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.

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