Paul Pillar

Netanyahu's Arrogance

Maybe this time the Israeli prime minister has gone too far in his bullying and arrogance in dealing with the United States of America—so far as to undermine the habits and attitudes in the United States that have made such swagger possible in the first place. “This time” can refer to Benjamin Netanyahu's attention-getting outburst this week in which he criticized the Obama administration's posture regarding Iran's nuclear program, demanding that the United States impose a clear “red line” and declaring that those who do not impose such lines “don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.” The harshness of Netanyahu's blast took aback even some American politicians accustomed to falling in line in the customary way on matters related to Israel. Senator Barbara Boxer of California said in a letter to Netanyahu, as “one of Israel's staunchest supporters in Congress,” that she was “stunned” by Netanyahu's remarks. Boxer is a Democrat who no doubt was also trying to soften any political impact of this latest indication of ill will between the Israeli prime minister and the U.S. president. But her response was still one indication of how far Netanyahu had gone beyond the bounds of what supposedly is a relationship between friends and allies.

“This time” also could refer more generally to the whole warpath-blazing campaign of agitation about the Iranian nuclear program. That campaign clearly is mainly an Israeli thing, and especially a project of Netanyahu and his rightist government. Historians decades from now will be trying to explain how the superpower of the day allowed itself to get so preoccupied with a still-nonexistent weapon in the hands of a second-rate power that, even if the weapon came into existence, could not pose a threat to U.S. interests anywhere near what the preoccupation implies. Israel, with its longstanding and sizable nuclear arsenal of its own as well as its conventional regional military superiority, also does not face a threat that warrants all the agitation and warmongering. Maybe preventing the mere possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon would mean Israeli leaders would think only once and not twice before the next time they throw their weight and armed might around in Gaza or Lebanon or someplace else. And the drum-beating about Iran does divert attention away from that pesky matter involving political rights and self-determination for Palestinians.

Perhaps there is seeping into the consciousness of more and more informed Americans the realization that Netanyahu—with his drum-beating, his complete rejection (in defiance of the policies of the United States and other Western powers) of the very idea of negotiations with the Iranians, and his demand for red lines—is trying to lead America by the nose into a war that would be profoundly against U.S. interests. And it would be a war fought primarily to maintain Israel's regional nuclear weapons monopoly and—also not in U.S. interests—untrammeled ability to throw its weight around.

Even for those attuned less to specific calculations about U.S. interests and more to general concepts of right and wrong, Netanyahu has provided much to offend. A military attack launched to damage or destroy somebody else's nuclear program—launched, no less, by a state that long has had nuclear weapons completely outside any international monitoring or control regime—would be an act of aggression clearly in violation of international law. The infliction of casualties involved, inflicted to maintain the aggressor's nuclear weapons monopoly, would be an immoral act. And yet Netanyahu says those who may object to any of this “don't have a moral right” to do so. Incredible.

The prime minister's behavior can be interpreted in multiple ways. His latest tantrum may be part of his effort to sink the re-election chances of the incumbent U.S. president, in favor of an alternative who would be beholden to interests whose primary affinity is to the Israeli right, by accentuating Barack Obama's supposed inability to get along with Israel. This is probably at least part of the explanation for the behavior.

Some have questioned Netanyahu's stability and temperament, in ways that go beyond merely having a short temper. Some Israeli commentators have spoken most recently in terms of Netanyahu “going berserk” or being a “mythomaniac” guided by a sense of heroic mission. Given all we have heard, in connection with Iran's nuclear program, about the hazards of irrational or fanatic people with their fingers on the button, perhaps we should ask about Netanyahu: is this a man who can be trusted with nuclear weapons?

Pages