It’s not every day that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman agrees, even in part, with something I’ve written. On Monday, I wrote that if President Obama was actually serious about negotiating a deal with Iran that will end the threat from that country, he should be encouraging Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to be as vocal as possible with his complaints about any deal that would leave the Islamist regime leeway to achieve their nuclear ambition. If there is any hope the ayatollahs will think that they have to negotiate in good faith rather than cheat, it will only happen if they are convinced that Israel can and will act unilaterally to avert the danger of a nuclear Iran. Friedman seems to be saying something of the same thing when he points out in a column published today that ensuring that the chances that Iran doesn’t get a bomb will be enhanced, “if Bibi is occasionally Bibi and serves as our loaded pistol on the negotiating table.”
But Friedman doesn’t stop there and that’s where he predictably veers off course. He extrapolates from that kernel of truth to imagine all the great things “Barack and Bibi” can accomplish together if all they are willing to cooperate. He thinks the combination of Obama’s “cool” with Netanyahu’s “crazy” is the formula to not only deal with Iran but to make peace with the Palestinians as well. An Israel that accommodated the Palestinians would, he says, be more likely to garner support from Europe to stop Iran as well as to transform its functional alliance with Saudi Arabia on the nuclear issue into a genuine relationship with “trade and open relations.” Sounds nice. But the problem with this thesis is that it focuses only on one side of the negotiations with Iran and the Palestinians. Even if Obama and Netanyahu had common goals—and the president has given us every reason to think that he is not genuinely interested in ensuring Israel’s security on either front—all the Barack “cool” and Bibi “crazy” in the world can’t convince Iran to give up nukes or the Palestinians to make peace if they don’t want to. Like most liberal critiques of Israeli policy and Netanyahu, it makes the mistake of pretending that all that is needed to transform the Middle East is a willingness on the part of Israel or the U.S. to make nice.
On Iran, Friedman is right to note that Iran would never have even bothered to come to the negotiating table had not Israel posed a credible threat of force. Even more to the point, the U.S. and the Europeans would never have imposed tough sanctions on Iran had they not needed to create a viable diplomatic alternative to the prospect of an Israeli strike on the Islamist regime’s nuclear facilities. However, the problem with the cool/crazy negotiating theory is that if President Obama is actually more interested in détente with Iran than in ending the nuclear threat and pushing back against the ayatollahs’ sponsorship of international terrorism, then the whole idea amounts to nothing. Iran has good reason to think that Obama’s zeal for a deal at almost any price is what is driving Western diplomacy. They’ve shown repeatedly that they discount Western threats and think Obama is a paper tiger. Attaining nuclear capability has become integral to the regime’s identity, which is why they’ve successfully insisted on protecting their “right” to enrich uranium even though the West had all the leverage in the talks.
As for the Palestinians, Friedman’s argument is familiar but has been repeatedly discredited. Had the Palestinians genuinely wanted peace they would have accepted any of the past deals of statehood offered by the Israelis. But they haven’t and even the so-called “moderates” of the Palestinian Authority have shown no willingness to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. If the latest round of talks with the Palestinians promoted by the administration is stuck in neutral it is not because of Israel’s positions on settlements or Jerusalem but because, as most serious observers have long understood, for a variety of reasons (including the fact that Hamas rules Gaza) the PA leadership is simply incapable of making peace.
Similarly, the notion that Israel’s functional alliance with Saudi Arabia against Iran can somehow morph into friendly relations involving trade is another example of how a supposed realist like Friedman is prone to engage in magical thinking. Though the two countries have a common foe, the Wahabi ideology of the Saudi monarchy makes any open relations with Israel impossible in the foreseeable future. As with Iran and the Palestinians, all the imagination and openness that Obama and Netanyahu can conjure up can’t transform the other side of the equation. Contrary to Friedman, Israel’s presence in the West Bank has little to do with the problems of the Middle East. As Jeffrey Goldberg rightly noted on Monday, the crises in Syria, Egypt, and the Iranian nuclear threat would exist no matter where Israel’s borders were placed.
Like most liberal thinkers on foreign policy, Friedman tends to overvalue the impact of technology and economics and undervalue the hold of religious fanaticism and cultural obstacles to peace. By focusing almost exclusively on the decisions that Israel or the West might make, they strip the Arab and Muslim worlds of any agency in their own fate or in their decisions on the conflicts they continue to pursue. Though the main irritant in the U.S.-Israel relationship comes from President Obama’s embrace of a policy of feckless appeasement, Friedman is right that the two nations can still work toward a common goal. But even if that happened, analysts who refuse to think seriously about the hold of ideology on the positions and goals of Iran and the Palestinians don’t have much that is of value to offer the discussion.