Netanyahu Goes For Broke

September 17, 2012 Topic: Military StrategySecurity Region: IsraelIranUnited States

Netanyahu Goes For Broke

The Israeli leader's intransigence is not ultimately about Iran.


Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is absolutely right. When it comes to his country's vital security interests, he should not make any compromises. There is hardly anything more important than deterring our enemies from risking the lives of Israelis. The geopolitical reality in the Middle East, especially in a time of instability around the neighborhood, makes Israel extremely vulnerable. The Iranian regime keeps developing its nuclear program, which might eliminate Israel's qualitative superiority in the regional balance of power. Indeed, in such circumstances, a reasonable Israeli leader cannot afford to compromise his country's strategic interests.

Therefore, the first priority of any Israeli leader is to maintain the special relationship with the strongest superpower in the world. Israel can live many more years with military threats from its Arab neighbors. It can survive without peace with the Palestinians. The Jewish state will even know how to contain the Iranian nuclear bomb. But Israel cannot endure constant crisis with the United States. With all due respect to Israel’s nuclear power (according to foreign sources), U.S. military, economic, moral and diplomatic support has been Israel's most important strategic asset.

Understanding this convinced Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to offer Israel full peace for full Egyptian territories. He realized that Israel is the necessary corridor to the White House. This same understanding is the main reason that Egypt’s current president, Mohamed Morsi, keeps saying he is committed to the peace agreement. It also motivated the Arab League countries to launch their 2002 peace initiative and keep it alive for more than ten years despite Israel's disregard of the historic document.

Dan Shapiro, the American ambassador in Tel Aviv, went out of his way to minimize the recent public debate between Netanyahu and the Obama administration. He described the American refusal of the Israeli demand to draw "red lines" on the Iran issue and put a deadline to the diplomatic efforts, as "a normal disagreement between friends." He added that the military cooperation between the two countries "was never so intimate."

However, in order for Israel to benefit from its strategic relationship with the United States, it needs to be seen. As long as the Iranians recognize that the United States has a bipartisan commitment to Israel's security, they are not likely to initiate an attack on its soil. This commitment needs to be continuously demonstrated in the clearest fashion. The ongoing crisis between Washington and Jerusalem raises doubts about that commitment. It may encourage Tehran to take greater risks in order to deter Israel from striking its nuclear facilities or to respond to a series of assassinations of Iranian scientists.

Netanyahu may despise President Obama and favor the presidential candidacy of Republican Mitt Romney. And his willingness to take on a global superpower was secretly documented in 2001, during a condolence call he paid in the West Bank settlement of Ofra. "I wasn't afraid to clash with [U.S. President Bill] Clinton," he said. "I wasn't afraid to clash with the United Nations. . . . I know what America is. America is something that can easily be swayed."

But regardless of the coming election results, the differences between the current Israeli government's interests and America’s national interests will not fade away. After all, Obama is not the first U.S. president to believe that the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are inconstant with any serious two-state solution. Republican President George H. W. Bush was much tougher than Obama when it came to settlement expansion. He was the only president that used economic sanctions against Israel, in an attempt to stop a conservative government from building new settlements.  President George W. Bush signed the "Peace Road Map," which included a demand to freeze all settlement activity and remove outposts.

No doubt Netanyahu is fully aware of the gaps between the presidential candidates' statements and the policy each will practice when he enters the Oval Office. He had an opportunity to learn this lesson in 1995, after he convinced the Republican leadership to introduce a bill that demanded that the U.S. government move the American embassy to Jerusalem. But a provision of the bill allows the president to ask for a waiver in the case of “national security interests,” and George W. Bush used it sixteen times. It defies belief that Netanyahu got a commitment from Romney to strike Iran if he is elected or to support an Israeli strike on the nuclear sites.

So why would an intelligent and experienced politician such as Netanyahu toy with the relationship with Israel's great ally? Why does he keep provoking the U.S. president to the point that he refuses to see him? Why does he ignore the warnings of the military establishment that America's ongoing and forceful action, combined with an international consensus, is essential to ensuring Iran never gets nuclear weapons?

Perhaps the answer lies in an eye-opening interview with Prof. Uzi Arad, who until recently served as national-security adviser. Last May Arad, who was for many years one of the people closest to the prime minister, told the Hebrew website Compress that Hannibal (247-183 BCE) was Netanyahu's role model and most admired leader. Arad asked Netanyahu why he chose a loser. The prime minister's answer, according to Arad, was, "Hannibal got the most out of very limited resources. His efforts against the Roman Empire, which went as far as threatening the city of Rome, were an expression of determination aimed to produce impressive results out of very little."

It should be noted that Hannibal's glorious victories ended up being worthless. His army was defeated by the Roman superpower, and Carthage was destroyed.

Akiva Eldar is the chief political columnist and an editorial writer for Haaretz. His columns also appear regularly in the Ha'aretz-Herald Tribune edition.