Butt Out, Bibi
President Barack Obama and his wife stood in a moment of silence outside the White House at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, a sacred day in this country. At the same time, in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointedly assailed the Obama administration over its reluctance to set “red lines” to prevent Iran from any further uranium enrichment.
Exactly which regime change does Netanyahu have in mind — Iran’s or the United States’? Republican nominee Mitt Romney is an old friend of Netanyahu, and the candidate is blatantly willing to outsource the making of our Israel policy. A Romney White House would advance the Netanyahu agenda, which is shared neither by the majority of Americans nor probably a majority of Israelis.
We need not look back too far in history to realize the danger of handing blank checks to client states. In 1914, the lights went out all over Europe as its nations embarked on a war that eventually spread to the rest of the world, lasting until 1945. The war happened because the great powers, England, Germany and Russia, blindly supported the extremist ambitions of their feeble client nations, Serbia and Austria. The long-range results were catastrophic — far beyond any anticipated — including the Holocaust, which Netanyahu now twists into an all-purpose rationalization for Israeli behavior.
Netanyahu’s remarks smack of his usual political opportunism and willingness to interfere in American domestic affairs. This is from a man who supposedly understands the United States. Netanyahu’s own political problems are myriad, with his coalition dependent on extreme right-wing and racist allies, the settlers and a collection of war hawks, eager to stand up to the United States. Polls are mixed, but Israelis are divided on the prospect of an attack on Iran. That is not the nature of Israeli politics. The prime minister stirs the pot to maintain his political alliances. Such is his definition of leadership. His usual American allies, Sens. Joseph Lieberman, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, sing in the Romney chorus, with Lieberman proclaiming that this will seal the deal for Obama to lose Florida.
Make no mistake: Domestic politics are very much in play. The White House hurriedly announced that the president had spoken with the prime minister for an hour “as part of their ongoing consultations.” We received the usual boilerplate confirming American determination to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon, and Obama and Netanyahu agreed to continue their “close consultations.” The statement gratuitously concluded that Netanyahu never requested a meeting with Obama in Washington. What a wonderful way to invoke “plausible deniability.”
In measuring the political calculus, Israel is no different from us. Friends and opponents alike threaten Netanyahu. He plays his moral authority and a stiff neck to the Americans to overcome any criticism. Dan Meridor, Netanyahu’s deputy prime minister for intelligence and atomic affairs, and certainly no peacenik, bluntly undercut the PM, telling Israeli Army Radio, “I don’t want to set red lines or deadlines for myself.” The leader of Kadima (a party that briefly joined Netanyahu’s coalition and then thought better of it), Shaul Mofaz, strongly criticized the prime minister but some of his party members worried he may have gone too far and cost Kadima votes. After all, as one said, Netanyahu is more popular than Obama in Israel.
Netanyahu is coming to the United States ostensibly to address the U.N.; of course he and his American supporters wanted the legitimacy of a White House meeting. Why else would Netanyahu come to the United States? To speak to all of his close friends and allies at the U.N., who tuned him out long ago? Sheldon Adelson, Netanyahu’s best money friend, is in Las Vegas. The trip to New York is hardly a subtle provocation. It deserves the back of the president’s hand, and not such a polite response.
Dennis Ross, the American special envoy to the Middle East for many years, in his book “The Missing Peace,” quotes President Bill Clinton as telling his aides after his first meeting with Netanyahu in July 1996 that “he thinks he is the superpower and we are here to do whatever he requires.”
As Israel has isolated itself further from the international community, the country’s government has mostly itself to blame. But the United States, likewise, has much to answer for because of its long-standing indulgence of extreme views held in both Israel and among a small group of well-financed, well-placed and shrill supporters in the United States. Why is the Obama administration so diffident toward Ross, an AIPAC man who periodically doubles as the president’s Middle Eastern adviser, or even to the deservedly out of power neocon crowd, including Elliott Abrams, Paul Wolfowitz, Charles Krauthammer et al.? Why are they so fearful of Eric Cantor, AIPAC’s favorite Capitol Hill shill?
The Israeli prime minister’s blustering, demanding his way or, in one of his more inelegant statements, the prospect of “Auschwitz,” is a false choice. Israel remains militarily powerful, its economy is innovative and prosperous, and it has American guarantees for its security, not to mention a treasure of aid and bribes. Netanyahu would be well advised to look to his own tsoris, and deal with the blood sport of Israeli politics rather than meddle in ours.
Netanyahu should reflect on what he wishes for. His postures have provoked unprecedentedly critical American media reaction, focusing on matters rarely raised, including the U.S. military’s forceful opposition in 2006, and again this year, to any military action against Iran. We’ve also heard reports of opposition within Israeli intelligence and military circles to any attack on Iran because Israel lacks the bomb power, and even if it didn’t, the Iranians would only rebuild. These press portrayals offer a withering critique of Netanyahu’s blatant interference in U.S. domestic politics, and they tell of Netanyahu’s egomaniacal news conferences, which brook no opposition or criticism. Altogether, a rather refreshing moment that should give the Israeli prime minister real pause.
Though they may feel some loyalty to Israel, most American Jews will not support any nation that so blatantly interferes in our domestic affairs. On the whole, they have managed to walk that line quite well, acknowledging at once their emotional attachment to the land of Israel, supporting its military and other needs, and they have created a lobby that rivals the force and power of the NRA. Yet American Jews are on record as opposing the harsh brutality of the occupation — except when AIPAC or the likes of the Israeli government overwhelms their voice. Polls consistently reveal that American Jewry’s doubts about U.S. policy toward Israel are marginalized in single figures. Any charge of disloyalty simply cannot hold water, and Netanyahu should not ask American Jews or any Americans to set aside our national interest for the sake of his own political needs and ambitions.