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Netanyahu Isn’t the One Playing Politics on Iran

Israeli leaders are often rightly warned to avoid the temptation to tiptoe into the muddy waters of American partisan politics. That is a lesson that current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu learned during his first term in office during the 1990s, when he answered the antipathy of the Clinton administration by cozying up to the Republicans. Though Clinton had done everything but go door to door asking Israeli voters to back Shimon Peres and Labor instead of Netanyahu and Likud in Israel’s 1996 parliamentary election, Netanyahu’s clear preference for the GOP was a mistake that did Israel no good and Clinton little harm.

That is the sort of mistake that Netanyahu has avoided since coming back to the prime minister’s office in 2009. Though President Obama has picked fights with Israel as he sought to distance the United States from its ally in a futile bid for popularity in the Muslim world and treated Netanyahu abominably, the prime minister has wisely never voiced a single complaint and has frustrated those in the White House who foolishly thought they could unseat him. But these rope-a-dope tactics are not only frustrating for the Obami. They are driving some Israeli left-wingers crazy, too.

That’s the spirit of a piece published yesterday at Politico by Alon Pinkas, Israel’s former consul general in New York City. He accuses Netanyahu of violating the unwritten rule prohibiting prime ministers from partisan activities here. What’s his evidence? The speech Netanyahu gave to the General Assembly of North American Jewish Federations in which he called for the assertion of a threat of force to respond to the nuclear threat from Iran. Netanyahu said that while he hoped that sanctions would work to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, a credible threat of force must be on the table. Since U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates soon responded that sanctions are working (a position that no serious person actually believes), Pinkas concludes that Netanyahu violated a tradition of non-partisanship. After that, he goes on to switch gears and then rehearse the arguments often heard from Jewish Democrats that even raising the issue of support for Israel in U.S. elections is somehow not kosher.

Such arguments are nonsense.

First, worrying about Iran has never been the sole preserve of the Republicans. For example, a certain Democratic presidential candidate named Barack Obama made a number of pledges that he would never allow Iran to go nuclear on his watch. Many Democrats as well as Republicans have sounded the alarm about Iran as Obama spent his first year in office pursuing a feckless policy of “engagement” with the ayatollahs and then watched in dismay as he spent his second year assembling a coalition that could only muster support for tepid sanctions that have made no impression on the Iranians.

But what his piece illustrates is that it is Pinkas who is playing American party politics, not Netanyahu. By decrying the claim of some Republicans that some Democrats have been unsupportive of Israel, all Pinkas is doing is demonstrating that he dislikes the GOP and sympathizes with the Democrats. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if that’s how he feels, then perhaps he should move here, become a citizen, and get a vote. (Oddly enough, a few years ago Pinkas actually made a bid to become the head of the American Jewish Congress and almost got the job, until it was learned that it was a violation of Israeli law for a diplomat to take such a position so soon after leaving his post. Eventually, even the members of that moribund organization realized that the idea of an unemployed Israeli diplomat becoming the head of an American group was ridiculous.)

Contrary to Pinkas’s assertion, accountability is the one thing all friends of Israel should welcome. If either a Democrat or a Republican takes stances that are unhelpful to Israel, he or she ought to pay a political price at the ballot box. Taking the issue of support for Israel off the table does nothing to encourage politicians of either party to make good on their campaign promises to defend the Jewish state.

By expressing the justified concerns of Israelis about the existential threat facing their country from Iran, Netanyahu was doing exactly what he should be doing. By injecting himself into party squabbles here on behalf of his friends in the Democratic Party and by attempting to undermine his prime minister’s mission with a false allegation of partisanship, Pinkas demonstrated how out of touch he is with the realities of both Israeli and American politics.

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