by Mitchell Plitnick
In most corners of the world, the news that a presentation by Iran at its meetings with the 6 world power P5+1 team in Geneva today was greeted warmly by their interlocutors aroused optimism and a hopeful feeling. Not so in Israel, where any hint of rapprochement with the Islamic Republic is viewed as an apocalyptic security threat.
“We heard a presentation this morning from Foreign Minister (Mohammed Javad) Zarif. It was very useful,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said. “For the first time, we had very detailed technical discussions, which carried on this afternoon. We will continue these discussions tomorrow.”
That is about as promising a beginning as one could hope for. Shortly after the presentation, though, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu evoked the threat of a pre-emptive strike on Iran. At an event marking forty years since the Yom Kippur War, Netanyahu the hawk was perhaps more radical than he has ever been.
The 1973 conflict between Israel, on one side, and Egypt and Syria on the other, taught Israel “not to underestimate the enemy, not to ignore the dangers and not to give up on preemptive strikes,” according to Netanyahu.
“Back than we paid the price of self-illusion,” he said. “We will not make this mistake again…There are cases when the thought about the international reaction to a preemptive strike is not equal to taking a strategic hit.”
According to Barak Ravid of Ha’aretz, “Netanyahu also pointed out that ‘peace is achieved through force,’ as exemplified by the fact that in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war, Israel signed peace treaties with both Egypt and Jordan.”
Netanyahu is willfully distorting history. In fact, the 1973 war demonstrates the foolishness of his current course of action. Israel had an opportunity, in 1971, to get the same deal with Egypt it would eventually strike at Camp David, but then-Prime Minister Golda Meir would not even consider it. Egypt decided to attack Israel as a result, intending not to destroy the Jewish state (in fact, their early and sustained military success in that war came as something of a surprise to the Egyptians) but to press the recalcitrant Israel into the very peace deal that came along a few years later. Jordan is completely irrelevant; that peace deal came over two decades later, and was the result of far different circumstances.
The saber-rattling plays well to Netanyahu’s right flank, which is wringing its hands right now less over the Iranian nuclear issue than over what they fear Netanyahu might be willing to bargain away to the Palestinians at the behest of the Americans. These fears are likely unfounded, but they are prominent in Netanyahu’s mind as he tries to cooperate with the United States without alienating the right wing that dominates his government.
But there is more to it than that. Netanyahu has made his name on anti-Iran ranting, and on raising the global alert level when it comes to Tehran. But he is aware that the status quo is not to the liking of Europe or the Obama administration. Obama wants to step back from the war posture his country has been in for the past years, and Iran has opened the door to a serious possibility of doing so.
But there is no reason to believe that the U.S. and E.U. are going to settle for anything less than clear verification of peaceful uses of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Netanyahu surely knows this as well. No, this is about maintaining sanctions on Iran to prevent it from regaining its economic stability and enabling it to pursue its ambitions of a stronger position in the region. More to the point, Netanyahu is very concerned that any deal with Iran could lead to a number of possibilities he will find unpalatable: far greater concessions to the Palestinians than he wants to make, compromise of Israel’s own nuclear arsenal, or an increased Iranian role in ongoing crises in the region.
None of those prospects warms Bibi’s heart. But the matter is, for the moment, largely outside of his control. The recent experience of the U.S. citizenry overwhelmingly following their British cousins’ lead and rejecting intervention in Syria is not entirely indicative of what might happen if talks with Iran fail and fears of an Iranian nuclear device escalate again. But it certainly illustarted the far higher bar for military action that has been set in the United States.
Still, if a deal is struck with Iran, it is very likely that Netanyahu will appeal to his many friends in Congress to obstruct it. He may find that to be a very difficult road. Unless the deal can be presented convincingly to the U.S. public as a foolhardy one that will allow Iran to produce a nuclear weapon covertly, it will be a very tough sell indeed. Obama and the E.U. are not likely to produce such a deal. Netanyahu knows this, and so he is raising the specter of an Israeli pre-emptive strike once again.
The problem with that threat is that, at least for the moment, it doesn’t seem very credible. Netanyahu can talk all he likes about Israel’s independence and freedom to act on its own. But, as Johnny Depp memorably said in the film Pirates of the Caribbean, “The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do.” Yes, Israel has the ability to get planes to Iran and strike some of their nuclear sites. They do not have the ability, however, to do so as effectively as the United States, and such an Israeli strike could only damage Iran’s nuclear program, not destroy it. The cost of such a venture is likely to be very high, and it could well damage Israel’s standing in Europe as well as cost it in a big way with Russia and, most especially, Muslim states.
The fact is, without the United States, an Israeli strike is much less effective and far more dangerous for Israel. It would more likely cause a massive backlash from the powerful Israeli military than deter Iran in any way.
What this really sounds like is less of a threat and more like the wailing of a desperate man who sees his ambition to crush Iran’s regional influence crumbling under the weight of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s dreaded “charm offensive.” With the United States Congress wrapped up in its self-inflicted shutdown and the Obama administration striking the right pose of welcoming Iranian initiatives while maintaining its stance that sanctions won’t be lifted until material and verifiable steps to comply with UN resolutions have been taken, Netanyahu has few options. Despite Netanyahu’s best efforts, a verifiable non-nuclear-armed Iran could well be the result of the current talks. His angry threats only prove that he fears that far more than he fears an Iranian nuke.
Photo: E.U. Foreign Affairs chief Catherine Ashton, with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: European External Action Service/Flickr
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