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What Netanyahu Wants
It is September. And as surely as the swallows are preparing to depart Capistrano, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be arriving in New York. It is an annual ritual, with Netanyahu explaining to a skeptical U.N. General Assembly why Israel is not bound by the rules that most other nations observe. Last year the theme was Palestinian statehood, meaning that the Palestinians should not have any such thing until Israel says it’s okay. This year it is all about Iran, with Netanyahu preparing to “tell the nations of the world in a clear voice the truth about the terror regime of Iran which represents the greatest threat to world peace.”
Bibi will be in the U.S. for at least three days, and it is not certain whether he will meet with either President Barack Obama or Republican candidate Mitt Romney. I believe that he will likely meet with both because he knows that he has them in a vulnerable position that he will want to take advantage of to maximize what he can get out of them. He already has a commitment from Romney to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, which would make the United States the only nation to have its diplomatic mission in the disputed city that Israel claims as its capital, but this time he will be shooting for something much bigger. He wants nothing less than war with Iran, and he expects the United States to provide him with a casus belli, to set a date for the war to begin, and to actually do the fighting for him.
If you read the Israeli press, it is possible to see two parallel narratives developing supporting Netanyahu’s objectives. The first is the issue of sanctions and the P5+1 negotiations taking place over Iran’s nuclear program. The Israeli government and the tame media located mostly in the United States are stating over and over again that the sanctions are not working. The evidence for this? That Iran has not agreed to halt its enrichment of uranium. Everyone but Israel agrees that Iran, as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that has its facilities inspected by the IAEA, has a legal right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. The Israeli current position is that any ability to enrich uranium is potentially dangerous because it could eventually produce enough material to produce a weapon. The same objection is raised to Iran’s possession of any nuclear fuel, even if it is enriched elsewhere, because the Israelis claim the fuel can be further enriched if Iran chooses to do so. Having the fuel and the technology to further enrich it and possibly weaponize it is referred to as having a “breakout” capability. Many countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey already have that ability. In the case of Iran, the breakout would depend on the country’s leadership making the political and economic decision to construct a bomb, which both the Israeli intelligence service Mossad and the CIA agree has not yet occurred.
The Israelis would like the United States to state that sanctions have not worked and that the negotiations have failed. Why? Because that implies that Iran has been intransigent, is at fault, and must face the consequences. It also leaves only a military solution on the table, and if Iran does not cave completely, war will be the only plausible option for dealing with the Islamic Republic. But while the Israeli position is clear, the U.S. position on sanctions and negotiations is somewhat more ambiguous. The Obama administration continues to assert that Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon is the red line that cannot be crossed, but both Congress and Mitt Romney have declared that the capability to create a weapon is also prohibited. As Iran already has that capability, the argument can be made that the line has already been crossed. In practice, Obama is much closer to the congressional and Republican position than he is to his own administration’s policy. He has demonstrated that he is not interested in any serious negotiation with Iran, having turned down several viable proposals to enrich fuel outside of the country after first encouraging the development of such an option.
With all of the above playing out in an election year, it is in Israel’s interest to force the issue, to have the U.S. on board for what it sees as a casus belli against its greatest enemy. So Netanyahu will no doubt urge both President Obama and Mitt Romney to be explicit that negotiations and sanctions have failed and that Iran has already crossed an unacceptable line in its nuclear program. If they are not fully cooperative, he could again suggest that he might be inclined to attack Iran alone, one month before the U.S. election, or, even worse from the point of view of the White House, use AIPAC and friends in the U.S. media to support Mitt Romney.
The second narrative being floated relates to the mechanics and timing for an airstrike against Iran. Netanyahu’s government is arguing that the window of opportunity to attack Iran’s nuclear program is closing. This derives from repeated allegations that Iran is hardening its facilities against the expected attack and is moving some of them deep underground, which may or may not be the case. Israel claims that it is essential for it to attack now or risk failure to destroy the targets. But it also is simultaneously observing that the United States has a much bigger window to successfully attack Iran as well as the ability to inflict much more damage. Washington has heavy bombers and ordnance that the Israelis do not have as well as the ability to sustain an attack for a long time using naval air resources and cruise missiles. So Netanyahu will say something like “I want a date for the start of military action so let’s make a deal … we don’t want to disrupt your election but in return we want a guarantee that if Iran does not abandon its nuclear program the United States will attack it next year.”
If Obama and Romney, both seeing themselves as vulnerable on the eve of an election, cave to the Israeli demands, it will be the devil’s own bargain. The whole argument being made to go to war is essentially bogus as well as illegal under international law as Iran has not attacked anyone, has not threatened to do so, and does not possess a nuclear weapon. In return for a series of self-sustaining lies, Netanyahu would obtain the world’s only superpower’s armed forces as his instrument of foreign policy together with a timetable for action. He would be giving nothing in return except a commitment to stay out of the U.S. election while the decision of war or peace for the United States would essentially be transferred to his government.
Just-war doctrine supports a preemptive war if a nation is confronted with an imminent and existential threat. One can debate whether Iran genuinely constitutes any real threat against the U.S., but I think the consensus is that it does not and it would be containable even if it were to make the decision to obtain a weapon. The thinking of Israel and its supporters in the U.S. is based on the premise that Iran is not a rational actor, whereas the accumulated evidence derived from more than 30 years of the existence of the Islamic Republic is that it is, in fact, a cautious regime mostly focused on self-preservation, not on exporting its revolution or proselytizing. It is Benjamin Netanyahu who is not the rational player in this game, so much so that numerous Israeli citizens as well as retired generals and intelligence chiefs are bravely challenging his insistence on forcing a war to disarm Iran. It would not be the first time that the maneuvers of a politician inspired by his own vision of what must be will have brought about a catastrophe for his own people. Unfortunately in this case, Netanyahu is also doing his best to involve the United States in the disaster.