Commentary Magazine


Is Netanyahu Bluffing on Iran?

There’s little doubt that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s continued attempts to persuade the world that the Iranian charm offensive is a fraud are falling flat. With the U.S. privately accentuating the positive about the reconvened nuclear P5+1 talks with Iran this week, the administration is ignoring the PM’s talk about Iranian President Hassan Rouhani being a “sheep in wolf’s clothing.” Moreover, even in Israel, where Netanyahu’s view of Rouhani is widely shared by figures across the political spectrum, the threats he made this week during a speech to the Knesset about the country acting on its own to knock out the Iranian nuclear program were seen by many as an empty bluff. The belief that, no matter what Netanyahu says now, Israel will have little choice but to accept a Western accommodation with Iran, is by no means confined to the prime minister’s critics.

That’s the gist of a Time article in which the magazine’s Jerusalem correspondent Karl Vick discusses what he calls Netanyahu’s “grumbling from the sidelines” while “the West makes progress in Geneva.” But whether or not you believe Israel can or will eventually attack Iran, there’s little question that the international community, led by the Obama administration, is heavily invested in diplomacy with Iran and may well sacrifice the Jewish state’s security in exchange for an opportunity to relieve themselves of the responsibility to act on the nuclear threat and to get Iranian oil flowing to Western markets again.

As the Times of Israel reported earlier this week, Netanyahu used a speech at a Knesset session devoted to the anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War to make the case for a unilateral, preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Recalling the complacence of Israeli leaders 40 years ago that led to Egypt and Syria being able to achieve a surprise attack, Netanyahu said that there were important lessons to be learned from this history for the Jewish state:

The first lesson is to never underestimate a threat, never underestimate an enemy, never ignore the signs of danger. We can’t assume the enemy will act in ways that are convenient for us. The enemy can surprise us. Israel will not fall asleep on its watch again,” he vowed.

The second lesson, he added, was that “we can’t surrender the option of a preventive strike. It is not necessary in every situation, and it must be weighed carefully and seriously. But there are situations in which paying heed to the international price of such a step is outweighed by the price in blood we will pay if we absorb a strategic strike that will demand a response later on, and perhaps too late.”

The Israeli leader is right on both points. But Israel’s problem today is different from that of 1973. Then, Prime Minister Golda Meir feared being blamed for starting a war and thought sitting back and taking the first blows would engender greater support from the United States. Indeed, even after it was clear she and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan had blundered and cost the lives of many Israelis, she insisted that her decision had been for the best since it helped ensure the U.S. resupply effort during the course of the war.

Today, Israel’s problem is more complex since an attack on Iran while the U.S. is involved in a diplomatic process with it would be viewed as an even more serious offense to the administration than a preemptive attack in 1973 would have been. Simply put, so long as the Iranians can keep the Americans talking to them, they have nothing to fear from Israel and nothing that Netanyahu said changes that.

More problematic is the clear desire on the part of the administration to buy into what rightly appears to the Israelis as the transparent fraudulence of the Rouhani charm offensive.

Vick discussed the analysis of Gary Samore, President Obama’s former top advisor on weapons of mass destruction, who said that any deal that gave the Iranians the ability to convert their stockpile of nuclear material to a bomb in a matter of months would compromise Israel’s security as well as that of the West. But since that is all the Iranians are offering the West, one has to question the motives of an administration when one of its top negotiators tells the New York Times in an off-the-record interview that, “I have never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before,” when they have done nothing but recycle old proposals that have been previously rejected.

Under the circumstances, no wonder Netanyahu feels the need to rattle Israel’s saber at Iran. Unless he can convince the United States to start acting as it means to keep President Obama’s promises on the issue, it looks as the new diplomatic track will result in a deal that will compromise Israel’s security or buy the Iranians months if not years of extra time to get closer to their nuclear goal.

Netanyahu may not be bluffing about being willing to take the heat that a strike on Iran would generate. Indeed, if the West makes the kind of deal that Iran is offering, he may someday feel he has no choice but to do so. But until the Iranians blow off this attempt to negotiate the way they have every previous attempt, it’s likely that Washington doesn’t believe him.

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