Many of you will remember the title of Milan Kundera’s major novel of the 1990s, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. My original title for this post was The Unbearable Chutzpah of Bibi, till I decided the current title was more apt. But when you read farther below into the talk I delivered, you’ll see the relevance of the reference to Bibi’s unbearable chutzpah.
Last Monday, Dick Blakney, a local peace activist long active in the United Nations Association, and I spoke at Horizon House here in Seattle about the role that Iran is playing in the presidential election. Todd Boyle graciously videotaped our talks and mine is featured above. For those who prefer the printed word, the text is below:
Let me begin on this first day of Rosh Hashana by wishing you all a good and sweet New Year. On this day, Jews ask to be inscribed in the Book of Life. We wish each other sweetness and joy in the coming year and dip the apples of the season into honey to bring this wish into the realm of the senses.
One of the most important aspects of the High Holiday liturgy is spiritual introspection. We’re to examine ourselves and our actions to determine where we succeeded and where we fell short. The prevailing sense of our prayers is humility, recognizing human frailty and our very real limitations.
I regret to say that Israel’s leaders need to spend a lot of time in synagogue during these High Holidays as they’re far from absorbing these lessons. Israel has a prime minister who’s tossed to the winds the restraint shown by previous prime ministers in distancing themselves from U.S. electoral politics. No other Israeli leader has made his political preferences so blatantly and publicly known.
Bibi Netanyahu, like George Bush before him, is someone who’s thrown caution to the winds and done his best to upend accepted conventions about U.S.-Israel relations.
The latest intervention occurred only in the past few weeks when Israel began to broach a plan I liken to blackmail. The way it was presented in the Israeli media was: Israel would agree not to attack Iran unilaterally if the U.S. would agree to define its “red lines” regarding Iran’s nuclear program. In other words, Pres. Obama would declare publicly to the coming UN General Assembly session that his government would give the Iranians a specified amount of time to agree to end their uranium enrichment program, after which we would attack them if they refused. Netanyahu declared that such a statement by Obama would cause Israel to call off the dogs.
The notion that an Israeli prime minister should write a scenario which a U.S. president would follow is breathtaking chutzpah. But Israel’s far right government has chutzpah in spades.
The U.S. attempted to ignore this bit of manipulation as long as it could. But in the past few days, Hillary Clinton explicitly rejected the Israeli proposal saying she didn’t believe deadlines were appropriate in this matter. Netanyahu demanded a meeting with Obama during the UN meeting at which he proposed to argue this issue. Obama refused, which made the Israeli apoplectic.
A few days ago, Obama spent an hour on the phone with Netanyahu explaining to him why he refused the “red lines” proposal. All this has left the Israeli leader fulminating at the sleights done to him.
Netanyahu has a history of attempting to manipulate the U.S. political process. On one of his recent trips to the U.S., during which he knew he would have a difficult meeting with the president, Congressional Republicans invited him to address a joint session of Congress. This allowed him to go over Obama’s head and speak to the DC power élite and their constituents in a way he otherwise could not have done if he confined himself to jawboning a resistant president.
The prime minister learned this tactic from his own father who was a member of the famed Bergson Group, which was the sole Jewish group in this country which vocally protested U.S. policy of abandoning the Jews of the Holocaust. Since Netanyahu’s father knew Pres. Roosevelt was a lost cause, he appealed to the Congress and American people for support. It was a lesson the younger Netanyahu learned at his father’s knee.
But lessons of one era aren’t always relevant to a subsequent one. It’s arguable whether allowing the president to become one’s enemy is a strategy that can work in the long-term for an Israeli prime minister, no matter how many other allies one has in America. But this is a protocol followed by the Israeli far right in many other political disputes. Palestinians not acquiescent enough? Simply hunker down in the belief that time and growing settlements work to your advantage.
The prime minister believes if you don’t like one president, simply wait him out till a more sympathetic one comes along. But Netanyahu does more than wait. He actively advocates on behalf of the Republican candidate. In fact, the Israeli press has been bandying about an Israeli plan of attack against Iran. The thinking behind this is that Israel has until the election to pressure the U.S. into joining a strike against Iran. So Israel will attack in hopes that Iran’s violent response will draw enough U.S. and/or Israeli blood that the president will be forced to join the fight.
The cynicism of this plan is breathtaking. But not surprising.
