Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding that President Obama set a precise “red line” regarding Iran’s nuclear program, meaning a commitment to go to war even if Iran is not actually building a nuclear weapon. Ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar sees a possible turning point in the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
By Paul R. Pillar
Maybe this time the Israeli prime minister has gone too far in his bullying and arrogance in dealing with the United States of America, so far as to undermine the habits and attitudes in the United States that have made such swagger possible in the first place.
“This time” can refer to Benjamin Netanyahu’s attention-getting outburstthis week in which he criticized the Obama administration’s posture regarding Iran’s nuclear program, demanding that the United States impose a clear “red line” and declaring that those who do not impose such lines “don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.”
The harshness of Netanyahu’s blast took aback even some American politicians accustomed to falling in line in the customary way on matters related to Israel. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California said in a letter to Netanyahu, as “one of Israel’s staunchest supporters in Congress,” that she was “stunned” by Netanyahu’s remarks.
Boxer is a Democrat who no doubt was also trying to soften any political impact of this latest indication of ill will between the Israeli prime minister and the U.S. president. But her response was still one indication of how far Netanyahu had gone beyond the bounds of what supposedly is a relationship between friends and allies.
“This time” also could refer more generally to the whole warpath-blazing campaign of agitation about the Iranian nuclear program. That campaign clearly is mainly an Israeli thing, and especially a project of Netanyahu and his rightist government.
Historians decades from now will be trying to explain how the superpower of the day allowed itself to get so preoccupied with a still-nonexistent weapon in the hands of a second-rate power that, even if the weapon came into existence, could not pose a threat to U.S. interests anywhere near what the preoccupation implies.
Israel, with its longstanding and sizable nuclear arsenal of its own as well as its conventional regional military superiority, also does not face a threat that warrants all the agitation and warmongering.
Maybe preventing the mere possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon would mean Israeli leaders would think only once and not twice before the next time they throw their weight and armed might around in Gaza or Lebanon or someplace else. And the drum-beating about Iran does divert attention away from that pesky matter involving political rights and self-determination for Palestinians.
Perhaps there is seeping into the consciousness of more and more informed Americans the realization that Netanyahu, with his drum-beating, his complete rejection (in defiance of the policies of the United States and other Western powers) of the very idea of negotiations with the Iranians, and his demand for red lines, is trying to lead America by the nose into a war that would be profoundly against U.S. interests.
And it would be a war fought primarily to maintain Israel’s regional nuclear weapons monopoly and, also not in U.S. interests, untrammeled ability to throw its weight around. Even for those attuned less to specific calculations about U.S. interests and more to general concepts of right and wrong, Netanyahu has provided much to offend.
A military attack launched to damage or destroy somebody else’s nuclear program, launched, no less, by a state that long has had nuclear weapons completely outside any international monitoring or control regime, would be an act of aggression clearly in violation of international law.
The infliction of casualties involved, inflicted to maintain the aggressor’s nuclear weapons monopoly, would be an immoral act. And yet Netanyahu says those who may object to any of this “don’t have a moral right” to do so. Incredible.
The prime minister’s behavior can be interpreted in multiple ways. His latest tantrum may be part of his effort to sink the re-election chances of the incumbent U.S. president, in favor of an alternative who would be beholden to interests whose primary affinity is to the Israeli right, by accentuating Barack Obama’s supposed inability to get along with Israel. This is probably at least part of the explanation for the behavior.
Some have questioned Netanyahu’s stability and temperament, in ways that go beyond merely having a short temper. Some Israeli commentators have spoken most recently in terms of Netanyahu “going berserk” or being a “mythomaniac” guided by a sense of heroic mission.
Given all we have heard, in connection with Iran’s nuclear program, about the hazards of irrational or fanatic people with their fingers on the button, perhaps we should ask about Netanyahu: is this a man who can be trusted with nuclear weapons?
Even assuming rationality on the prime minister’s part, there probably is an emotional element involved in his recent outburst in the sense of someone used to getting his way being flummoxed by even the slightest push-back. Netanyahu probably has been conditioned, through such experiences as speaking to Congress with a gallery stacked with AIPAC supporters, to believe that the bullying will always work.
Even sensible and mild push-back, such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement that the United States is not going to set deadlines on the Iranian nuclear issue, then becomes disturbing to him.
Netanyahu also may have been reacting to increased acceptance in mainstream discourse in the United States of the concept that an Iranian nuclear weapon would not be the calamity he insistently portrays it as and that trying to preclude one would certainly would not be worth starting a new war.
Going beyond the Iranian nuclear issue, perhaps we are seeing some fear that the whole political edifice that has enabled Netanyahu and other Israeli prime ministers to get their way in the United States is showing some cracks. It ought to crack. After all, the overall nature of the relationship, in which the superpower that lavishes billions of aid and dozens of United Nations vetoes on the smaller state gets pushed around by the latter, rather than the other way around, is crazy and illogical.
Ultimately the power of the edifice depends on fear of confronting that power. Theoretically to break down that edifice it would take one courageous American political leader, in a bold FDR-like move, to point out that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
That is not about to happen, and the lobby in question will fight hard to make sure it does not happen. But over the last few years some cracks have become visible. Some people thought they saw a crack at the Democratic National Convention when repeated voice votes were required to override the “noes” that opposed the platform plank about declaring Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel.
Maybe Netanyahu’s arrogance, greater than the norm even for Israeli prime ministers dealing with the United States, may be a force that eventually reshapes the relationship. It can do so by making it painfully clear to Americans what they are dealing with.
M. J. Rosenberg evidently is talking about this when he goes so far as to say that Netanyahu “poses an existential threat to the Jewish state.” He is referring to the damage being done to the relations with the superpower patron, that “all Netanyahu is accomplishing with his ugly saber-rattling is threatening the survival of the US-Israel relationship.”
That may well be the effect of Netanyahu’s behavior on the relationship, but perhaps we should not speak of this in terms of threats. Replacing the current pathological relationship with a more normal one certainly would be good for U.S. interests.
Ultimately, however, it also would be good for the interests of Israel, which, in order to get off its current path of endless conflict and isolation, desperately needs the sort of tough love that it is not getting now.
Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)