Photo: Ariel Van Straten
Harvard-educated Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner is one of Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz’s right-hand men in the party and a vocal member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. So when he speaks about Iran, and particularly the way that US candidates’ positions on Iran look through an Israeli lens, he’s in a decent position to comment. He says Obama is in a ideological bind and that Iran cannot be contained without force – but that although there is no emotional connection between Netanyahu and Obama, it is unclear whether a Romney presidency would make the situation any different.
“I don’t purport to understand American politics but [US President Barack] Obama has a difficult decision between his two leading foreign policy doctrines. On one hand, he wants to act through consensus, with international support, including as much support from the United Nations as possible. On the other side he has a very strong belief in a non-nuclear world,” Plesner says during a conversation late last week in a DC café. Juggling incoming phone calls from Israel trying to make sense out of Jerusalem’s political chaos, Plesner attended the American Jewish Committee’s annual meeting in the shadow of not one – but two sets of seemingly looming elections. “It doesn’t seem possible to force Iran to a point of non-proliferation without a conflict. It is also improbable that he can get international support, and thus he faces a conflict about which of his core values he violates.”
On fundamental issues regarding Israel and Iran, Plesner says, the two parties seem to Israeli politicians to be offering much of the same.
“If we look at the criticism of the Democrats, it is that they don’t show enough regional leadership and push for dialogue without leadership. But as a superpower, you don’t have the privilege of saying after a setback you give up. But do I see a Republican administration that is more likely to project leadership in the Middle East? On the bilateral relationship between Israel and the US they are largely similar. Obama may not have a great personal relationship with Netanyahu. In terms of support, of defense cooperation, if there is anything lacking it is just on the emotional level, like the gestures that Obama made by visiting Cairo and not Israel. The economic and security ties are strong, but there is no sense of a warm relationship that must be developed.”
“There is no real difference between the candidates. It could be that the Republicans may have a more emotional connection, but the projection of regional leadership against Iran and China is very important too. Iran can destabilize the west and America needs to learn how to contend with the rise of China. To say that I know how a Republican administration will act in terms of ability to project leadership? There is a general feeling that there may be a bit more willingness to take leadership. Generally, though center-left or center-right works fine, and it is more a question of leadership than ideology and the bravery to make tough decisions as opposed to an overly logical and analytical wait-and-see approach.”
“America now must show leadership in the Middle East, the same leadership that it had in the seventies that allowed it to build an opposing vector to pan-Arabism. But now, America has less power of protection, less money and less willingness to do-so. The American government seems to be shying away from traditional American responsibility to lead. America doesn’t need to pay the prices alone - it can ask its allies in NATO and the far east. They understand that the great danger to NATO states isn’t in eastern Europe but at Europe’s back door in the Middle East.
“America must repair its alliance with Turks, Saudis and Egyptians without giving up on the ideal of democracy but understanding that democracy is not the immediate and predestined outcome of the latest events, so that they should help build civil society and democratic regimes. In the mean time we must survive, not just Israelis but west. American must project to its partners that it is committed to leadership and is there to stay. The gulf states who are afraid shouldn’t decide to hedge their bets and not ally with Iran. This is realpolitik – to combine idealistic democratic discourse with a more realistic outlook of American interests and how it should use the tools at its disposal. I don’t see that enough in the current leadership. Both on the Iranian issue per se and regarding the developments in the area, there is an absence of realpolitik that acknowledges an America that has responsibility to lead and project leadership and retain its status along with it.”
Plesner chalks America’s reluctance up to what he termed “Iraq post-trauma, when the US tried to do something and now there is a state in an unstable situation with a strong Iranian influence.” Nevertheless, he argues, “I believe that it is the interest of American voters to contain Iran.”
(rebecca anna stoil)