September 30, 2012

Netanyahu's 'hurry up and wait' moment

I have a few observations on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech last week to the United Nations General Assembly:

1. Had the Prime Minister delivered the exact same speech to the annual banquet of any major Jewish organization or to the Israeli Knesset... well, maybe he already has. In fact, as usual, the target audience for his UN speech seems to have been Israelis and Jews around the world. The world leaders and diplomats sitting in the GA Hall were really just props, or better, foils so he could be seen "talking truth to power". Brilliant, if no longer original.

2. Netanyahu implicitly ceded the peace process discussion to the Palestinians, whose leader Mahmoud Abbas understandably focused his GA remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. His only reference or rebuttal to the Palestinians was a brief nod to the concept of a negotiated solution and uniting the three great faiths.

3. By eclipsing the peace process with his usual lecture on medieval barbarians and clash of civilizations, and -- lest we forget -- the Holocaust -- Netanyahu allowed no hint that Israel is interested in substantively addressing the Palestinian issue. The message to European governments, and to the Russians and Chinese, is that their interest in regional stability can only be satisfied by helping Israel stop Iran. And Israel makes no promises after that.

4. Netanyahu's speech underscored the sense of many around the world -- including decision-makers whose support Israel and the United States still need -- that a nuclear Iran is an Israeli issue more than a global concern.

5. Forget the cartoon bomb that's generated so much buzz. The real last-minute prop in Netanyahu's speech was his notion of red lines for stopping Iran. It used to be that Iran had to be prevented from reaching "breakout capacity" -- the point at which it could continue to produce a weapon on its own. Then there was the "zone of immunity" -- the point at which Iran could continue its program without vulnerability to an aerial attack. Now the "red lines" connote the point at which Iran has enough highly enriched uranium to produce its first bomb ("90%") -- leaving a window as narrow as a few weeks (according to Netanyahu). Let's forgive the Obama administration for not updating its policy language fast enough to keep up with Netanyahu's moving goalposts and changing labels, but it now appears that all the hype was just that -- Netanyahu's red lines just happen to correspond neatly with longstanding U.S. policy. Or, as Netanyahu's people have phrased it, President Obama now agrees with the Prime Minister. Smooth...

6. One more shifting benchmark is the effectiveness of sanctions, which until last week were being downplayed by Netanyahu as largely ineffective. But after a phone chat with President Obama, and the leaking of his government's own report that international sanctions are actually having a great impact on Iran, his speech encouraged governments to continue pushing the very sanctions and diplomacy that his minions have been ridiculing.

7. The speech built up to a crescendo of apocalyptic doom and urgency, only to finish with no clear steps for implementing his red lines. After months of spiraling rhetoric and reports about the immediacy of the Iranian threat and the likelihood of an Israeli attack -- including widespread speculation as to whether such an attack would be delayed until after Madonna's summer concert -- Netanyahu pushed off any attack until the middle of next year, at the earliest. For those who honestly believe that next summer will already be too late to stop Iran, Netanyahu's speech was a blatant act of betrayal. The rest of us will have to scratch our heads and try to get back to serious business, which includes stopping Iran's nuclear program.

"It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." -- Shakespeare, Macbeth.

September 27, 2012

I don't hate Netanyahu, but I'll speak my mind.

One of my friends has expressed his sincere perception that I "really don't like" Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Here was my response:

"I like leaders who actually lead rather than play parlor games and keep giving essentially the same UN speech year after year. You've read my blog posts, where I try to explain the reasons for my disappointment. Unlike in U.S. politics, I have no dog in the fights between Likud and its flailing competition -- it hurts me to see Israel missing the boat and focusing on form over substance, especially when the stakes are so high."

Here is my more general explanation of why I criticize the elected leader of Israel and his actions:

I do want Prime Minister Netanyahu to succeed. But success for him seems to be muddling through just enough to shore up his domestic base and core of support in the United States, while kicking the can down the road -- to paraphrase Mitt Romney. For me, that's a recipe for long-term disaster. When the opportunity has presented itself once or twice over the past few years, with the certainty that my comments would be conveyed directly to the PM, I eagerly provided suggestions that I thought would advance Israel's standing with the White House and the international community. Earlier this month, I blogged against his plan to admonish the United Nations General Assembly TODAY regarding Iran -- if you're curious, please read my reasons here.

In 1988 with PM Shamir -- still keeping my thoughts to myself.
Ten years ago, I felt constrained by my professional obligations from publicizing my concerns about invading Iraq (we were busy lobbying the Bush White House at the time). I shared with a small circle of friends and colleagues my certainty that (1) invading Iraq would embolden and strengthen Iran, thereby making Israel less secure; (2) it was highly unlikely Iraq could have MORE weapons of mass destruction than it did BEFORE the decade of sustained embargoes and sanctions; and (3) even if Iraq really were building weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration was lying that it had credible evidence.

So I kept quiet back in 2002 and 2003, and just months later, publications like The New Republic were wondering how everyone could have been so wrong. I decided that -- if I could -- going forward I would be on record about my analysis and warnings. Not that my views will ever make headlines, but for my own self-respect, to give my own circle an opportunity to include my opinions in their own calculations, and perhaps to impact the politics and policy process. At the very least, my silence will not serve to empower the personal and political agendas of those with whom I disagree.

