Netanyahu risks damaging split with US to prove he is right

November 27, 2013
Sarah Benton

Foreign ministers of the USA and Iran enjoying their talks in Geneva, November 9th, 2013. The photo by Jason Reed, Reuters, was cropped by the agency to emphasise the eye-contact of the two men. Versions of this photo have been  reproduced round the world.

Israel heads for a terrifying split

By M.S., Economist
November 25 2013

APPEARANCES to the contrary, the Israeli government does not have a problem with the terms of the deal that was struck on Iran’s nuclear programme on Sunday. Rather, the Israeli government has a problem with the fact that a deal was struck on Iran’s nuclear programme on Sunday. Over the course of the negotiations, it has become abundantly clear that Binyamin Netanyahu and the conservative coalition he leads do not want a diplomatic resolution to the standoff over Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons on any terms that Iran would be willing to accept. That puts Israel at loggerheads with the majority of Americans; perhaps more important, it puts Israel at loggerheads with a large fraction of American Jews.

It is too early for polls on responses to the actual deal, but the *last poll before the deal by CNN last week had Americans supporting (by a 56%-39% margin) a compromise along the lines struck over the weekend, with a partial relaxation of sanctions in exchange for restrictions that would contain but not end Iran’s nuclear programme. Meanwhile, a **poll of American Jews by the Anti-Defamation League early this month found that if Israel were to carry out a military strike against Iran, 48% thought America should take a “neutral” position, while just 40% would favour supporting Israel. That stand-offishness was in line with a broad decrease in support for aggressive anti-Iranian positions that emerged in a poll by the American Jewish Committee in October, which found backing for American military action against Iran had fallen to 52% from 67% in 2012.

Mr Netanyahu calls the agreement with Iran a “historic mistake”, and insists that “Israel has the right and the obligation to defend itself, by itself, against any threat”—in other words, that Israel will strike Iran on its own if it decides the agreement is not working. It is not entirely clear what Israel would regard as “not working”. Up to this point, the Israelis, when forced to provide specifics on what it is they expect Iran to do, have laid out conditions so onerous that they cannot realistically be met by any Iranian government. The Israelis wanted Iran to completely dismantle its entire uranium enrichment programme and eliminate all stockpiles of enriched fuel. They were not prepared to endorse the interim deal, which halts much of Iran’s nuclear programme, walks back some aspects of it and includes intrusive inspections. They insisted on a total Iranian capitulation.

Such an insistence on total capitulation is characteristic of hard-liners in conflicts like this, and I confess I rarely understand the mentality behind it. In some cases the motivation behind making demands so onerous that the opponent cannot possibly grant them is clear: the hard-liner wants to provoke an armed conflict which he thinks he can win, and a compromise solution might forestall the war. This was the case, for example, with the demands America made of Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the Iraq war. In other cases, the motivation is different: the hard-liner understands that his internal political power within his own country is reinforced by the conflict, even if (perhaps especially if) his side appears to be losing, so he makes demands that ensure conflict will continue. This is the case with Hamas’s refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist. A final possibility is that the hard-liner is delusional, and actually believes that insistence on maximalist demands will lead to the surrender or collapse of the other side.

PM Netanyahu at Ben Gurion airport delivers his statement rejecting any deal with Iran before the talks have finished. Photo by Debbie Hill / Reuters.

I don’t know which of these motivations is driving the Israeli government’s insistence on unattainable goals in negotiations with Iran. Perhaps it is a combination of the three. What is certain is that Mr Netanyahu is risking a split between Israel and America, and between Israel and American Jews, of a type that has never before occurred. The American people are not interested in fighting another war in the Middle East. They do not see the Iranian nuclear programme as an immediate, existential threat. They do not dismiss the election of a moderate Iranian president willing to sign an agreement with the United States, one containing significant sacrifices for Iran, as a deceitful trick by a totalitarian government. They believe that Iran’s shift in direction may be real, and they have endorsed a deal that rewards that shift in direction.

The same is true for a large fraction of American Jews. American Jews are largely liberal, and largely support Barack Obama; Mr Netanyahu’s relentless baiting of Mr Obama over the past five years has already tested their willingness to take Israel’s side. Now, Mr Netanyahu’s threat to stage a unilateral attack on Iran risks creating an unprecedented schism. In every previous conflict between Israel and its regional enemies, even when Israel initiated the military action (as in the 1956 and 1967 wars, and to some extent the invasions of Lebanon and Gaza), American Jews have accepted Israeli assessments of the threat. This time, many of them won’t. An Israeli attack on Iran that resulted in Iranian and regional Shiite attacks on American targets and interests, against the wishes and best judgment of most Americans and many American Jews, could lead to an irreversible break. The fact is that Mr Netanyahu is wrong about the deal signed on Sunday: it reduces, rather than increases, the risk of an Iranian nuclear bomb. But even if Mr Netanyahu were right, an increase in the risk of an Iranian nuclear bomb poses nowhere near as great a threat to Israel’s security as losing the solidarity of American Jews.

Notes and links

*CNN Poll: More than half back Iranian nuclear deal

By CNN Political Editor Paul Steinhauser

A majority of Americans support an interim deal with Iran that would ease some economic sanctions on that country in exchange for concessions on Iran’s nuclear program, according to a new national poll….

** Poll: Americans strongly favor Israel, wary of Iran entanglement

By JTA, November 6, 2013

Americans maintain a high opinion of the U.S.-Israel alliance but are wary of any involvement in a potential Iran conflict, according to an Anti-Defamation League poll.

Asked if Israel could be counted on “as a strong, loyal ally,” 76 percent of respondents agreed and 17 percent disagreed.
They also favored Israel over the Palestinians, 48 percent to 16 percent, and tended to regard Israel as a “close ally” by a much greater margin than other Middle East countries: 44 percent of respondents counted Israel as a close ally, with only 14 percent assigning that label to Turkey and 8 percent to Egypt.

On Iran, 81 percent of respondents said they did not trust the country and 74 percent labeled as “unlikely” Iran’s commitment not to develop nuclear weapons.

However, respondents were wary of any military engagement with Iran, with 50 percent favoring the inclusion of military force among options to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and 41 percent opposed….

ADL Survey of American Public Finds Strong Support for Israel, But Uncertainty Over Approach to Iran
New York, NY, November 5, 2013 … In a new survey of the American public on issues surrounding Israel, the Middle East peace process and Iran, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) found continuing strong public support for Israel but a country uncertain about the best way to proceed regarding Iran’s effort to develop a nuclear bomb.

Regarding attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, three times as many Americans – 48-16 – expressed sympathy for Israel than the Palestinians….
See also Bibi belligerence repels US, November 14th, 2013
Bibi’s obsessive compulsive disorder, November 22nd, 2013
Jews for peace with Iran, November 26th, 2013

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