Sunday, September 16, 2012

Netanyahu drives his bus at Obama

Three thoughts about what Netanyahu told David Gregory on Meet the Press today.

First, Gregory failed to press Netanyahu on exactly what kind of red line  -- that is, a tripwire that would bring on a US attack if Iran crossed it -- he was calling for. Obama has already laid down a red line: Iran cannot produce a nuclear weapon.  What's Bibi's? Gregory didn't ask, exactly. He asked whether Iran had already crossed Israel's red line. Netanyahu said, "they're in the red zone" -- they're within 20 yards. But the discussion of that point remained metaphorical, and therefore close to meaningless.

Second, though both the U.S. and Israel assert that Iran cannot be allowed to produce a nuclear weapon, there is a real difference in threat perception.  Here's Bibi on the danger of a nuclear Iran:

“Since the advent of nuclear weapons, you have countries that had access to nuclear weapons who always made a careful calculation of cost and benefit," he said.

"Iran has a very different zealotry about their survival, there are suicide bombers all over the place," Netanyahu continued.

"It’s the same fanaticism that you see storming your embassies today,” Netanyahu added, in an apparent reference to the wave of violent protests at American embassies in the Muslim world. “You want these fanatics to have nuclear weapons?”
So Netanyahu equates the Shiite Iranian leadership with Sunni mobs in part driven by Salafists -- the fanaticism is "all the same." The Islamist enemy is an undifferentiated monolith, as crude Cold Warriors viewed all communist regimes. Most scholars of Iran acknowledge the regime's brutality and religious fervor but consider it (or the various factions within it) a rational calculator of its own interests. Obama is of this school, as he made clear this March in a long interview with Jeffrey Goldberg:
GOLDBERG: In an interview three years ago, right before he became prime minister, Netanyahu told me that he believes Iran is being run by a "messianic apocalyptic cult." Last week, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, referred to the Iranian leadership as "rational." Where do you fall on this continuum? Do you feel that the leaders of Iran might be so irrational that they will not act in what we would understand to be their self-interest?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think you're right to describe it as a continuum. There is no doubt they are isolated. They have a very ingrown political system. They are founded and fueled on hostility towards the United States, Israel, and to some degree the West. And they have shown themselves willing to go outside international norms and international rules to achieve their objectives. All of this makes them dangerous. They've also been willing to crush opposition in their own country in brutal and bloody ways.

GOLDBERG: Do you think they are messianic?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think it's entirely legitimate to say that this is a regime that does not share our worldview or our values. I do think, and this is what General Dempsey was probably referring to, that as we look at how they operate and the decisions they've made over the past three decades, that they care about the regime's survival. They're sensitive to the opinions of the people and they are troubled by the isolation that they're experiencing. They know, for example, that when these kinds of sanctions are applied, it puts a world of hurt on them. They are able to make decisions based on trying to avoid bad outcomes from their perspective. So if they're presented with options that lead to either a lot of pain from their perspective, or potentially a better path, then there's no guarantee that they can't make a better decision.
Obama went on to explain that he believed a rational calculation of interest would lead Iran to stop short of developing a nuclear bomb. That's a real difference with Netanyahu -- although in a sense, Netanyahu expressed a version of the same sentiment by suggesting that Iran does respond to clear "red lines."  Perhaps he considers the regime subrational but not completely suicidal -- though in other contexts, he uses suicide bombers as a kind of synecdoche for the regime's fanaticism.

Finally, toward the end of the interview, Gregory pressed Netanyahu several times to declare directly whether he agreed with Romney's charge that Obama "threw Israel under the bus." Netanyahu asserted that the alliance remained strong, but he refused to say that the statement was false. His final pass was this:
the only bus that's really important to me is the Iranian nuclear bus.
The only bus. That highlights the extent to which Netanyahu has diverted focus from Israel's true existential threat: lack of a settlement with the Palestinians. As Bill Clinton -- the only politician in America today with the standing to criticize Netanyahu -- said this past week, Netanyahu has undermined the two-state solution:
But the Israeli government has drifted a long way from the Ehud Barak-led government that came so close to peace in 2000, Clinton said, and any new negotiations with the Netanyahu government are now on starkly different terms -- terms that the Palestinians are unlikely to accept....

Clinton affirmed that the United States should veto the Palestinian resolution at the U.N. Security Council for member-state status, because the Israelis need security guarantees before agreeing to the creation of a Palestinian state. But the Netanyahu government has moved away from the consensus for peace, making a final status agreement more difficult, Clinton said.

"That's what happened. Every American needs to know this. That's how we got to where we are," Clinton said. "The real cynics believe that the Netanyahu's government's continued call for negotiations over borders and such means that he's just not going to give up the West Bank."
Funny, no one is talking about the West Bank just now. Everyone is just praying that Israel refrain from setting the world on fire.

Related: The president who doesn't do sound bytes (on the Obama-Goldberg interview)

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