President Obama responded sharply yesterday to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim the P5+1 talks with Iran constituted a Western “freebie” to the Islamist regime because it gave it five more weeks to continue to enrich uranium. Speaking during his visit to Colombia, the president let loose with another barrage of tough talk about his intentions to halt Iran’s nuclear program. Warning “the clock is ticking” for Iran, he directly addressed criticism of the talks by saying he wouldn’t allow it to turn into a “stalling process” and that far more draconian sanctions would be put into place against the regime if it didn’t take advantage of the diplomatic process.
That’s reassuring rhetoric, but the problem with America’s policy on the Iranian nuclear issue remains the same as it has always been: the disconnect between President Obama’s public rhetoric and the process by which U.S. diplomatic efforts has allowed Tehran to do the stalling that he claims he opposes. With reports of Saturday’s meeting showing that nothing other than a commitment to future meetings in Baghdad (the venue has been changed from Turkey to suit Iran’s latest whim), it’s not clear why Israel or anyone who cares should have much confidence that the negotiators are doing anything but allowing both the ayatollahs and a president who wishes to avoid a confrontation during an election year to run out the clock in contravention to what Obama has pledged.
For generations, historians have lauded the friendship that existed between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as being a crucial element that made the wartime alliance between the United States and Great Britain a success. But apparently there are some people who aren’t as happy about the prospect of close relations between a would-be U.S. president and the head of the government of one of America’s closest allies. The New York Times devoted a portion of the cover of its Sunday edition and considerable space inside to a feature that detailed the ties between likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that go back to the 1970’s when both were young men working at the Boston Consulting Group. According to the Times, this has some people worried that too much “deference” on Romney’s part to Netanyahu would “influence decision making” and possibly “subcontract Middle East policy to Israel.”
This potential smear invokes two of the hoary canards of anti-Israel invective: the dual loyalty charge (usually lodged against American Jews) and the notion that a politician is pandering to the pro-Israel community for votes (in this case, evangelical Christians are the more likely candidates for influence than the more liberal Jews). But the idea that Romney is suspect because he has a longstanding friendship with the Israeli prime minister is absurd. Allies are supposed to be friends or at least ought to be able to understand each other and speak frankly about potential conflicts. Given that President Obama spent the first three years of his presidency picking fights with Netanyahu that did nothing to enhance America’s strategic position or the Middle East peace process, wouldn’t Romney’s ability to communicate without rancor with the Israeli be an advantage rather than a cause of suspicion?
After so many years of being wrong about the Palestinians being ready to make peace with Israel, it is difficult to take New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s Middle East advice columns seriously. But his latest effort in this genre contains some whoppers that got our attention even if they only provide more proof the veteran writer is still hopelessly out of touch with reality.
Today’s “twofer” of Friedman gems starts out with praise for imprisoned Palestinian terrorist Marwan Barghouti. Friedman gives a testimonial to Barghouti as an “authentic leader” and describes his call from prison for a new campaign of “non-violent” protest against Israel as just the ticket to bring peace. But what Friedman doesn’t understand is what makes Barghouti “authentic” to Palestinians is his role in the murder of Israeli civilians (for which he is currently serving five life sentences), not his notions about a switch to Gandhi-style activism.
When I pulled up the home page of the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz this morning, I was greeted with a somewhat humorous sight. The top headline, in large print, was: “Israeli security forces evacuate settlers from Hebron house.” Immediately to the right of that headline was this one: “Haaretz Editorial: The Israeli government gave in to the settlers.” Oops.
It appears Haaretz was expecting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to evict the residents of a house in Hebron who the government says are not there legally. So the editors wrote a blistering editorial excoriating Netanyahu for what they assumed he would (or would not) do. It’s true that Netanyahu had recently indicated that he was not yet ready to evict the settlers. But that is a common tactic used by the government to ensure that the soldiers carrying out the evictions are not met with organized resistance. It’s not the first time the Israeli authorities have done this–it’s not even the first time they’ve done this in Hebron. Should Haaretz have assumed that Netanyahu would not evict Jews from Hebron? Just the opposite–Netanyahu has a track record of willingness to move Jews out of Hebron. He even signed an agreement with Yasser Arafat during the Clinton administration relinquishing some control over Hebron.
We know President Obama prides himself on the close relationship he has developed with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. If you listen to administration sources, despite Turkey’s attempt to sabotage Middle East peace, Erdoğan is part of the powerful international coalition the president has assembled to pressure Iran to give up its quest for nuclear capability. But it’s not clear how they can spin Erdoğan’s trip to Tehran this week. Meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran, Erdoğan not only defended Iran’s right to nuclear research, he made common cause with the Islamist regime on their response “to the arrogance of the Western countries.”
