Obama is right to ignore Netanyahu

By Andrew Cohen, Ottawa Citizen September 24

In the Jewish calendar, the interlude between Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is called the Days of Awe. During these 10 days, Jews reflect on themselves and their faith.

Like observant Jews everywhere, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will consider his conduct over the last year and seek forgiveness for his transgressions. He will have much to contemplate. Before the Days of Awe, Netanyahu had his Days of Audacity.

That’s audacity as in effrontery, not boldness. Netanyahu’s cardinal sin is interfering in the domestic politics of the United States, Israel’s friend, ally and benefactor, in a manner that is disingenuous, ungrateful and irresponsible.

Twice this month, Netanyahu has told the United States, publicly, to give Iran an ultimatum on its nuclear program. It should draw “a red line” that Iran cannot cross, he says. “Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red line before Israel,” he told a news conference this month.

His point: that if America is not going to set limits on the Iranians and nuclear weapons, it has no right to tell Israel what to do.

As if those dense Americans didn’t recognize themselves as “the international community,” Netanyahu later went on American television to drive home the point.

Let’s get beyond the coded conversation. The prime minister is saying that President Barack Obama is unreliable. He does this as the president seeks re-election against a Republican who attacks him for being soft on Iran and hard on Israel, who claims Obama is “throwing Israel under the bus.”

It is very simple and very dangerous, Netanyahu’s game. In portraying Obama as weak, he plays to the Republican canard that on Israel — as in events in Libya and Egypt — the president has no backbone.

This is beyond audacity. It is chutzpah.

No wonder Obama is snubbing Netanyahu when he visits the United Nations this week. He resents Netanyahu’s megaphone diplomacy, which tries to drag the U.S. into a premature, preventive war, as well as his ingratitude for America’s magnanimous financial and military support of Israel.

For months, Netanyahu has been warning that Iran is getting the bomb, a refrain from him and other alarmists we have heard for 20 years. In his messianic view of himself and Jewish history, Israel has no choice but to strike first.

Netanyahu continues to argue this amid growing opposition in Israel, particularly among influential insiders, such as Meir Dagan, who ran Mossad. Read Dagan’s assessment of Iran in the New Yorker, and see the emptiness — and recklessness — of Netanyahu’s declarations on Iran.

It was madness to speak of hitting Iran in January, when Netanyahu began his new season of sabre-rattling, and it is madness now. Attacking Iran isn’t about weak-kneed morality. It is about hard-headed practicality.

And practically speaking, it just doesn’t add up.

No credible intelligence suggests that Israel has the ability to destroy Iran’s capacity to make a nuclear bomb. It can delay it, yes, for six to 24 months.

Say Israel does attack Iran. Then what? Consider the consequences: a newly enfranchised but still illegitimate regime in Tehran, backed by popular outrage in the Arab Street; the expulsion of the international nuclear inspectors; a public commitment from Iran to developing the bomb “in self-defence”; a rain of rockets on Israel’s cities, launched by Hezbollah and Hamas; Israeli retaliation inviting regional war, drawing in Egypt.

No wonder Obama wants to let international sanctions and diplomacy play out. If they don’t, and the Iranians decide to build a bomb (which they have not yet), Obama might then decide to order an attack. If so, it would be carried out with America weaponry, with a better chance of success.

Apparently that isn’t enough for Netanyahu. He is gambling that a weakened Obama loses the election, and that Mitt Romney embraces Netanyahu’s view and takes his talking points from Jerusalem, much like the government of Canada.

That the United States has helped finance Israel’s (“Iron Dome”) anti-missile and other defence systems, that it has provided $168 billion in aid to the country since 1948, and that it has collaborated with Israel on anti-nuclear cyber-warfare against Iran — all does not give Netanyahu pause.

The prime minister’s audacity will bring him more trouble than he knows.

If he attacks Iran over the objections of the Americans, he risks shattering Israel’s most important relationship. If he doesn’t attack but continues to push the U.S. to present ultimatums, he risks shattering his relationship with Obama, who will be less tolerant of Netanyahu if re-elected.

In arguing for red lines, Netanyahu cited — and misread — John F. Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis 50 years ago. As Netanyahu tries to make the case for war, he would do well to heed JFK’s memorable warning: those who ride the back of the tiger often end up inside.

Andrew Cohen is a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University.
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

 

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