On the surface, the words seem almost banal: Israel has the right to defend
itself, by itself, against any threat.
Upon first hearing, once could be
excused for thinking this is merely stating the obvious, that all independent,
sovereign states possess that inalienable right to self-defense.
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that what sovereignty is all about.
But still. This was a line prime
minister Ariel Sharon made sure was included in the famous letter from then-US
president George W. Bush that preceded the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, and it
is a line that Binyamin Netanyahu repeated time and time again on Wednesday at
the his public appearances with US President Barack Obama.
“Thank you for
unequivocally affirming Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself by itself
against any threat,” Netanyahu said at the airport following Obama’s speech upon
landing, where the latter said, “Today the sons of Abraham and the daughters of
Sara are fulfilling the dream of the ages – to be masters of their own fate in
their own sovereign state.”
Netanyahu said it again at the start of his
press conference with Obama following the first round of their meetings. In
fact, the prime minister mentioned Israel’s right to independently defend itself
during the press conference no fewer than three times, with the most significant
reference at the beginning.
“Notwithstanding our joint efforts and your
great success in mobilizing the international community, diplomacy and sanctions
so far have not stopped Iran’s nuclear program,” he said. “And as you know, my
view is that in order to stop Iran’s nuclear programs peacefully, diplomacy and
sanctions must be augmented by a clear and credible threat of military action.
In this regard, Mr.
President, I want to thank you once again for always
making clear that Israel must be able to defend itself by itself against any
For months, in fact even years going back to at least January
2011, Netanyahu has said that sanctions on Iran will only work if coupled with a
“credible military option.” The reasoning was that only if Iran had a dagger
over its head would it use the sanctions and political isolation to back down.
In recent weeks he stepped up the drumbeat of that mantra, saying this line
almost every time he made public comments on Iran, although never spelling out
exactly what he considered to be that credible military threat.
first two days of Obama’s visit that threat emerged: It is Israel
Speculation has been rife for years that the US is holding Israel
back when it comes to Iran. Indeed, prior to Obama’s trip there was speculation
that one of the main purposes of his journey was to hold a bright red stop light
up to Netanyahu.
No one – including the Iranians – knows what Obama and
Netanyahu said to each other privately. Publicly, however, restraining Israel
has not been Obama’s message.
Indeed, the opposite is true – and these
are the words the Iranians are hearing as well.
“I think that what Bibi
alluded to, which is absolutely correct, is each country has to make its own
decisions when it comes to the awesome decision to engage in any kind of
military action, and Israel is differently situated than the United States,”
Obama said at Wednesday’s press conference. “And I would not expect that the
prime minister would make a decision about his country’s security and defer that
to any other country, any more than the United States would defer our decisions
about what was important for our national security.”
The most solemn
responsibility of a leader, he said, is the security of his people. “That’s job
number one. My job as president of the United States, first and foremost, is to
keep the American people safe. Bibi, as prime minister, your first task is to
keep the people of Israel safe. And Israel’s security needs are truly unique, as
I’ve seen myself.”
During the past four years, Netanyahu’s efforts
regarding Iran were twofold: raising the issue to the top of the international
agenda, and creating a credible Israeli military option. Actually, these two
efforts were interconnected, because the world put the issue on the agenda, and
significantly ratcheted up sanctions on Iran precisely because it felt that
Israel posed a serious military threat.
And now Obama comes to town and
instead of sheathing that threat, instead of openly warning Israel not to take
action, he makes it clear publicly that he recognizes Israel’s right to defend
itself by itself against all possible threats. Obama hopes it will not come to
that on Iran, he hopes the Iranians will back down. But if they don’t, the
credible military threat Netanyahu wants to see waved along with the economic,
political and diplomatic pressure already being applied against Iran is no less
than Israel itself.
Iran, and the international community, has been
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