Earlier today, Emanuele Ottolenghi speculated as to whether Erdoğan was taking a message to Tehran on behalf of his friend in the White House. But if that is true, neither the message nor its reply seems to be anything that should reassure the world that the Iranians are about to back down. If anything, the visit and the successful trade negotiations between Iran and Turkey appear to make it clear that Obama’s diplomatic coalition is a house of cards. Even worse, the Iranians know it.
The potential for an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities may be a lot greater than skeptics may have thought. That’s the upshot of a story published yesterday in Foreign Policy that alleges Azerbaijan has granted the Israelis access to airbases in that country. If true, Israel’s ability to launch a strike from bases on Iran’s northern border would make the Jewish state’s military challenge in seeking to knock out Iran’s nuclear plants a lot simpler. The assistance of the Azeris would enable the Israelis to make repeated attacks and would eliminate the need to refuel their planes in midair in order to make the long flight from Israel to Iran.
Yet at the same time, a report in Ha’aretz insists that Tuesday’s announcement by the U.S. Defense Department that it would ask Congress for more money for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system ensures there will be no attack on Iran before the presidential election this year. While that assumption may be unfounded, along with similar speculation that followed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s meeting with President Obama earlier this month, it leaves open the possibility that Israel is heeding U.S. requests to hold off an attack. The question for Iran is, which of these stories do you believe?
For the past three years, figures in America’s foreign policy establishment as well as media kibbitzers who knew little about Israel had a constant refrain: Tzipi Livni, the glamorous head of the Kadmia Party, should replace Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister. In the aftermath of Netanyahu’s election in February 2009, the Obama administration openly plotted to topple the new leader and replace him with Livni, whom they viewed as more pliable on the Palestinian issue. Once that ploy failed as President Obama’s attacks on Netanyahu only strengthened him at home, Netanyahu’s American critics could only sit back and wait patiently until Livni defeated him on her own. But the wait is going to be a lot longer than many in Washington thought.
Last night, Livni lost her perch as opposition leader as the members of her rapidly shrinking party rejected her in favor of former General Shaul Mofaz in a primary to determine who will top the party’s list in the next election that is currently scheduled for October 2013. That Livni, who was feted abroad and was prominently placed on lists of the world’s most important women, was defeated at all will come as a shock to her foreign admirers. But this was no ordinary defeat. The lady who only a couple of weeks ago was lauded as Israel’s “voice of reason” in a fawning piece by John Avlon in the Daily Beast, was slaughtered by Mofaz, 62-38 percent. The question now is whether Americans who were under the delusion that Livni represented a viable alternative to Netanyahu’s popular government will get the message.
The New York Times memorable headline on the falsified documents relating to George W. Bush’s military service — “Fake but Accurate” — has almost been matched by a Haaretz columnist’s description of Peter Beinart’s theory on Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu: he writes that the theory “may not be accurate but is nonetheless spectacularly original.”
Beinart’s theory — that what Netanyahu supposedly dislikes about Jews is what Vladimir Jabotinsky supposedly disliked about them — is not supported by the Jabotinsky essay Beinart cited as evidence for it. “Spectacularly original” does not seem quite the right phrase for what Beinart did.
When foreign policy “realists,” pseudo-realists, and leftists claim that the pro-Israel establishment is preventing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, their argument fails to account for one aspect of recent Mideast history: During the administrations of American presidents seen as favoring Israel, the Jewish state’s leaders made serious offers for a final-status agreement.
So the argument that more “daylight” is needed between the U.S. and Israel is generally met with proper skepticism. So is the declaration that President Obama is just as pro-Israel as his predecessors, he’s just showing his friends a bit of tough love–heavy on the tough, light on the love. Aaron David Miller, part of Bill Clinton’s Mideast negotiating team, doesn’t think there’s any reason to fool yourself about that last point. He has written an article for Foreign Policy’s website detailing the six most damaging myths of the U.S.-Israel relationship. No. 6 is: “Barack Obama is just as pro-Israel as Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.” Miller writes:
There’s no question that Obama understands and appreciates the special relationship between Israel and the United States. But Obama isn’t Bill Clinton or George W. Bush when it comes to Israel — not even close. These guys were frustrated by Israeli prime ministers too, but they also were moved and enamored by them (Clinton by Yitzhak Rabin, Bush by Ariel Sharon). They had instinctive, heartfelt empathy for the idea of Israel’s story, and as a consequence they could make allowances at times for Israel’s behavior even when it clashed with their own policy goals. Obama is more like George H.W. Bush when it comes to Israel, but without the strategy…
If Obama had a chance to reset the U.S.-Israel relationship and make it a little less special, he probably would. But I guess that’s the point: He probably won’t have the chance.
