What Netanyahu Wants

Obama and Netanyahu in the Oval Office, 2009

Last weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu took to the Sunday morning airwaves in the United States to make his case against Iran while tip-toeing the line between not praising the Obama Administration and not insulting it.  However, in his interview with David Gregory on “Meet the Press,” Netanyahu revealed a little window into his thinking that nobody seemed to pick up on (or seemed to care about).  And after hearing two answers to two questions posed by Gregory, the Prime Minister’s mindset seemed to crystallize.

Netanyahu’s performance on “Meet the Press,” while pointed and harsh, was the most subdued version of his recent criticism of the United States and general bellicosity towards Iran.  It’s a good interview to quote given the more reasonable tone he set during his conversation with Gregory.  He refused to criticize the U.S., yet did not praise Obama by name.  He deftly praised the sort of thing Obama has done which any U.S. president would have done, without mentioning Washington’s financial assistance, arms assistance and technical assistance with Iron Dome (the anti-missile system).  So as far as Netanyahu interviews go, it was as stately and prime ministerial as we’re going to get.

The first question and answer parry that caught my attention was when Gregory asked about his reaction to Secretary Clinton’s remarks regarding the administration refusal to set deadlines.  Netanyahu responded by citing President Kennedy’s red line during the Cuban missile crisis and the lack of a red line as a cause of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991.  He then noted, without fact or anecdote, that Iran has avoided crossing certain red lines.  Here’s the entire quote:

 I think implicit in that is that if you’re determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, it means you’ll act before they get nuclear weapons.  I just think that it’s important to communicate to Iran that there is a line that they won’t cross.  I think a red line in this case works to reduce the chances of the need for military action because once the Iranians understand that there’s no– there’s a line that they can’t cross, they are not likely to cross it, you know, when President Kennedy set a red line in the Cuban missile crisis, he was criticized.  But it turned out it didn’t bring war, it actually pushed war back and probably purchased decades of peace with the Soviet Union.  Conversely, when there was no American red line set before the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and maybe that war could have been avoided.  And I can tell you David that Iran has been placed with some clear red lines on a few matters and they have avoided crossing them.

So what is remarkable about that? Netanyahu argues that Iran is a rational actor.  The Soviets did not cross the embargo line because the threat of retaliation from Washington was too credible or too high of a risk to take, or both.  And Iran will act the same way, Netanyahu says. But later on in the interview, when asked why Iran cannot be contained like the USSR, Netanyahu replies with this:

I think Iran is very different.  They put their zealotry above their survival.  They have suicide bombers all over the place.  I wouldn’t rely on their rationality, you know, you– since the advent of nuclear weapons, you had countries that had access to nuclear weapons who always made a careful calculation of cost and benefit.  But Iran is guided by a leadership with an unbelievable fanaticism.

Now this is the Netanyahu we all know and love.  When asked about containment, Iran is now an irrational actor basing decisions on zealotry instead of “careful calculation of cost and benefit.”  They are a country led by “unbelievable fanaticism.”  I’m not going to argue whether Iran is rational or not (see my comments on the regime’s logic HERE).  But I will argue that this line of thought is fascinating and contradictory.  In the span of 15 minutes, Netanyahu stated that Iran is a fanatical regime not driven by self-interest but it will stop short of red lines if they are clear and convincing.  If you’re scratching your head reading this, you aren’t the only one.

Believe it or not, though, there is a wry calculus to this statement.  It is the easiest way to convince the American electorate, and Israelis, that Iran is crazy enough to nuke Israel, which follows the general narrative that Iran is untrustworthy and impossible to contain. And at the same time Iran is apparently scared enough to back away from American-set red lines; this message naturally appeals to the general narrative of American military superiority.  It is a logic that relies on inciting an emotional response.  Why take this approach?  First, because it is effective political rhetoric.  Second, because its almost the only play Netanyahu has left.

The Prime Minister is stuck making this neoconservative argument because his power is eroding at home.  While Iran is seen as a threat by most Israelis, the actual wisdom of a preemptive strike is questioned by a near majority.  This internal conundrum is clearly apparent in Netanyahu’s cabinet as well.  The cabinet, which requires a majority vote to approve any military action, is famously split on this issue.  That’s why he needs the U.S. to set either a deadline or a red line.  He knows that he is politically unable to set a red line and militarily carry out the consequence of said red line.  If Iran crosses said threshold, an Israeli attack alone would do nothing but likely galvanize the Iranians into building nukes at a faster rate.   It would also probably put Israel at diplomatic odds with its greatest benefactor and ally.  A committed U.S. military action, however, might be one that precipitates regime change through force.  He is hoping for another Iraq 2003 without the occupation.

The Obama Administration, to its credit, has not set deadlines knowing that it would hinder their diplomatic maneuverability to the point where a military strike would be necessary if only to maintain credibility.  It would also free Israel of the burden of a military action and allow its leaders to hide behind the United States while making their case against Iran.  Netanyahu might then be freed from wasting time discussing red lines and military action against Iran with his cabinet to spend more time rebuilding his Knesset coalition.  So cutting through all the messaging, what Netanyahu wants is to abdicate responsibility of Israeli’s security vis-a-vis Iran to Big Brother, the United States.  He knows an Israeli strike does not benefit him, but an American one would hurt Iran while tying Washington to Tel-Aviv through further security cooperation.  And he is willing to push his coalition, and his relationship with the current administration, to the brink to make this happen.

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Filed under Iran, Israel, Rahul Ravi

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