It is hard to overestimate the risks that Benjamin Netanyahu poses to the future of his own country. As Prime Minister, he has done more than any other political figure to embolden and elevate the reactionary forces in Israel, to eliminate the dwindling possibility of a just settlement with the Palestinians, and to isolate his country on the world diplomatic stage. Now Netanyahu seems determined, more than ever, to alienate the President of the United States and, as an ally of Mitt Romney’s campaign, to make himself a factor in the 2012 election—one no less pivotal than the most super Super PAC. “Who are you trying to replace?” the opposition leader, Shaul Mofaz, asked of Netanyahu in the Knesset on Wednesday. “The Administration in Washington or that in Tehran?”
Mofaz, a former Defense Minister, who participated in the fabled raid on Entebbe, in 1976, along with the Prime Minister’s brother, was reacting to Netanyahu’s outburst against the Obama Administration, at a news conference in Jerusalem. “The world tells Israel ‘Wait, there’s still time,’ ” Netanyahu told reporters in English. “And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’ Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.”
No one had any illusions that Netanyahu was addressing anyone but Obama, with whom he has a tortured relationship, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had earlier said, “We are not setting deadlines,” but, rather, pushing forward on economic sanctions and diplomacy. Articles inthe Guardian and elsewhere have set out the sorry recent episodes in this chaotic relationship. On a trip I took to Israel a few weeks ago for The New Yorker, the political philosopher Avishai Margalit told me that Netanyahu was a kind of “mythomaniac,” a politician utterly absorbed and guided by his sense of heroic mission, and dismissive of the opinions and analyses of even his closest advisers. This goes for his innate distrust of any and all Palestinians, as well as for the vast range of military and intelligence experts, both inside and outside the Israeli government, who are constantly telling him that a unilateral attack on Iranian nuclear facilities will end in political, diplomatic, and military disaster. Netanyahu’s opponents include the current leaders of the Israeli military and the major intelligence branches and their most recent predecessors, to say nothing of a decisive majority of the Israeli population. They fear consequences as dire as regional war and an Iranian regime unified and strengthened by a sense of common purpose.
In a reporting piece published this week in the magazine, David Makovsky adds to what we know about Israel’s solo strike in 2007 on Al Kibar, a facility near the Euphrates that both Israeli and American intelligence agreed was a nuclear installation. Israeli politicians rarely talk openly about the strike, but, when they do, nearly all of them say that what happened in Al Kibar is not at all analogous to the situation now with Iran, which is immeasurably more dangerous. Ehud Olmert, who was Prime Minister at the time and directed the strike on Al Kibar, is among those Israeli politicians who strongly oppose a strike on Iran and who emphasized to Makovsky the essential differences between the situation in 2007 and now.
Netanyahu, of course, does not see it that way. In Netanyahu’s view, Obama, despite instituting crippling economic sanctions, despite carrying out a series of covert operations, despite diplomatic pressure, despite vows that an Iranian bomb is impermissible—despite all that—is weak and deluded. The Israeli Prime Minister has made no secret of his distrust, even though Israeli politicians acknowledge that intelligence and defense coöperation has never been stronger. His trusted American allies are not the elected President but, rather, his friends on the American right, the politicians, business people, and lobbyists, who are never willing to disagree with Israel at all. It has reached the point where even Netanyahu’s principal ally in sabre-rattling, the Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, has shown signs that he, too, believes the Prime Minister has gone too far.
This is not an unfamiliar drama. In his first term as Prime Minister, in the nineties, Netanyahu used to behave in such a high-handed way with White House officials that Bill Clinton left meetings with him bewildered and bemused, wondering who, in their relationship, was the leader of a superpower. But Netanyahu’s arrogance, in the guise of Churchillian prescience, has hardly receded over the years. Obama, in an attempt to cool the latest crisis, called Netanyahu last night and spent an hour talking with him.
Adding to the outrage is the fact that Netanyahu is performing not just for his allies on the Israeli right but for those he perceives as his allies on the American right, including those in the Jewish community. His performance is in the same neocon voice as the one adopted by the Romney campaign and in its opportunistic reaction to the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic outposts in Cairo and Benghazi, which left our Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other consular employees dead. Unbelievably, the Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, took to Twitter and wrote, “Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic.” Romney himself accused Obama of sympathizing with the attackers in Libya.
The neocon strategy, in both Israel and the U.S., is to paint Obama as naïve in the extreme. In this, Netanyahu and Romney are united—and profoundly cynical.