Jeffrey Goldberg, Ronen Bergman, and various other commentators believe that an Israeli strike on Iran is more likely than not this year. I agree that the odds are in favor of such a preemptive strike, and that there are compelling reasons for Israel to act before November—not only because of the progress Iran is likely to make in its nuclear program by the fall but also because of a widespread perception that President Obama will have to be more supportive of America’s closest ally in the region before the election than after it. What I don’t know—know one does—is what the impact of such strikes would be: how much would they set back the Iranian nuclear program and how would Iran respond?
Goldberg reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are fairly optimistic about the damage that Israel could do to Iran’s nuclear complex and sanguine about the prospects of Iranian retaliation: “Some Israeli officials believe that Iran’s leaders might choose to play down the insult of a raid and launch a handful of rockets at Tel Aviv as an angry gesture, rather than declare all-out war,” Goldberg writes. Moreover, he adds: “Some Israeli security officials also believe that Iran won’t target American ships or installations in the Middle East in retaliation for a strike, as many American officials fear, because the leadership in Tehran understands that American retaliation for an Iranian attack could be so severe as to threaten the regime itself.
Today’s terror attack in Toulouse has shocked France as well as the rest of the civilized world. Since the perpetrator escaped the scene of the crime, his identity — or that of any group to which he might belong — remains still unknown. Nevertheless, his purpose was quite clear: to kill as many Jews as possible. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has often spoken out against anti-Semitism, has acted responsibly and we can expect appropriate statements from other world leaders in the wake of the cold-blooded murder of a teacher and three children at a Jewish school.
But it must be understood that such an attack cannot be understood outside of the context of a revival of anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world. This wave of Jew-hatred has been fueled by an unreasoning anger at Israel and a campaign to delegitimize the state as well as its right to self-defense. But while some — including President Obama’s ambassador to Belgium — have attempted to rationalize this trend and to distinguish it from “traditional” anti-Semitism, that is a delusion. There is a very thin line between the efforts of those who seek to brand Israel as a pariah and those who simply wish (as do the Palestinian terrorists European intellectuals honor) to kill Jews. And as the world has just witnessed in Toulouse, that line is getting thinner all the time.
Israel isn’t the only American ally that was spurned for the first three years of the Obama administration. President Obama made no bones about his disdain for Britain after being elected president. But after making it clear that as far as he was concerned the “special relationship” between the two countries was as unwelcome as that bust of Winston Churchill he chucked out of the Oval Office, the president is finally getting around to making nice with Prime Minister David Cameron, with a state dinner in his honor and a trip with Obama to an NCAA basketball tournament game. Cameron, whom British pundit Melanie Phillips aptly nicknamed “David Obameron” as he shed conservative ideology during his less than scintillating election campaign, wants Obama’s embrace but isn’t too eager to be seen as under American influence as an unpopular war in Afghanistan winds down. But he and the president do seem to have one policy position very much in common: an ardent desire to prevent Israel from attacking Iran.
Along with France, the Brits have been talking much tougher about Iran in the last year than Obama. Under their leadership, the European Union is preparing to embargo Iranian oil, something the United States has not yet committed to. According to the New York Times, Cameron will urge Obama to escalate American support for sanctions on Iran which currently lag behind those imposed by Europe. But one of the main themes of his conclave with Obama appears to center on an almost hysterical fear that Israel will act on its own to forestall an Iranian nuclear threat that both the United States and Britain have agreed poses a danger to the world. Britain’s stand on Iran as well as its embrace of the latest diplomatic initiative that would embroil the West in further negotiations with the Islamist regime appear to be motivated primarily by a desire to avoid an Israeli attack at all costs. All of which means that Israel’s signals that it is prepared to strike have at the very least resulted in getting the West to take the issue seriously.
Newsweek excerpts Peter Beinart’s new book, The Crisis of Zionism, in which Beinart writes that Benjamin Netanyahu arrived to meet with President Obama in May 2009 with a “lack of interest in negotiations” — while Mahmoud Abbas arrived “eager to carry on the talks he had been pursuing with Netanyahu’s predecessor.” Beinart’s description is not only inconsistent with the public record, but distorts what Netanyahu tried to do in May 2009.
