I can’t stand Bibi but he’s right on Iran, says eminent US intellectual

Leon Wieseltier talks tough on Netanyahu (‘dislike at first sight’), Obama being the first president to not have a special feeling for Israel, the dangers from Tehran, and presidential candidates ‘sucking up’ to America’s Jews

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Leon Wieseltier (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Leon Wieseltier (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

WASHINGTON — Defending his vocal opposition to the Iran nuclear deal during a recent briefing with Israel’s diplomatic correspondents, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cited an article by Leon Wieseltier, an American-Jewish intellectual who is usually fiercely critical of his policies.

“There is an American journalist who has incessantly attacked me for decades. This man hasn’t written a single good word about me in the 30 years we know each other. And yet, he agrees with me that this is a bad deal,” Netanyahu said.

Last week, speaking to the same group of Israeli reporters at the sidelines of a baseball game in Washington, DC, Wieseltier endorsed both his dislike for Netanyahu the person and his support for Netanyahu the opponent of the nuclear agreement.

“I’ve almost never written a good word about him, so he’s right not to like me,” Wieseltier, one of America’s leading political commentators, said.

“But I agree with Bibi on Iran. He is right about the deal.”

The claim that if only there had been more pressure on the Iranians they would have considered giving up their nuclear weapons program ‘doesn’t seem ipso facto ridiculous to me. Stranger things have happened’

As the Washington Nationals were playing the Arizona Diamondbacks, Wieseltier, 63, recalled the origins of his decades-old hatred for Netanyahu — “I can’t stand him,” he said — and reflected on the future of American Jewry, US-Israel relations and the damage that the boycott movement could cause to the Jewish state’s legitimacy.

The Brooklyn-born Wieseltier first met Netanyahu in 1982, when the future prime minister served as deputy chief of mission in Washington under ambassador Moshe Arens.

“From the moment we met we disliked each other,” said Wieseltier, who served as literary editor of The New Republic from 1983 until last year.

Leon Wieseltier watching the Washington Nationals play the Arizona Diamondbacks, August 4, 2015 (Raphael Ahren/TOI)
Leon Wieseltier watching the Washington Nationals play the Arizona Diamondbacks, August 4, 2015 (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

Netanyahu’s job was to “play the media,” he recalled. “And he was very good at it. He had lots of reporters, including colleagues of mine at The New Republic, eating out of his hand. I had no intention of eating out of his hand.”

‘Netanyahu’s grand strategy for Israel is to get from this Shabbat to next Shabbat without a problem until the end of time’

Wieseltier said he remembers the strange look on Netanyahu’s face when the future prime minister heard the Yeshivah of Flatbush, Harvard and Oxford-educated writer speak fluent Hebrew. The young Israeli diplomat must have been disturbed by the realization that this journalist couldn’t be played like his colleagues, Wieseltier mused. “I just didn’t like the way he operated.”

Over the years, Wieseltier has been an uncompromising critic of Netanyahu, especially regarding his inaction on the Palestinian problem. “He’s taking Israel nowhere fast. Really. Status quo minus is what it is. His grand strategy for Israel is to get from this Shabbat to next Shabbat without a problem, until the end of time.”

The prime minister’s thinking on Iran, on the other hand, is mostly spot on, according to Wieseltier. “The Iranians never made a strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons,” he lamented. The nuclear threat will not disappear as long as the “criminal theocratic regime” in Tehran is not replaced by more democratic government, he posited, adding that the deal will strengthen the ayatollahs rather than weaken them. “The longer this regime stays in power, the more dangerous the region is.”

While he doesn’t believe Congress will kill the accord with Iran, Wieseltier echoed Netanyahu’s talking points about how a better deal should been reached. “Sanctions should have been kept together and should have been strengthened.” The claim that if only there had been more pressure on the Iranians they would have considered giving up their nuclear weapons program “doesn’t seem ipso facto ridiculous to me,” he said. “Much stranger things have happened.”

