Netanyahu’s bullying ways
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to go to war against Iran. He has persuaded himself and some Israelis, although not the majority, that if Iran has even just the capability to build a small number of nuclear warheads, Israel’s very existence is threatened. As Israel is itself a major nuclear power and has at least 200 nuclear warheads and a range of sophisticated delivery systems, Iran would have to be totally suicidal to attack Israel with nuclear weapons. And while Iran’s theocracy brutally suppresses its people and uses terrorism against its enemies, there is no evidence that it would take actions that would inevitably result in its nuclear annihilation along with some 4,000 years of Persian civilization. Yet Israel is a sovereign state, and if war with Iran is the decision of its duly elected government, I suppose nothing can be done.
But it turns out Mr. Netanyahu does not want to commit this folly all by himself. No. He wants to drag the United States into this highly dubious enterprise, and he is now putting the squeeze on President Barack Obama less than two months before the presidential election. As the first paragraph of a New York Times lead story this past week put it, “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel inserted himself into the most contentious foreign policy issue of the American presidential campaign on Tuesday, criticizing the Obama administration for refusing to set clear ‘red lines’ on Iran’s nuclear progress that would prompt the United States to undertake a military strike.” In effect, Netanyahu is trying to force President Obama to publicly issue an ultimatum to Iran. Actually, Netanyahu is issuing his own ultimatum to Obama: If you don’t want me to attack Iran before the election, you must commit America to going to war next year.
To add to the pressure, the Israelis revealed that the White House had refused a request by the prime minister to meet with the president while Netanyahu is in this country to attend the United Nations General Assembly. Their indignation rang hollow, given that they had been told weeks ago that Mr. Obama would be busy campaigning for his second term. Still, knowing full well the request had already been declined the Israelis chose to make it a public issue. (Given that Netanyahu has previously used his White House visits as a platform to lecture and criticize the president, it should hardly be a surprise that Obama saw no benefits to once again being publicly insulted in the Oval Office by his so-called ally.)
I spent much of my life observing diplomatic protocol, and I can not remember any official guest in this country, much less an ally, treating the president of the United States so disrespectfully. And such behavior from the prime minister of a country whose president and defense minister both went out of their way recently to say that the cooperation between Israel and the United States under Obama was better than at any time either of them could remember, makes it all the more astonishing.
If Netanyahu gets his way, it would not be the first time that the United States went to war, at least in part because of Israel. The pretext for attacking Iraq in 2003 was Iraq’s (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction. But the Project for a New American Century, founded by neo-conservatives in the late 1990s openly called for regime change in Iraq because Israel considered Saddam Hussein a threat. With the 2000 presidential election, many of these people took over top policy positions in the George W. Bush White House, the Pentagon and to a lesser extent, the State Department. And after 9/11 they were the main force behind the campaign to attack Iraq, even though Saddam had no links to al-Qaeda.
The neo-cons were not popular among Bush I foreign policy realists. And on the eve of the Iraq invasion, I remember speaking to one of those realists, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, who told me that one of the neo-conservative’s underlying reasons for wanting to invade Iraq was “to make the neighborhood safe for the Israelis.”
It’s worth noting that several of the notorious neo-cons of Bush II are among Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s top foreign policy advisers. Despite having been totally discredited by the outcome in Iraq, they are again back in business. And they are certainly encouraging Romney to seize upon this public dispute between Obama and Netanyahu as proof that the president is not a friend of Israel.
Yet what has President Obama done to be abused by the leader of a country which for decades has been the number one recipient of billions and billions of dollars in American military and economic aid?
The president starts from the premise that it is not in America’s economic and political interests to go to war with another Muslim country — one far bigger and stronger militarily that either Iraq or Afghanistan — and a war that will spread throughout the region and cost American lives.
The president believes such a war will simply intensify Iran’s nuclear efforts and will only delay — not prevent the Iranians from getting a nuclear weapon.
The president is convinced diplomacy and sanctions must be given time to work. Yet even his diplomatic options have been limited, partly because the Israelis have been sitting on the sidelines dictating what they will or will not accept. (The Israelis will not even concede that Iran has the right to reprocess uranium, which under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty it does. And by the way, this is a treaty Iran has signed and Israel has not.)
President Obama does not want to see Iran become a nuclear power, and he has promised he will not allow it to do so. But he has so far refused to issue any ultimatums or set deadlines. It is to be devoutly hoped that he will continue to hold fast to that position because if he doesn’t, war then becomes virtually inevitable.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News. He lives in Charlotte.