The Israeli-Arab conflict is so murky, so fraught with confusion and distortion that one can only be thankful when a commentator manages to cut through the haze, allowing light to penetrate and illuminate essential truths. This is what Roger Cohen has done with his latest N.Y. Times column praising Pres. Obama’s address to the Iranian people.
Cohen visited Iran recently and spent time with Iranian Jews and is one of the few American Jews who has done so and written about it. Cohen’s trip and columns urging a transformation of U.S. policy toward Iran were perfectly timed with an Obama administration policy review happening roughly at the same time.
The N.Y. Times journalist notes that the speech–which recognized for the first time the Iranian revolution and current regime, and called for a peaceful, negotiated resolution of outstanding differences–was the fruit of the policy review. Gone was the former Bush approach calling Iran a member of the “axis of evil.” Gone were references to “mad mullahs” and Nazi appeasement circa 1938. In their place were carefully crafted notes of pragmatism. An acknowledgment of serious differences, but an accompanying acknowledgment that there should be means to resolve those differences short of war.
You can imagine how much this must rattle Israel’s intelligence agencies, military command, and members of the incoming rightist coalition headed by Bibi Netanyahu (one of those who has claimed that today’s Iran is “Munich, 1938”). The most telling passage in Cohen’s column and one of the wisest statements I’ve read in months on this subject is this:
[In his speech], President Obama achieved four things essential to any rapprochement.
He abandoned regime change as an American goal. He shelved the so-called military option. He buried a carrot-and-sticks approach viewed with contempt by Iranians as fit only for donkeys. And he placed Iran’s nuclear program within “the full range of issues before us.”
By doing so, Obama made it almost inevitable that one of the defining strategic issues of his presidency will be a painful but necessary redefinition of America’s relations with Israel as differences over Iran sharpen.
With this lucid, cogent and scalpel-like appraisal of the future of U.S.-Israel relations, Cohen has cut through layers of detritus laid down by Aipac and pro-Israel forces. It will earn him the enmity of the lobby and Israel’s new rightist leaders. It will earn him the admiration of those who really care about a peaceful future for Israel and its Arab neighbors.
As M.J. Rosenberg and others have pointed out, it’s no accident that Israeli president Shimon Peres delivered on the same day, a bellicose, chutzpahdik address to the Iranian people calling on them to put an end to their slavery to the crazy mullahs by rising up en masse to overthrow them. If you read the text of Peres’ remarks it seems like something out of the Kennedy administration’s disastrous attempts to overthrow Castro via the Bay of Pigs invasion. The address was a ham-handed, grotesque attempt at persuasion using a hammer and anvil instead of reasoned argument (which was what Obama’s speech represented).
I view the Peres address as almost an act of desperation: as if the Israeli hardliners are saying to the U.S. and rest of the world, “we don’t care what direction Obama takes, we’re going to lay down our own marker in this game and devil take the hindmost.” And it may be even worse, Peres and his handlers could be expressing their disgust at Obama’s abandonment of the former Bush administration informal pact with Israel by which both nations agreed that Iran was one of the greatest dangers to world peace. An Israel that expresses disgust with a U.S. president could be a very dangerous partner, one that could “go it alone” and take unilateral military action against Iran. It may take all of Obama’s persuasive rhetoric and even a bit of the stick to rein in Israel as Cohen writes here:
Obama’s new Middle Eastern diplomacy and engagement will involve reining in Israeli bellicosity and a probable cooling of U.S.-Israeli relations. It’s about time. America’s Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy has been disastrous, not least for Israel’s long-term security.
The pro-Israel crowd can cry and moan about Cohen being anti-Israel (and this statement is a very strong one in the context of the U.S.’ former relations with Israel under Bush), but this journalist is anything but a Chas. Freeman. There is no animus here. No shrillness. No railing against Israeli policy. There is just pure lucidity and pragmatism, something that has been missing from U.S. policy toward Israel and Iran for a LONG time.