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. 

A quarter-century ago, when Netanyahu was Israel's ambassador to the UN, he distinguished himself with fiery rhetoric before a live audience of U.S. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. But substantive results didn't matter in the 1980s because the Cold War was still preventing the UN from taking any meaningful actions. Since that time, Desert Storm and Oslo -- and even Libya -- have reflected a new global reality where multilateral action and negotiations can produce meaningful results, and the world is no longer divided into two opposing camps. And yet, Netanyahu continues to return to the UN with the same witty, outdated jibes.


Iran's program is clearly intended to develop a nuclear weapons capacity for use against Israel and the Gulf States, even if not deployed. But to effectively stop Iran will entail more than bluster about a lone-wolf attack. And if Israel really does intend to attack -- braving the significant costs and accepting the probability of only limited damage to Iran's program -- why broadcast this intention now?

Presumably, the current Israeli government thinks it can scare off the Iranians from proceeding with the program (and scare the rest of the world into abiding Israeli unilateralism). This is possible, but more likely Iran will not be deterred from at least developing its program. The only guarantee is not deterrence, but denial -- through economic sanctions, naval embargo, border controls, and military attack. The problem is, the very public threats and declarations Israel is using to DETER Iran make it harder to pursue the actions that will STOP Iran. While trying to force Iran to CHOOSE the peaceful path, which it may never do, we reduce the possibility of actually STOPPING the program.

More importantly, if a nuclear Iran is a truly global issue, then Israel has no business taking matters into its own hands; if Iran is not a global issue, then why are Netanyahu and his American supporters calling on the world to act?

Another tactic that reduces the legitimacy and credibility of Israel's claim is the moving of goalposts -- U.S.-Soviet deterrence was based primarily upon the understanding that any first use of nuclear weapons would be retaliated in kind. With Iran, until recently, the new "red line" was if Iran were to obtain a nuclear weapon capable of reaching Israel. Now the "Zone of Immunity" by which Israel justifies a "pre-emptive" attack will occur when Iran has the ability to continue its program without vulnerability to attack. This may make military sense, but strategically it's a bit late to throw down that glove.


My advice to the Prime Minister is to stay in Israel, and let the United States do the talking. And then maybe other leaders -- who fear Iran more than they hate Israel -- will join President Obama, so long as it doesn't look like they're following Netanyahu's script. George W. Bush squandered post-9/11 world sympathy by invading Iraq, but also by lecturing his peers in the General Assembly. But at least it felt good, almost as good as his "Bring 'em on" moment. If that gratuitous defiance of world opinion diminished U.S. national security, imagine what such rhetoric and possible follow-on airstrikes will cost a country like Israel that is not the world's biggest superpower.

More likely, the Prime Minister will repeat his previous General Assembly speeches, and make Israelis and some Jews feel proud and defiant, rather than making them physically safer. Obviously, that choice is his to make. And the decision to attack Iran is anyone's guess, including Netanyahu.

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