Jeffrey Goldberg published an interview with Bibi Netanyahu which he conducted just before the latter became Israel’s new prime minister. I’m beginning to think that the Israeli right uses the Iran nuclear issue in much the same way that the Republicans use social issues like abortion and gay marriage. For Republicans these are “wedge” issues which move the faithful to fear, anger and action. For the Bibi-ists, it’s the same. Drumming up fear of nuclear apocalypse in the guise of the “mad mullahs” is like ringing a bell for Pavlov’s dog: Israelis and Diaspora Jews who fear for Israel’s safety respond instinctively and viscerally when they read code words like Holocaust, Munich, extermination, apocalypse, mass death, nuclear annihilation, 1938.
I don’t know about you, but I’m extremely uncomfortable when a foreign leader attempts to dictate what a U.S. president’s political agenda should be:
“The Obama presidency has two great missions: fixing the economy, and preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu told me.
But this is nothing new for Israel. They’ve been attempting, and succeeding in doing this for years, if not decades. The difference in this case is usually an Israeli prime minister is attempting only to dictate U.S. policy toward Israel and perhaps its neighbors. But here, Netanyahu is setting out an agenda for Obama regarding Iran. Someone ought to tell Netanyahu that this is why Obama has foreign policy advisors and a mind of his own. He’s perfectly capable of devising a U.S. policy toward Iran without Israel’s dictates.
In fact, Obama has just done that with his New Year’s statement to the Iranian people. And Obama’s approach is diametrically opposite Netanyahu’s. Obama didn’t adopt an ideological pose or propagandize or spout slogans as Netanyahu did. He approached the issue soberly and pragmatically as such an important issue deserves. The president’s approach will not be to threaten or bomb. Nor, I venture to say, will his approach involve winking and nodding at a Netanyahu-led strike by Israel against Iran as George Bush might’ve done if he thought he could’ve gotten away with it politically.
So, with an Obama administration adamantly opposed to the Israeli hellfire and brimstone approach, why is Netanyahu still preaching End Times regarding Iran? If you believe that Israel could or would go it alone against a U.S. directive and bomb Iran, then Netanyahu is merely laying down his marker and notifying the Americans and the rest of the world that he means business.
But few people believe that Israel could go against a specific directive from the U.S. on this matter. That’s why I was struck by the notion that Iran is a wedge issue. Bibi is just beginning his term leading a far-right (with the exception of the hapless Labor party) governing coalition. What better way to throw them some red meat than by pounding his chest over Iran? Netanyahu is not a born again ideologue like Avigdor Lieberman. He’s a smooth operator who lip-synchs to the Top-40 right-wing tune of the moment. Personally, I think this interview is posing for his constituency both in Israel and the U.S.
But just in case I’m wrong, here are some of the more disturbing passages from the interview:
…The Iranian nuclear challenge represents a “hinge of history” and [he] added that “Western civilization” will have failed if Iran is allowed to develop nuclear weapons.
…Netanyahu said of the Iranian leadership, “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.”
Not to be outdone, Bibi drags his new vice-prime minister and minister for strategic affairs (read, Iran), Boogie Yaalon into the mix. The latter has some equally hot-headed and unconvincing remarks:
One of his chief security advisers, Moshe Ya’alon, told me that a nuclear Iran could mean the end of American influence in the Middle East. “This is an existential threat for Israel, but it will be a blow for American interests, especially on the energy front. Who will dominate the oil in the region—Washington or Tehran?”
Bibi is no expert in the current state of nuclear nations as this statement makes clear:
“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.”
Leaving aside the clarifier “would-be,” has Bibi forgotten Pakistan, which already HAS nuclear weapons? Further, there is a distinct possibility that should developments take a certain radical direction that Pakistan could threaten Israel with those weapons. I wonder why there isn’t the least expression of concern on Bibi’s part about this possibility? Of course, Pakistan’s leaders have not yet overtly expressed hostility toward Israel as Iran has. Pakistan doesn’t fund or arm any of Israel’s enemies (at least not yet). But the likelihood of this happening could turn on a dime given the tumultuousness of internal political developments in that country. Which makes the Israeli leader’s monomaniacal obsession with Iran all the odder.
The interview ranges into truly bizarre territory when Bibi attempts to do national psychoanalysis, with truly laughable results:
Netanyahu offered Iran’s behavior during its eight-year war with Iraq as proof of Tehran’s penchant for irrational behavior. Iran “wasted over a million lives without batting an eyelash … It didn’t sear a terrible wound into the Iranian consciousness. It wasn’t Britain after World War I, lapsing into pacifism because of the great tragedy of a loss of a generation. You see nothing of the kind.”
He continued: “You see a country that glorifies blood and death, including its own self-immolation.” I asked Netanyahu if he believed Iran would risk its own nuclear annihilation at the hands of Israel or America. “I’m not going to get into that,” he said.
How the hell does he know what is in the “Iranian consciousness?” And he is certainly and utterly wrong about the claim that the losses of the war didn’t cause deep wounds within Iranian society. Has he bothered to speak to a war widow or orphan of whom there are all too many? I also find it interesting that Bibi is all too willing to make judgments about the military policy of another country by saying Iran’s war with Iraq was “a waste.” Some nations may say the same thing about Israel’s wasteful and ineffectual military adventures. That thought never crossed his mind I’m sure.
Interesting too, that Bibi should forget that Israel has its own tradition glorifying death and sacrifice on behalf of the nation in the person of Joseph Trumpeldor and the Masada suicides. Baruch Kimmerling has written most powerfully on this point in Israel’s Culture of Martyrdom. Netanyahu’s “analysis” of the Iranian psyche is entirely specious and racist to boot.
The level of delusion within the circle of Bibi’s military advisors is expressed here:
…One aide said pointedly that Israeli time lines are now drawn in months, “not years.” These same military advisers told me that they believe Iran’s defenses remain penetrable, and that Israel would not necessarily need American approval to launch an attack.
What are they smokin’? Every major U.S. general and military analyst who has weighed in on the subject speaks about how incredibly complicated such an attack would be due not only to Iran’s defenses, but to the diffuse nature of the nuclear program in the countryside. Yet for Israel? No problemo.
Not to mention the statement that Israel wouldn’t “necessarily” need U.S. approval to attack. Who’s he kiddin’? Does he think that Barack Obama would allow Israel to make a shambles of this country’s entire Mideast policy by permitting an Israeli adventure in Iran? Is Israel really willing to take the chance that Obama, in the aftermath of an attack wouldn’t be willing, if not to break Israel’s back, at the very least to make Israel pay a very steep price?
One final note: it is typical of Goldberg’s “mouthpiece” role that he doesn’t pose any difficult questions of Netanyahu, nor does he challenge any of his assumptions or historical analogies. Just another paid flack journalist in the Israeli hasbara campaign.