The Buzz

Bret Stephens' Failing Strategy for Israel

So far, Israel’s strategy for preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons has not failed. But Bret Stephens’ piece in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, “Israel’s Failing Strategy,” provided a fine recipe for ensuring that it will. In it, the neocon columnist surpasses himself.

President Obama, asserts Stephens, has clearly demonstrated his unwillingness to strike Iran and, moreover, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also gone wobbly. Now the United States and Iran are making diplomatic overtures, putting Netanyahu in a political predicament for which “he largely has himself to blame for not acting in time.” To “get out of this trap”, Stephens advocates that Israel should downgrade its relations with Washington and unilaterally strike Iran, irrespective of whether progress is made in US-Iran talks. Any conclusion this outlandish can only be founded on faulty premises, and Stephens’ assessment is no exception.

Stephens wishes “Ehud Olmert were Israel’s prime minister” because, while Olmert “had a demonstrated capacity to act”, evinced by his deciding to strike the suspected nuclear site in Syria in 2007, [i]t isn’t clear that Mr. Netanyahu does.” Something else that’s less than clear is why Stephens thinks Olmert—who has opposed Israel acting alone against Iran—would be any more likely to strike unilaterally than Israel’s current prime minister. Last November, Olmert said that, in order to relieve Israel of the “sole responsibility of the decision to take out Iran” if its nuclear progress came to warrant a military response, “Israel has to be part of an international effort that will be backed by the United States.” In August 2012, Olmert also accused Netanyahu’s government of fomenting “hysteria” over Iran, and argued against the necessity of striking then.

Stephens states that “Israel apparently refrained from attacking Iran a year ago, largely out of deference to Mr. Obama’s electoral calendar”, and asserts that “Israeli policy since” Obama’s reelection “has amounted to one big kowtow to Mr. Obama’s needs, political and diplomatic.” Hardly. Most obviously, over seven months passed between Obama’s reelection and Rouhani’s taking office. In what sense was Netanyahu kowtowing by not acting on a threat that, as he told the UN General Assembly yesterday, “wouldn’t be another North Korea”, but would instead “be another 50 North Koreas?” Whose political or diplomatic needs was he deferring to then?

The notion that Israel has provided the Obama administration “the widest possible latitude to pursue diplomatic initiatives until they prove their futility” is unpersuasive. Is Stephens really suggesting the Netanyahu’s full-court press to oppose U.S.-Iranian rapprochement constitutes giving the initiative “the widest possible latitude” to succeed? Netanyahu’s remark on Tuesday at the General Assembly, that “If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone”, was clearly intended to publicly pressure the United States.

The real heart of Stephens’ argument, though, is that he, like Netanyahu, opposes a diplomatic deal because it “would leave Iran first-and-five at the nuclear goal line”; that is, both oppose recognizing Iran’s right to domestically enrich uranium, an ability that Israel sees as synonymous with the ability to produce nuclear weapons. A “meaningful” diplomatic solution, Netanyahu told the General Assembly, would require Iran to “cease all uranium enrichment”, “remove from Iran’s territories the stockpiles of enriched uranium”, and “dismantle the infrastructure for [Iran’s] nuclear breakout capability.” This stance seems to run counter, not coincidentally, to the position of much of the international community, including the United States. Netanyahu alluded to this at the UN, when he disparagingly noted that “There are those who would readily agree to leave Iran with a residual capability to enrich uranium.”

Here are the facts: In February, P5+1 negotiators signaled that they were willing to offer Iran a “clear pathway to a civilian nuclear program” which could eventually encompass a possible recognition of Iran’s right to enrich. The administration hasn’t taken a firm position on whether Iran could be permitted to still domestically produce nuclear fuel, but it has acknowledged Iran’s right to have a civilian nuclear program.

Netanyahu’s contention that “the only diplomatic solution that would work is one that fully dismantles Iran's nuclear weapons program and prevents it from having one in the future” essentially demonstrates his wholesale rejection of diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis. Is he suggesting that Iran, after enduring years of punishing sanctions, should fully abandon its nuclear ambitions, and have only sanctions relief to show for it? What better way is there to elicit fierce opposition from Iranian hardliners and moderates alike than returning to the status quo ante after gaining nothing?