Countdown: US elections and the Iranian bomb

PM’s refusal to sit quietly by conveys the impression of a leader who understands that his nation is confronting a dire state of affairs.

Netanyahu, Panetta shake hands 370 (photo credit: Screenshot)
Netanyahu, Panetta shake hands 370
(photo credit: Screenshot)
With Iran racing to the nuclear finish line, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu undertook a difficult decision to bring his case before the American people and then the world. What had previously been a discussion over strategy toward Iran and “red lines” that occurred mainly in the corridors of power descended onto Main Street as the leader of Israel began to articulate his country’s position on Iran.
The political astuteness of this move consists in Netanyahu’s understanding that regardless of who sits in the White House next year, there is a strong likelihood that whoever is elected will be faced with the same decision over how to deal with the specter of a Iranian militant theocracy going nuclear.
Netanyahu’s diplomatic breach began with his comments of September 10, implicitly directed at the US administration: “Those who refuse to set red lines, have no moral right in preventing Israel from setting its own.”
Netanyahu understood the weight of this statement and couched his position on Iran as a moral one. This in essence turned the issue into one far greater than a disagreement over policy with a sitting president. With a deep understanding of America’s political tradition Netanyahu appealed to American values – not strategic interests – knowing full well that as a Republic, the ultimate source of power in the US lies with its citizenry.
Rather than asking for tangible or material support from the US, Netanyahu played a more nuanced card and asked for the establishment of “red lines.” The usage of “red lines” was critical to supply a nuanced but critical critique on the current US-Israeli joint Iranian strategy. Netanyahu explained sensibly to the American people and then the UN General Assembly what a serious discussion over Iran should consist of.
The American people understand more then most nations the difficult calculus of defending national interests, and the notion of red lines makes sense to Americans, redoubled by a shared threat perception to a world with a nuclear Iran.
Here lies Netanyahu’s success; American’s reaction to Netanyahu’s “red lines” has been by and large one of empathy, not anger. Recent US domestic polls that point to a 70 percent favorability toward Israel attest to this positive reaction to Netanyahu’s public diplomacy.
Netanyahu’s approach was not without its critics, however, both from domestic and international audiences.
It has been a well-regarded tradition in Israeli governance not to meddle in US elections so as to not disturb the bipartisan support it has enjoyed for so long.
NETANYAHU’S REFUSAL to adhere to this political custom is the greatest indication to the public that time is running out on Iran. Netanyahu’s refusal to sit quietly by conveys the impression of a leader who understands that his nation is confronting a dire state of affairs. Tradition in politics is there to provide guidance, yet history proves that tradition does not trump the law of necessity.
Given this extraordinary reality, and Netanyahu’s decision to confront it, now more then ever solidarity need descend on the Israeli public and coalesce around its leadership as it begins to chart uncharted waters. This explains why Netanyahu is making moves toward early elections, seeking greater consensus around his premiership.
The backlash to Netanyahu’s public diplomacy, especially during a US election season, was to be expected and Netanyahu was cautious enough to go on CNN and NBC to clarify his position to the American people and explain why this untimely divergence from the Obama administration had occurred.
His further call in the UN for red lines only punctuated to the American public the urgency that forced the prime minister to protest in such a loud fashion the week previously. President Obama may stew, but it was his refusal to provide Israel with a cogent strategy of cooperation that forced Netanyahu to go rogue.
The president said as much in his September 23 interview with 60 minutes, dismissing Netanyahu’s public protest: “When it comes to our national security decisions – any pressure that I feel is simply to do what’s right for the American people. And I am going to block out – any noise that’s out there.”
By Obama’s own admission, when it comes to Iran he is purely guided by American interests. Netanyahu is only reacting in kind; observing an uncooperative US president, he will pursue other avenues to further Israel’s interest.
Obama made it clear that beyond his obligation to “consult,” Israeli strategic needs are mere “noise.” It was precisely this perception that the prime minister’s UN speech, days after this interview, has forcefully dispelled. Netanyahu re-took the initiative and declared his own red line.
On Iran, Obama’s administration has increasingly sounded more and more tone-deaf to the speed of events, seeming more interested in convincing Israel to stand down than in deterring Iran. Regarding President Obama’s brinksmanship, he is simply not behaving in a manner that would deter Iran from moving toward the nuclear finish line. But it is President Obama’s inability to learn from this failure, together with the late date on the Iranian time-line, that has created profound doubt in the Netanyahu camp.
Netanyahu’s public diplomacy at this stage, given these dire circumstances, can therefore be seen as prudence in the face of growing fear that an Iranian nuke is a fait accompli. For the honest observer, quiet diplomacy can no longer suffice, and the American people need know about it. Not because America should prepare to attack, but rather it should prepare for the day Israel may have to.
Little reminder is needed that Jewish history is strewn with demagogues who took their demagoguery and turned it into devastating action against the Jewish people. “Never Again” is too fresh in Jewish memories to brush aside Iranian genocidal threats and belligerent actions as fleeting and exaggerated. So what is required at this moment, when Obama would rather sit with a latenight comedian then with the Israeli prime minister to discuss such extraordinary matters of international security? Netanyahu’s Churchillian answer has been unflinching, defiant, unapologetic resolve.
Netanyahu made clear that if Israel cannot deal effectively with Iran in a joint effort, then Netanyahu, the elected leader of the Jewish state, will come before the American citizenry, and after it the world, and plead his case.
Too much is at stake not to.
Netanyahu’s declaration of his own red lines on the floor of the UN – no third-stage enrichment – will have dramatic implications for the future. Israel is now cleared of negligence should it act alone, having put its friends and allies on notice that there is a storm on the horizon. In this declaration of Israel’s red lines, Netanyahu has effectively given the Iranian nuclear clock a countdown that everyone can see.The writer is the co-founder of the JNI (Jewish National Initiative).