Who to believe on Iran: Obama or Netanyahu?

Op-ed: Is the US president blind, or is the prime minister crying wolf? And why inviting Herzog to Washington might help alleviate the dispute

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a welcoming ceremony for the president at Ben Gurion Airport, March 20, 2013. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)
US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a welcoming ceremony for the president at Ben Gurion Airport, March 20, 2013. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

If the terms are anything like those being repeatedly asserted in recent days by “sources in Jerusalem,” the deal being hatched by US-led international negotiators with Iran is the worst case of appeasement before a would-be genocidal aggressor since 1938. Except that it would be still more indefensible and inexplicable than Chamberlain’s capitulation to Hitler, in that Iran is not yet nearly as terrifying as the rapacious Nazi force that the British prime minister was so desperately and misguidedly trying to sate.

Unlike the Nazis in 1938, Iran likely can be halted through effective diplomacy backed by the threat of further sanctions and force. And if that fails, by force itself. According to those anonymous senior Israeli sources who habitually leak details to Israeli diplomatic correspondents, however, it is the very accord that the Obama administration is allegedly pushing that will enable the regime in Tehran to attain terrifying capabilities.

The way “Jerusalem” tells it, rather than requiring Iran to dismantle its transparent program to become a major nuclear weapons power, the Obama-advocated deal would entitle the Khamenei regime to keep thousands of its centrifuges spinning, capable of enriching sufficient material for a bomb within months, monitored by an inspections regime for a limited period of perhaps 10-15 years, and free to continue work on its missile delivery systems.

If this is indeed the case, it is no wonder that an appalled Israeli prime minister is promising to go to all lengths to articulate the dangers of the West’s inexplicable imminent surrender to the globe’s arch-sponsors of terrorism and arch-inciters of genocide against the Jewish state. And hang the consequences for relations between the Israeli government and a US administration steering open-eyed into the abyss.

So incomprehensible are these central features of the accord purportedly being advanced by the world’s only superpower — a deal that would allow Iran eventually to rise and challenge America and the freedoms for which it stands — as to allow for only two real explanations, both of them frankly horrifying.

Either, as asserted in articles such as Michael Doran’s “Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy,” the Obama administration is in the grip of a blinding ideological fog, and has risibly convinced itself that the very act of reaching out to Iran, of wooing it toward the embrace of the family of responsible nations, will prove so tantalizing as to persuade the ayatollahs to put aside their religiously motivated ambitions, and ultimately become trustworthy, dependable allies. This explanation casts President Barack Obama not as Little Red Riding Hood, belatedly recognizing that grandma is a wolf, but as the frog that carries the scorpion across the river, insistently disbelieving that the scorpion will inevitably, fatally, unleash its sting.

Or, as asserted by the prime minister’s critics, Benjamin Netanyahu is misrepresenting the dangers and those around him are mischaracterizing the terms being negotiated, while the Americans are in fact pushing an effective agreement, genuinely capable of keeping Iran from the bomb, leaving the Iranians the choice between a deal that stymies their nuclear ambitions and increased economic and potentially military pressure that threatens the regime’s very survival. Sounding a false alarm because of his own paranoia, and/or to boost his election prospects, Netanyahu in this telling is the boy who cried wolf so loudly and so damagingly as to risk alienating all possible rescuers come a day of genuine existential danger.

Bolstering the former explanation is the profound concern about what is unfolding that is evident among US legislators, including many from Obama’s own party. Then there is the proven fecklessness of the international community in confronting evil, and the modern desire in the West to avoid conflict at almost any short-term cost in the fervent hope that still greater conflict does not wait a little further down the road. And finally, there is the Iranian regime’s patent satisfaction at the way the talks are playing out, accompanied by its increasing emboldenment in the Middle East — including in Syria, where it indicated every readiness to plunge into war with Israel via Hezbollah had the recent cross-border flare-up escalated into deeper confrontation. Such confidence is a grim portent of things to come should Tehran close in on the bomb.

On the other hand, Israel’s current security and intelligence chiefs are not broadcasting panic, and some of its former security and intelligence chiefs are publicly at odds with Netanyahu over the scale and immediacy of the threat. The Israeli public is patently not panicking either; Iran is the key election issue for a mere 10% of the electorate, according to a Times of Israel survey being published this week. And one has to wonder why the prime minister would have cast aside his coalition and deliberately plunged himself into an avoidable election campaign if the battle to thwart Iran’s nuclear program was truly to be won and lost in these very weeks.

A truly bipartisan approach

What is unarguable is that Iran is a victor, and Israel a loser, in the very public friction between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government at this potentially momentous juncture. As ever, there is more than enough blame to go around. This is not the schoolyard. This is global diplomacy that affects millions of lives, and wiser, more mature counsel should have prevailed. Israel and the United States are real allies, with truly common values and interests, grappling with a brutal, duplicitous regime that threatens everything we hold dear. The very potency of the threat should have been sufficient to banish disagreements between Jerusalem and Washington to the margins, and ensure a pooling of all intellectual and practical resources.

Labor head and opposition leader Isaac Herzog speaks at the Saban Forum in Washington on Friday, December 5, 2014. (Photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
Labor head and opposition leader Isaac Herzog speaks at the Saban Forum in Washington on Friday, December 5, 2014. (Photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

Cooperation between the US and Israel does continue behind the scenes, but the leaders set the tone, and the tone is currently discordant — music only to Iranian ears. So let me end with a suggestion: Why not, in the spirit of bipartisanship, extend an invitation, too, to Israel’s opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, to address our allies in Congress? And why not have the US president, when the speeches are done, invite both rivals for the prime ministership to talks at the White House?

Netanyahu would get his high-profile speech, but so would his opponent, before a full, appreciative, unified House, with the Israeli electorate watching closely. Both sides of the Israeli political spectrum addressing both sides of the American political leadership, underlining the shared, nonpartisan goal of thwarting Iran. Both key contenders for the prime ministership, underlining their common conviction that the regime in Tehran cannot be appeased and must be faced down. The president would then have to host that annoying prime minister, but would elevate the challenger too. What a delight that might be for him.

All of this would presumably be unprecedented, and all the better for it. What better way for the US to show common cause with Israel, without taking sides in its election? And what better way to present a united front against Iran?

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