) of the very idea of negotiations with the Iranians, and his demand for red lines—is trying to lead America by the nose into a war that would be profoundly against U.S. interests. And it would be a war fought primarily to maintain Israel's regional nuclear weapons monopoly and—also not in U.S. interests—untrammeled ability to throw its weight around.


Even for those attuned less to specific calculations about U.S. interests and more to general concepts of right and wrong, Netanyahu has provided much to offend. A military attack launched to damage or destroy somebody else's nuclear program—launched, no less, by a state that long has had nuclear weapons completely outside any international monitoring or control regime—would be an act of aggression clearly in violation of international law. The infliction of casualties involved, inflicted to maintain the aggressor's nuclear weapons monopoly, would be an immoral act. And yet Netanyahu says those who may object to any of this “don't have a moral right” to do so. Incredible.


The prime minister's behavior can be interpreted in multiple ways. His latest tantrum may be part of his effort to sink the re-election chances of the incumbent U.S. president, in favor of an alternative who would be beholden to interests whose primary affinity is to the Israeli right [6], by accentuating Barack Obama's supposed inability to get along with Israel. This is probably at least part of the explanation for the behavior.


Some have questioned Netanyahu's stability and temperament, in ways that go beyond merely having a short temper. Some Israeli commentators have spoken most recently in terms of Netanyahu “going berserk” [7] or being a “mythomaniac” [8] guided by a sense of heroic mission. Given all we have heard, in connection with Iran's nuclear program, about the hazards of irrational or fanatic people with their fingers on the button, perhaps we should ask about Netanyahu: is this a man who can be trusted with nuclear weapons?


Even assuming rationality on the prime minister's part, there probably is an emotional element involved in his recent outburst in the sense of someone used to getting his way being flummoxed by even the slightest push-back. Netanyahu probably has been conditioned, through such experiences as speaking to Congress with a gallery stacked with AIPAC supporters [9], to believe that the bullying will always work. Even sensible and mild push-back, such as Secretary Clinton's statement that the United States is not going to set deadlines on the Iranian nuclear issue, then becomes disturbing to him. Netanyahu also may have been reacting to increased [10] acceptance [11] in mainstream discourse in the United States of the concept that an Iranian nuclear weapon would not be the calamity he insistently portrays it as [12] and that trying to preclude one would certainly would not be worth starting a new war.


Going beyond the Iranian nuclear issue, perhaps we are seeing some fear that the whole political edifice that has enabled Netanyahu and other Israeli prime ministers to get their way in the United States is showing some cracks. It ought to crack. After all, the overall nature of the relationship, in which the superpower that lavishes billions of aid and dozens of United Nations vetoes on the smaller state gets pushed around by the latter, rather than the other way around, is crazy and illogical. Ultimately the power of the edifice depends on fear of confronting that power. Theoretically to break down that edifice it would take one courageous American political leader, in a bold FDR-like move, to point out that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.


That is not about to happen, and the lobby in question will fight hard to make sure it does not happen. But over the last few years some cracks have become visible. Some people thought they saw a crack at the Democratic national convention when repeated voice votes were required to override the “noes” that opposed the platform plank about declaring Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel.


Maybe Netanyahu's arrogance, greater than the norm even for Israeli prime ministers dealing with the United States, may be a force that eventually reshapes the relationship. It can do so by making it painfully clear to Americans what they are dealing with. M. J. Rosenberg evidently is talking about this [13] when he goes so far as to say that Netanyahu “poses an existential threat to the Jewish state.” He is referring to the damage being done to the relations with the superpower patron—that “all Netanyahu is accomplishing with his ugly saber-rattling is threatening the survival of the US-Israel relationship.” That may well be the effect of Netanyahu's behavior on the relationship, but perhaps we should not speak of this in terms of threats. Replacing the current pathological relationship with a more normal one certainly would be good for U.S. interests. Ultimately, however, it also would be good for the interests of Israel, which, in order to get off its current path of endless conflict and isolation, desperately needs the sort of tough love that it is not getting now. 

But for a strongly and clearly spoken rejoinder to Bibi's antics via a mainstream media outlet, you'll do no better than the wonderful comments of Time mag's Joe Klein on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."  Here's the link.

Finally, a thank-you note to Obama, from one of the stalwarts of Israel's liberal left, Gideon Levy of Haaretz.  He thanks Obama for saving Israel from itself (as eptomized in Bibi's bluster and paranoia re Iran), but he also cautions that Obama 2 needs to be even more direct with Bibi, specifically, on the issue of Israel's ever expanding occupation of the West Bank:

The first Obama wavered. He tried to end the cursed and cancerous Israeli occupation, and then he quickly gave up. After successfully preventing an attack on Iran, perhaps the second Obama will turn out to be the one who understands his role - and, in particular, his power.


Aside from Jimmy Carter, it is doubtful whether the United States has ever had a president who understood better than Obama the global dangers of the Israeli occupation, its lack of morality and hope. Now we must hope he will also come to the right practical conclusions.


If, Mr. President, you have succeeded in stopping Israel from bombing Iran, perhaps you will understand that "Yes, you can." Yes, you can do other things, even bigger things, for the good of the world and for the good of your rebellious ally. If in fact you have realized that Israel can be dissuaded by real pressure from the United States, so too must you learn to use it for long-term needs as well. Preventing an Israeli attack on Iran has to be merely the appetizer. The main course must follow shortly thereafter.


Your election, Mr. President, inspired tremendous hope in the Middle East. Soon afterward, that hope turned into bitter disappointment. It turned out you were not decisive enough to bring about even a small move such as freezing the settlements. But birth pangs, even if they are those of an American president, are understandable. In anticipation of your second term, with greater self-assurance and this holy anger toward those who mock you and lead you astray in Jerusalem, the hope has once again been kindled that perhaps this time it will be different.


Meanwhile, we send our thanks from Tel Aviv for saving us, even if it is only from an assault on Iran.


1 comment:

Howard Dansky said...

Thank you for the round-up of voices and views on this tug of war between Netanyahu and Obama. Joe Klein's testimony is a particularly powerful, moral and deeply informed assessment. Klein has a son in the diplomatic service, he has worked as a journalist in Iran and he has inside links to the Israeli and U.S. military and intelligence. His clear conclusion is that Bibi is, as you say, WAY out of line, and that Obama's forbearance is in line with all the military and intelligence thinking in the U.S. and Israel. I hope that those among my fellow Americans who, like me, consider Israel's security and well-being in our voting decisions, will get this straight. President Romney, as Klein says, will outsource American policy to Netanyahu. That would be a disaster for Israel even more so than for the U.S.


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