If Obama refuses, Romney’s chief political benefactor, Sheldon Adelson, will shower the airwaves with thousands of commercials braying about how Obama lost Israel. He spent nearly $100-million during the primaries on Newt Gingrich’s (and after he dropped out, Mitt Romney’s) candidacy. Now political analysts expect him to sink at least that much in the general election. He’s prepared to unleash the billions he’s sucked out of the world’s gamblers for an even bigger gamble: making Mitt Romney president.
Those TV ads will tell how the president was the one who cravenly gave in to Iranian extremism by allowing it to get the bomb. There will be mushroom clouds like the ones in Lyndon Johnson’s TV commercials against Barry Goldwater in 1964.
This strategy has a very good chance of backfiring. Americans, and even American Jews might bridle at an Israeli premier trying to put Pres. Obama in such a straitjacket. We Americans don’t take kindly to foreign countries telling us what to do or for whom to vote. The fact that Romney seems a candidate prone to errors and miscalculations at critical junctures makes me feel he, Netanyahu and Adelson are more than likely to overplay their hand.
If Obama joins the battle against Iran, then Netanyahu will have won the round, not to mention that he will have wrapped the American president around his little finger yet again, as he did when he faced Obama down over the settlement freeze affair.
Personally, I can’t imagine Barack Obama joining a war against Iran. But if this is a close election and Obama feels doing so would give him a critical edge, I have little doubt that he would. I’m no longer the true believer in this president as many of us were four years ago. While Obama may reject the invitation to war proffered by Netanyahu, he wouldn’t reject it as a matter of principle as many of us in this room would. Yet another disappointment from this president.
The only question remaining is whether Prime Minister Netanyahu would attack Iran out of spite; simply to show the U.S. that Israel will not have its hands tied by its superpower ally. I have little doubt that the Israeli leader is the sort of petty, small-minded person who would try to settle scores in this way. But will he prevail in his struggle within the cabinet for support to pursue his war? Will he prevail against the will of all the major Israeli intelligence and defense chiefs who oppose hostilities? I simply don’t know.
The fact remains that the only way Israel can substantially degrade Iran’s nuclear program is with American help. Only we have the 30,000 pound bunker busters which can penetrate the Fordo nuclear facility bunkered 300 feet under a mountain. If Israel alone attacks it can delay the Iranian program by at most a year. If the U.S. attacks the delay could be as much as three to five years.
Of course, if either Israel or the U.S. attacks Iran there will be hell to pay. The Iranians will undoubtedly defend themselves and attack foreign (especially U.S.) warships in or near the Persian Gulf. Iran will activate its proxies in Lebanon and elsewhere. Hezbollah has 60,000 missiles in its arsenal aimed at targets all the way from the northern Israeli border to central Israel (including Haifa and Tel Aviv). It’s questionable whether Hamas would join in such an attack since it has turned from Iran and Syria to Egypt to seek patronage and support. But there are rumored to be Iran-supported Islamist elements in the Sinai who have attacked both Israeli and Egyptian targets. They too would seek their pound of Israeli flesh.
Unlike the original attack which would last days or weeks at most, the Iranian response would be years in coming. In any struggle between the strong and the weak, the weak always have longer memories. They always nurse a grudge deeper than the powerful party. Iran will be patient, take its time before it seeks revenge. It may fail, as it apparently has with terror attacks or aborted attacks in Kenya and Thailand. It may inflict limited damage as in recent attacks in Bulgaria or India, the latter of which has been definitively credited to the Iranians. But when you try often enough you will eventually succeed. That’s what happened on 9/11. Those who engage in asymmetric warfare identify a target, wait until the right moment, then strike. Time is on your side, not on the side of the empire you’re attacking.
Not to mention that an attack on Iran will play right into the Islamist narrative which portrays western powers seeking to impose hegemony over the world’s Muslims. Those extremists nursing a grudge against infidels who shed the blood of the Muslim brothers will have so much more grist for their mill.
In other words, a war against Iran will not secure Israel’s goal of ending the so-called Iranian nuclear threat. In fact, it not only plays into the hands of those militants who hate us, it will create ever more militants who hate us. This is a failed policy in every way.
Aggressive Israeli interventionism in U.S. electoral policy is also a failed policy. My guess is that even when Bibi fails and Mitt loses, it won’t teach the Israelis any lessons. They’ll blame the loss on everyone but themselves.
I apologize for painting such a bleak picture on a day that should promise us hope for a better future. Let’s not give up hope entirely. The Arab Spring has taught us that democracy comes where and when it’s least expected. Peace may yet do the same. My overall conviction is that history belongs to the just. Those who are bad may win a battle, but usually lose the war.