March 5, 2012

Time for Netanyahu to choose on Iran

It's time for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop playing games and talking tough, and start talking some sense into the biggest crowd ever to attend an AIPAC Policy Conference. The United States can afford to have "daylight" between itself and the State of Israel. With Egypt and Syria going down the tubes, and Iran tightening up its regime, the State of Israel does not enjoy that same luxury. If the threat to Israel is severe enough for Netanyahu to be lobbying his own cabinet and the White House for a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, it ought to be worth dropping the vendetta against President Barack Obama -- even if, in the Likud narrative, Obama 'started it'.

If Netanyahu's initial response to Obama's Sunday speech to AIPAC is any indication (he "appreciated" Obama's SPEECH without mentioning anything about his DEEDS), his own address there will reflect pro-forma pleasantries about Obama's support for Israel's military edge and something about sanctions against Iran, interspersed with applause lines about Israel not compromising on its security and not relying on promises from anyone -- ANYONE. The problem is, Israel actually needs those promises -- especially from the United States, especially now -- and no one with any expertise on these matters believes that Israel can destroy Iran's nuclear program on its own. Even if an Israeli strike could neutralize Iran's capabilities, it could still ignite a major Middle East conflict in which Israel will need every friend it still has after the collapse of peace talks with the Palestinians and Jewish settlements on steroids.

A responsible Israeli leader should ADMONISH the same disciplined, gung-ho AIPAC crowd that applauded reluctantly -- yet again -- for the U.S. President who has been standing up for Israel, and who will have to stand up for Israel when it really counts (think Richard Nixon in 1973). The pro-Israel community, including all those who will vote ABO (anybody but Obama) next November, needs to hear that there is no daylight between the two countries, and that suggesting otherwise undermines the security and the survival of the Jewish people. And they need to believe it.

My AIPAC brethren need to hear that the innuendo and outright disparagement of President Obama's support for Israel have no place in an election year. They need to hear that Netanyahu the Likud leader has some political differences, but that Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel is in lockstep with the White House, and that Netanyahu TRUSTS Obama. Right-wing pro-Israel advocates (is any other kind still valid?) should be calling in to radio shows and writing to conservative journals to reject the notion that Obama is anti-Israel. I happen to believe it's not true, based on the facts, and I KNOW that it limits Obama's ability to convince his European counterparts (and the Russians and the Chinese) to stand with him. I am confident that, if Netanyahu wanted the pro-Israel messaging to change, it would. But he doesn't.

Obama has pushed Iran sanctions far beyond the confines of Bush diplomacy, and U.S.-Israel military cooperation has never been stronger. But Netanyahu has to say it, and he has to mean it. He has to tell his few dozen Jewish and Evangelical shadow supporters to back off, and maybe even sit out this election year. Let's face it: Obama will win a second term, anyway. And meanwhile, Iran and its backers in the region and worldwide take comfort in the constant campaign to undermine Obama's image as a pro-Israel President. They draw renewed bluster and boldness from the idea that Israel and America are at odds.

Beyond what Israel's enemies think, no matter how pro-Israel Obama may be, there's no way for him to be fully helpful if there's an absence of trust between the two leaders. As a "leader of the free world" with somewhat more prestige than his predecessor, Obama knows he can survive even if Israel is not receptive to his support. Evidently, Netanyahu does not appreciate just how limited Israel's options are.

Sure, Netanyahu gets an electoral advantage back home when Obama is blamed for not doing enough, and his American right-wing allies get a nice boost as well. But either the stakes
really are higher than at any time in the last four decades, or they're not. If they are, Netanyahu had better rewrite his speech.

Oh well, time to wake up.

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