Benjamin Netanyahu is using the ballot box to extract concessions from the US on Iran, writes Paul McGeough in Washington.
Benjamin Netanyahu this week cast an early vote in the US presidential election – Romney 1 – with an explosive intervention in the campaign, which is interpreted widely as the Israeli Prime Minister’s bid to reduce Barack Obama’s chances of re-election.
The issue is Iran’s nuclear program and the threat posed to Israel by any weapons developed by Tehran. But in navigating the gulf between the Israeli leader’s determination to act and his need for American firepower, Netanyahu seemed to overreach at a media conference in Jerusalem.
”The world tells Israel: ‘Wait, there’s still time [before Iran develops a nuclear weapon].’ 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,” he said.
Sharp end … Iran’s nuclear envoy, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, is the public face of his country’s highly controversial project. Photo: AFP
The Israeli leader has been pressing the Obama administration to declare the point at which it would take military action to thwart the Iranian program – in an hour-long conversation with Netanyahu on Tuesday, Obama refused. Instead he repeated an earlier, broad commitment that Washington will prevent Iran from manufacturing a nuclear weapon.
In effect, Netanyahu was saying at the Jerusalem media conference that if Washington was not prepared to do the job, it could not stand in Israel’s way. To which a sceptical Obama might reasonably have asked: ”Yeah? You and whose army?”
There is great disagreement in Israeli military and intelligence circles, among senior officers and their predecessors, on the wisdom and timing of any unilateral Israeli strike on Iran’s widely dispersed and, in some cases, deeply bunkered nuclear installations. Netanyahu’s security cabinet is split on the issue and so are the Israeli people. In an opinion poll published by Maariv last month, only 35 per cent of respondents endorsed unilateral military action by Israel. Even Netanyahu’s Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, is reportedly less enthusiastic about unilateral action.
Netanyahu apparently believes that in the hypersensitivity of a presidential campaign, in which Mitt Romney has accused Obama of ”throwing Israel under the bus”, he has his best chance of extracting a specific commitment from Obama.
But Americans apparently are not enamoured of the idea of fighting Israel’s war. In a poll released on Monday by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 70 per cent of American respondents opposed a unilateral US military campaign against Iran and 59 per cent said Israel should be left to its own devices if it were to bomb Iran and then to call for American help.
There might also be an element of frustration on Netanyahu’s part because of the domestic squabbling on how to proceed, which now dominates the political discourse in Israel.
”Netanyahu needs some understanding with the US because he does not have enough support [at home for unilateral action],” a Bar-Ilan University professor, Eytan Gilboa, told The New York Times.
Despite incessant lobbying to the contrary by Israel, the consensus among US intelligence agencies is that Iran is building a stockpile of enriched uranium that might be weaponised, but that it put a halt to its weapons program late in 2003.
The latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency reveals what analysts describe as a ”sophisticated” move by Iran, which has spent much of this year converting as much as half of its most dangerous 20 per cent enriched uranium into a state that does not work for nuclear weapons. But, at the same time, it has greatly enhanced its capacity to enrich uranium to 20 per cent, and much higher, should it want to go in that direction.
And this is the hinge on which the debate swings. Washington says Iran has not made the political decision to build a bomb. Israel insists that is not the point – that Iran might have all in readiness is not acceptable.
Any pretence that Netanyahu was not attempting to take advantage of campaign tension in the US evaporated when news reports referred to Israeli officials ”letting slip” that Obama had refused a request by Netanyahu for the two leaders to meet during the United Nations General Assembly at the end of the month. Any hint that Obama might be unaware of what was going on faded when White House officials replied tartly: ”Scheduling problem.”
In Israel, where many are torn between believing Netanyahu’s warnings and the country’s strategic dependence on its relationship with Washington, the Opposition Leader, Shaul Mofaz, this week put a blunt demand to the Prime Minister in the Knesset: ”Who are you trying to replace? The administration in Washington or that in Tehran?”
Accusing Netanyahu of perpetrating an outrage by playing as much to the Israeli right wing as the American right, particularly in the Jewish community, the editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, wrote that the Israeli leader had adopted the same neoconservative voice Romney had used in his off-key response to the murder of the American ambassador to Libya and three of his colleagues on Tuesday.
”The neocon strategy, in both Israel and the US, is to paint Obama as naive in the extreme. In this, Netanyahu and Romney are united – and profoundly cynical,” he wrote.
Anxiety about Iran’s nuclear program focuses almost entirely on the power that Tehran might derive – and abuse – from having a nuclear arsenal. But if the debate is viewed in the context of the power Israel wields with a nuclear arsenal that reportedly numbers 200 or more warheads, the equation is upended.
This question is being examined with increasing seriousness in Foreign Affairs and other such journals. Collectively, these papers were pushed to the front of the debate this week when Bill Keller, a former executive editor of The New York Times, wrote of them as the work of ”serious, thoughtful people who are willing to contemplate a nuclear Iran, kept in check by the time-tested assurance of retaliatory destruction”.
In a recent Foreign Affairs cover story, Kenneth Waltz, of the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, dismissed American and Israeli anxiety as typical of major powers that get riled up whenever another country has begun to develop its own nuclear weapons.
”Yet, so far,” he writes, ”every time another country has managed to shoulder its way into the nuclear club, the other members have always changed tack and decided to live with it.”
Waltz argues that by reducing an existing military imbalance, the advent of a new nuclear state generally promotes regional and international stability.
”In no other region of the world does a lone, unchecked nuclear state exist,” he writes. ”It is Israel’s nuclear arsenal, not Iran’s desire for one, that has contributed most to the current crisis.”
In the same journal, Frank Procida, a national intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, dismisses oft-stated fears that a nuclear-armed Iran would spark a regional nuclear arms race – ”a Persian bomb should not be any more significant to [other countries in the region] than a Jewish one”.
Despite the Iranian leadership’s hyperbole on the fate of Israel, Procida concludes Iran’s past actions and public comments by its clerical leadership suggest it would not risk the devastation of nuclear retaliation by the US and/or Israel.