Bibi's Jerusalem syndrome

Is Netanyahu destined to repeat the bellicose mistakes of a former US president?

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu 311  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

Is Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu a man on a mission? By too many accounts, Netanyahu believes that destiny has chosen him to save Israel from the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb—whatever that may require.


There is no doubt that he is fully willing to be the former British prime minister Winston Churchill of our time. He has most likely already rehearsed Churchill's words in his mind a hundred times:

"We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime."


After his recent speech at the annual memorial ceremony for former prime minister David Ben-Gurion, however, one has to be increasingly concerned that Netanyahu is actually prepared to take us down that long, dark road of a unilateral strike. Comparing this decision to Ben-Gurion's decision about whether or not to declare statehood, he told the audience at Sde Boker, "[Ben-Gurion] well understood that there would be a heavy cost to this decision, but he believed that the cost would be even heavier if he did not make the decision."


The analogy is terribly misguided (Professor Yuen Foong Khong, the author of the classic Analogies at War, argues that politicians' use of historical analogy usually is). It's one thing if an Israeli attack on Iran would lead to the end of its nuclear weapons program. If this was the case, the war that would result from such a strike could be considered justifiable.


The problem is that—unlike in 1948—such a war would be for naught. As almost everyone else has made clear, such an attack will not end the program, but will only serve to delay it.


And not by much either. On December 2, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that, "at best," a military strike might postpone an Iranian weapons program by "maybe one, possibly two years."


Here is where Iran differs from the Syrian and Iraqi cases, in which Israel was able to destroy potential nuclear-weapons programs: those were small, highly contained programs that could be set back by over a decade with one blow.


Not only is Iran's program widespread and diversified, but it is capable of independently producing (and thus, replacing) thousands of centrifuges. Moreover, Iran is increasingly demonstrating its ability to enrich uranium successfully—considered the most technically-challenging task in building a nuclear weapon. Once that technology has been mastered, and it appears it essentially has, then you cannot really put the nuclear devil back in Pandora's Box. No matter how hard you clobber.


At the same time, one must be cognizant of what Panetta referred to as "unintended consequences." Netanyahu is prepared for the attacks that might emanate from Lebanon, Iran, Gaza and Syria. He might even see that such a strike, as Panetta put it, could ironically assist Iran in emerging from its growing regional and global isolation.

Yet, what Netanyahu seems to miss entirely—and something Panetta cannot politically afford to tell him—is how one of the unintended consequences of such a reckless strike could be a degradation of Israel's position with its closest allies. There is no stomach amongst the American public to get dragged into another Middle Eastern quagmire, especially seeing how Afghanistan and Iraq have dragged on far longer than anyone imagined at the outset.


Should Israel get blamed for dragging the United States helter-skelter into yet another war, irreparable harm could be done to the special relationship that those two countries share. Given that Iran's nuclear weapons program would only be delayed by "a year or two," at the end of the day—even after a military strike on Iran—we will end up in a situation where the threat of severe, total and inescapable nuclear retaliation will be our only weapon in deterring Iran. Such deterrence can only be robust if backed by an unflinching American nuclear guarantee. Thus, any act which might make America flinch in the future undermines Israel's security.


Unfortunately, speaking that inevitable truth lacks Churchillian ring. Israeli politicians would much rather declare, as Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently put it, that " In the final analysis, Israel is responsible for its security, future and existence … [and it] cannot free itself from taking decisions as a sovereign state."


I'd like to hope that Netanyahu's remarks are pure posturing. If so, the only problem is that it seems the Iranian regime is perfectly happy to call Israel's bluff. They show zero indication of being intimidated by such innuendos. Maybe they even relish the idea of getting attacked, as it would help them to shore up domestic support. Regardless, Israeli threats have proven totally incapable of coercing Iran into changing course.


This is why the most concerning possibility is that Netanyahu actually believes what he is saying. If Bibi is, in fact, a man on a mission, then the real historical analogy for his situation is not Ben-Gurion, but former US president George W. Bush. Bush also believed deeply that it was his God-given destiny to lead his nation through its greatest challenges. Blinded by this inner faith, Bush squandered his presidency, and sky-high approval ratings, by attacking Iraq when it was not absolutely necessary.

May our prime minister heed his own words and have the "courage and determination to make the right decisions to ensure our future"—even if those decisions are neither particularly photogenic nor as eloquent as Churchill’s immortal offering of "blood, toil, tears and sweat."

The writer is the former Deputy Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) in Herzliya.