November 8, 2013

Netanyahu's fantasy date with destiny

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently acted as though Israel has a veto on any negotiations with Iran, as though reminding world powers - and Tehran - that Iran's nuclear program is only a concern for Israel and not for the entire region and the international community. Every step forward in the process has been derided, every sanction discounted, even as he says it's better than nothing. Even as he acts like the judge for all nations.

Netanyahu speaks as though only he and only Israel are concerned or actively fighting Iran's ambitions. He has already ridiculed the discussions underway in Geneva as "The Deal of the Century," even though limiting - and not completely dismantling - Iran's nuclear program was always the stated goal. He warns us all not to trust Iran, as though anyone outside Tehran trusts that regime. Anyone. This isn't about world leaders being naive, it's about working within political and strategic realities.

What Netanyahu won't acknowledge, is that neither Israel nor America has a way to decisively stop Iran's quest for nuclear weapons. The best option is some deal for verifiable controls on further enrichment and weaponization. While dismissing the use of sanctions or negotiations, the Prime Minister has offered no realistic alternative. None. 

Despite his tough talk, there is no surefire way to deny Iran a nuclear capability. Sanctions, blockade and assassinations have pushed Iran to the point of considering measures to verify and limit its program going forward. There has never been a point at which any U.S. President or Israeli Prime Minister could have permanently neutralized Iran's program, either successfully and effectively or without Israelis paying a catastrophic political and economic cost. Israel's own military experts have routinely warned against attacking Iran.

Repeated talk of a military strike, whether explicitly or by implication, undermines the necessary support of Russia and China for further sanctions. Even as negotiations are underway, Netanyahu and his backers are warning or a military strike, which would incentivize any regime - with or without scruples - to step up rather than abandon its program. Israel, not Iran, ends up looking like the aggressor and the outlaw state.

The fact is, the United States has its own reasons for keeping Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability. Middle East oil remains vital to global commerce and industry, and the Gulf region is a critical strategic crossroad. 

Netanyahu must be smart enough to know that his public threats on his way in to meet with U.S. officials will not stop the international community from cutting a deal. Eighteen months ago, he was all but promising to attack Iran by early 2013, so his convictions and determination - his credibility - are wearing thin. 

In the same moment, he plays directly into Iran's hands by connecting the Palestinian issue with the Iran negotiations. Just before sitting with Secretary Kerry, he declared, "I will never compromise on our security and on our vital interests," referring to the Palestinian track. 

Even as precarious negotiations continue with the Palestinians, Netanyahu's government has authorized multiple expansions of construction over the 1949 Green Line, and perhaps he thinks his defiance on Iran will distract from his tempting Palestinian extremists to strike a new blow against Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. But he is also reminding world powers that Israel is being unhelpful both on Iran and on the Palestinians. And that Netanyahu doesn't seem to care.

Isn't that compromising Israel's security and vital interests?

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