‘It is possible to be against the deal without alienating and angering so many people’

US President Barack Obama reached out to Iran because he feels guilty over America’s support for the shah before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Wieseltier posited, bewailing that the administration has refused to support Iranian dissidents’ recent democratization efforts. The people and the government of a country are two very different things, he emphasized. “Obama’s extended hand to Iran since 2008 has always been to the regime, which offends me and also baffles me,” he said. “I’d prefer a very different approach. We should do whatever we can to make the regime’s life miserable — everywhere, all across the world: international fora, marketplaces, cultural fora.”

Leon Wieseltier (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Leon Wieseltier (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Despite Wieseltier’s grievances about the Iran deal, which he laid out in an elaborate essay, he had no good words for Netanyahu’s threats of a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities: “I always thought it was crap, because there is no Israeli military solution.”

The white-maned writer, clad in an untucked blue dress shirt and black pants for the ball game, was similarly uncomplimentary regarding the prime minister’s handling of the US-Israel ties in the wake of disagreements over the Iran deal. In fact, he deemed it deeply irresponsible. “It is possible to be against the deal without alienating and angering so many people. If the possibility of the Iranian nuclear threat is one of the pillars of Israel’s security planning now, the American-Israeli relationship is another pillar. He’s playing around with it.”

For various reasons, American support for Israel is not remotely as obvious as it used to be, Wieseltier posited. “It cannot be taken for granted anymore. It is very possible to imagine ‘a king who didn’t know Joseph,’” he said, invoking the Biblical scenario of a superpower turning its back on the Jewish people where once it had been friendly. “The affiliation with Israel and the intensity of the identification is not what it was. The idea that a consequentially close American-Israeli relationship is a fact of nature or fact of history is not correct.”

Wieseltier, who visits Israel regularly, said he is seriously worried about this trend, and apportioned a big part of the blame to — whom else — Netanyahu. “Israel is a very attractive place. Netanyahu makes Israel look so unattractive in so many ways,” he fumed. “He has a gift, a special skill, for making a democratic, brilliantly capitalist, tolerant within limits country look like a closed, dark, unattractive, rejectionist naysaying place. He has a skill for it. The actually existing Israel does not correspond to the mood, the vision of it that Netanyahu sells.”

‘Israel’s always going to have too much attention’

Although the relationship between the prime minister and the president is permanently “poisoned,” Obama doesn’t hate Israel, Wieseltier said. But he is “the first US president who doesn’t really have a special feeling for Israel,” he mused, as the fans in the Nationals Park cheered their team’s 5-4 victory over the Diamondbacks.

(“I think of baseball as a very goyish [non-Jewish] thing,” Wieseltier said at the end of our conversation. “Which is one of the reasons I like it.”)

Despite ferocious arguments between Washington and Jerusalem about the Iran deal, which are occasionally accompanied by allegations of dual loyalty, American Jews have absolutely no need to worry, according to Wieseltier. The community’s power and prestige is as strong as ever, he suggested. “There is a [presidential] campaign coming up and the same sucking up to the American Jewish community that is happening every four years is happening again.”

Obama hosting a Passover seder at the White House in 2012 (photo credit: Pete Souza/The White House)
President Obama hosting a Passover Seder at the White House in 2012. (Pete Souza/The White House)

Wieseltier is also not impressed by the idea that Obama or other Americans are “obsessed” with the Jewish state, as some critics have argued.

“Israel asks to be admired as America’s best and strongest and only democratic ally in the Middle East. Israel’s interests here are pressed by a very small but incredibly influential and wealthy ethnic group,” he said. “Israel can’t have it both ways. It can’t have this and then complain that too much attention is being paid to it. Israel’s always going to have too much attention.”

That is not to say that Israel has no reason for concern. Besides decreasing support from American Jews, Wieseltier also frets over efforts to delegitimize Israel. The BDS movement is “very dangerous,” he warned. Many Jewish students don’t know how to respond to increasingly intense attacks on Israel and might eventually start questioning its very right to exist, he said. “I worry about the experience of young Jewish kids on college campuses. It can be really unpleasant. There is a sustained assault on the legitimacy of Israel.”

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