On May 18, 2009, sitting beside Obama, Netanyahu said he wanted “to start peace negotiations with the Palestinians immediately” and thought an agreement could be reached if they recognized Israel as a Jewish state with the means to defend itself; (2) on May 28, 2009, the supposedly eager Abbas told the Washington Post, the day before his own meeting with Obama, that he planned to do nothing but sit back and watch the Obama administration slowly squeeze Netanyahu from office.
One of the standard themes of those who claim there is no need to take action to halt Iran’s progress toward nuclear capability is that intelligence experts dispute the notion that this program poses a threat to Israel or the West. The star of this campaign is former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who will be featured on CBS’ “60 Minutes” this Sunday. The interview is being hailed by some as debunking what they consider to be the alarmism expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, therefore giving cover to those who wish to table the entire subject rather than to ramp up the pressure on Tehran.
But as with many previous statements by Dagan, the excerpts of the interview that have been released are bound to disappoint Iran’s apologists. Though Dagan is fiercely antagonistic to both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak and opposed to an air strike on Iran now, he clearly views Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to Israel and believes it must be stopped. His differences with Israel’s government center on how much time we have before it is too late and what measures would be most effective in doing the job.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often deploys historical analogies to help other world leaders understand the mindset of the Jewish people when faced with current threats or challenges. Tomorrow is Purim, the story of which Netanyahu brings up this time of year, each year, because of certain (mostly geographic) parallels.
The story begins on an alarming note when the evil Haman engineers a decree from the king he serves, Ahasuerus of Persia, calling for the annihilation of the empire’s Jews. The story ends with the humble Mordechai saving the king’s life and Queen Esther convincing her husband the king to sign a second decree discouraging the slaughter of the Jews and allowing and enabling the Jews to defend themselves against anyone who still attempted to carry out their annihilation. Esther, who was Jewish, fasted before making this request of the king, and so we fast today, the day before Purim, in solemn recognition both of Esther’s fast and the close call. But the point of the story and of Netanyahu’s decision to give President Obama a copy of the Book of Esther have been slightly misinterpreted.
The dispute which President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu failed to resolve during their sit down earlier this week revolved around what the red line should be that outside powers would forbid Iran from crossing.
Prime Minister Netanyahu says Iran must not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapons capability. President Obama disagrees, and insists the red line should instead be actual Iranian production of nuclear weapons. That Obama would allow an Iranian nuclear weapons capability, however, is akin to allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
Much of the attention devoted to U.S.-Israel diplomacy in recent months has been on whether the United States will seek to prevent the Jewish state from acting on its own to forestall an Iranian nuclear weapon. The differences between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu over the utility of sanctions or diplomacy and how much more time these measures should be allowed before force can be used have not been resolved. Nevertheless, it is more likely than not that the Israelis are going to give the president a bit more time before launching their own strike.
But despite the near obsessive focus on the fractious Obama-Netanyahu relationship, the most important messages being sent from the speeches at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington were not those exchanged between those two leaders. Instead, it was the clear warning to Iran by Netanyahu that the Jewish people will not live under the shadow of annihilation. For all of the justified concern about what Obama will or will not do to try to impede the Israelis as he hangs on to the forlorn hope of a diplomatic solution to the problem, the fate of the Middle East hangs on whether Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, comprehended Netanyahu’s clarion call to action during his Monday night speech to the conference. Tehran must either stand down on its nuclear ambition or face an Israeli attack at some point in the not too distant future.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish and exceptional speech at AIPAC tonight will no doubt set off days of speculation about whether or not he’s moving toward a strike on Iran’s nuclear program. There’s plenty of fodder to support either side of the argument. But these two quotes seem to indicate that Netanyahu is at least strongly leaning toward going it alone on an Iran strike:
“Unfortunately, Iran’s nuclear program continues to march forward…We’ve waited for diplomacy to work. We’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer. As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.”
No diplomacy and no sanctions leave just one other option on the table. And the line at the end shows that Netanyahu hasn’t made Obama any promises against taking unilateral action.
President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke briefly to the press before their meeting at the White House today. The points they each chose to emphasize were telling and provide insight into their mindsets going into the high-pressure Iran discussion.
Obama spoke first, and stressed the bond between Israel and the U.S., as well as its close military coordination.
I know that both the prime minister and I prefer to resolve this diplomatically. We understand the costs of any military action. And I want to assure both the American people and the Israeli people that we are in constant and close consultation. I think the levels of coordination and consultation between our militaries and our intelligence not just on this issue but on a broad range of issues has been unprecedented. And I intend to make sure that that continues during what will be a series of difficult months, I suspect, in 2012.