For many years, I did my best to reiterate and promote the official policies of the Israeli Government, but then I realized that so many champions of Israel -- on the right and the left -- were using the Jewish State to advance their own ideological agenda in Israel and to score partisan points in U.S. politics. When I found myself free to speak my mind, thanks to politicized personnel decisions, I decided to seize the moment for as long as I could.

Back to the original question: I don't especially like or dislike Prime Minister Netanyahu, though I would always give him my best advice with the goal of helping him make the most of whatever situation he chooses to seek for himself and for Israel. In the meantime, I will continue to speak my mind and try to listen to other views along the way.

September 23, 2012

Hello, World? Meet Israel, the Victim State.

As world leaders gather in New York for the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly, the Israeli Government and Jewish organizations have pulled off a great feat: a quasi-official UN event focused on the Jewish refugees from Arab countries, most of whom were expelled from their homes in the immediate aftermath of Israel's 1948 founding. This big diplomatic breakthrough follows on the UN's first-ever official Holocaust commemoration, back in 2005.

Surely, this was a coup for Israel in its diplomatic score-keeping against Iran, the Palestinians and the Arab states, but how does this help the Jewish State on a world stage, as embodied in the UN General Assembly opening?

Israel stands for so many achievements, cultures, aspirations and industry -- and what it chooses to show the world is martyrs and victims? The Holocaust remains unique in terms of its focus, scale, and ingenuity. Unfortunately, our world has since eclipsed the Holocaust's depravity and numbers of dead, but the Holocaust -- while not Israel's most forward-looking message -- rightly demanded inclusion in the UN's pantheon of historic events and founding lessons, appropriately devoid of political overtones.

This latest UN event has trivialized the Middle Eastern victims thanks to its explicit "me too" purpose of matching any Palestinian grievances with Jewish counter-suffering. Anyone following the daily massacres in Syria and elsewhere might be wondering why the suffering of onetime Jewish refugees should rival that of present-day Palestinians, Somalis, Libyans, or Sudanese (some of whom are now facing mob violence, detention and Israel). What universal lesson can be applied from this experience: That Jews can also be victims (yet again)?

Israel ranks as a major world player in medicine and science, technology, democracy, humanitarian assistance and development, economics, and so many other fields. Its leaders are routinely consulted by their counterparts across Europe and Asia on a host of pressing issues... or at least they used to be.

It certainly stands as a tribute to the Middle Eastern Jews who endured suffering and dislocation so many years ago, and they have every right to seek maximum exposure and recognition. But Israelis and Jews at large need not have made this our opening pitch, underscoring our collective weakness and shared suffering (a classic anti-Semitic image, by the way) rather than our vision for a better world and a better region.

Like so many other enterprises these days, I get the sense that Israel's government arranged this latest promotion because it was able to do so, not because it was the best way to advance Israel's interests. Or maybe we've all just run out of ideas.

September 12, 2012

Rushing to blame, Romney disgraces us all

The attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya have reinforced the sense of danger and uncertainty in the Middle East, and should spark a renewed -- and ideally bipartisan -- about how the United States can continue to repair its influence and effect lasting stability in this often chaotic region.

Even before we could know the extent of brutality and barbarism involved in the lynching of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens -- let alone all the other facts and factors involved --  the Republican Party Chairman and the Republican nominee for President were rushing to blame President Obama's "failed" policies for these outrageous assaults on the honor and person of American diplomacy.

Leading the pile-on were many of my friends from the right wing of the Jewish, pro-Israel community. Had Obama only listened to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and shown him more respect while showering Israel with unprecedented military support and security cooperation, none of this would have happened. Ironically, this came hours after the eleventh anniversary of the September 11 attacks -- despite President George W. Bush's uncompromising and single-minded campaign against Saddam Hussein. Even more ironically, these attacks came nearly a year to the day since Israel's own ambassador to Egypt was nearly lynched by a Cairo mob -- and only saved through the personal intervention of... President Obama. What a way to say thank you.

September 5, 2012

Feel-good lectures at UN undermine Israel's security

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced that he will attend the UN General Assembly in New York later this month, specifically to re-warn the world of the dangers posed by a nuclear Iran. Beyond that, he wants to impress on fellow world leaders -- and a global audience -- that Israel intends to use force to stop Iran's nuclear program regardless of current or potential international sanctions.

Ah, where to begin?


Israel definitely faces a significant threat if Iran acquires a deliverable nuclear weapon, and the whole Middle East would be plunged into a new regime of fear. But Israel -- and Jewish organizations -- are the absolute worst bearers of these warnings. When the Presidents of the United States, France and Argentina, and the UN Secretary-General, have issued such warnings, this reinforces the notion that Iran is a threat to all nations and not only to the Jewish State. So why reduce this to a "Jewish" issue, which only helps Iran stave off even stronger sanctions? 


The fact is, any sanctions are better than no sanctions, and especially the tougher variety that President Obama and former French President Sarkozy were able to convince the Security Council to adopt -- with the grudging assent of Russia and China. Every time Netanyahu dismisses the value of such sanctions, he discourages governments from ENFORCING the current sanctions. And every time he refers to a military strike -- before Iran even acquires an actual weapon -- he undermines the case for any sanctions. And by not giving sanctions a chance, he forfeits any possibility of immunity should Israel actually attack.