When Bibi Met Barack

We mortals are not privy to a transcript of the meeting between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama. If we had one, it would not show whether the Israeli prime minister relaxed enough to smile at one of the president's jokes, or how long Netanyahu paused before answering if and when Obama said, "Do not start a war with Iran. Period." There was no joint statement afterward, reportedly because the American side knew in advance that the leaders did not agree on enough to fill a respectable press release. According to the leak from Netanyahu's team to every Israeli news organization, the prime minister told Obama that Israel had not yet decided whether to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. The leak did not say whether to read this as a concession ("We understand your concerns") or as a threat ("We will do what we want.")

For lack of inside information, we mortals can only parse the speeches that Obama and Netanyahu made to the roiling convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The policy gap remains an abyss: Obama told AIPAC that the United States had a military option but does not want to use it; Netanyahu left no alternative to an Israeli attack except an American one.

Beyond that, Obama spoke of international relations in the real world. Netanyahu spoke in mythology. Obama was willing, even in an election year, to defy the desires of the hawkish lobbying group. Netanyahu played on the crowds' fears and anxieties like Coleman Hawkins playing sax. And yet, a simple count of the words devoted to each subject shows that Netanyahu has succeeded in defining the agenda in U.S.-Israel relations as being all Iran, all the time. Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, truly the key to Israel's future, has been demoted to less than a distraction.

Obama began his speech on Sunday with a riff of praise for Israeli President Shimon Peres, but mentioned Netanyahu only in passing, like a brother-in-law whom one can't avoid. Though the Israeli presidency is a ceremonial post, Peres has let the public know he opposes an Israeli attack on Iran. Obama defined the danger of an Iranian bomb as setting off a Middle East arms race. That's a pragmatic reading of danger: American (and Israeli) nuclear deterrence could keep Teheran from using a bomb, but the more countries have nukes, the more likely it is that someone will slip and push a button.  

As Spencer Ackerman has noted, Obama put down a red line: America will prevent Iran "from acquiring a nuclear weapon." Israel has implied that it wants the prerogative to launch its bombers far earlier than that—before, Iranian nuclear facilities have been placed deep enough underground that they are safe from Israel's limited weaponry. Obama demanded time for the sanctions he's succeeded in arranging to work. As if he'd read the text of Netanyahu's speech in advance, he decried "bluster" and "loose talk of war."

Speaking to AIPAC, Netanyahu virtually waved his finger in Obama's face. "Diplomacy … hasn't worked," he said; neither have sanctions, nor will deterrence. Netanyahu cited the proliferation risk, but his bottom line was that Iran works for Israel's "destruction—each day, every day, relentlessly."

The last thing I'd suggest is to dismiss Iran's animus toward Israel. But it's clear that Netanyahu's evaluation of what Iran will and won't do is based on more than intelligence reports. He'd say it's based on history, but it's a mythic reading of history, an understanding in which Jews are threatened by a single implacable enemy, unchanging in its essence, shifting only in its shape.

Netanyahu equated hesitation before attacking Iran to America's refusal to bomb Auschwitz in 1944. As additional support for his case, Netanyahu cited the biblical Book of Esther, which will be read in synagogues on the holiday of Purim this week. He described Haman, the villain of that ancient story, as "a Persian anti-Semite [who] tried to annihilate the Jewish people." In Jewish legend, I should note, Haman is understood to be from the tribe of Amalek, which tried to destroy the Israelites when they left Egypt and endlessly keeps trying. The reasoning of Netanyahu's speech, if "reasoning" can be used in this context, is that Amalek, Haman, Hitler and the current leaders of Teheran are all the same.

The standing ovations that this story of eternal victimhood brought, from an audience living in a country where Jews enjoy the greatest acceptance in their history—an audience supporting a successful Jewish state—were surreal. But an AIPAC convention apparently draws that portion of American Jewry for which learned anxiety is more powerful than any experience of safety.

It's possible—even probable—that Netanyahu will accept an American veto, if made clear enough. But even if that happens, Netanyahu has succeeded in pushing Israeli-Palestinian peace to the margins of the U.S.-Israel diplomatic agenda.

Compare this year's speeches to last year's. Addressing AIPAC in 2011, Obama devoted about 200 words of a 3,000-word speech to Iran. The concluding section, nearly half the speech, portrayed the urgent need for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, "based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps." This year, the proportions were reversed: Obama spent less than 200 words defending the very fact that he'd ever engaged in peace efforts. His long crescendo dealt with Iran. Last year, Netanyahu had to declare, "Peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a vital interest for us," even while putting all blame for the failure to achieve it on the other side. This year he felt free to leave the word "Palestinian" out completely.

That doesn't mean the issue has disappeared. There's nothing static about the status quo. Two weeks ago, an Israeli planning authority approved nearly 700 new homes in settlements in an area north of Ramallah that Israel would have to give up in any two-state accord.  Palestinian frustration with the diplomatic stalemate is growing; the only question is whether it will explode in violent or non-violent protest. Even conservative European leaders such as Germany's Angela Merkel are tired of Netanyahu's policies. Without a two-state agreement, international pressure to declare a single state between the Mediterranean and Jordan will grow—a "solution" almost certain to be disastrous.

Indeed, were Netanyahu rationally preparing for war with Iran, he'd want to make a show of serious negotiations with the Palestinians. That would allow him to bring centrist parties into a much wider governing coalition. It would improve Israel's diplomatic standing, especially in Europe but also in the Arab world. He'd look like a statesman seeking peace and pushed against his will to use his military against Iran.

So Netanyahu's actual behavior raises a question: Is his bellicosity a bluff, intended to scare Iran, pressure other countries to increase sanctions, or press the United States to attack? Or is he serious about the threat, but incompetent in preparing to carry it out? For the moment, we would need a transcript of Netanyahu's thoughts to know. 

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