How did it come to pass that Israel is now widely perceived as equally culpable, if not more so, for the potential eruption of another Middle Eastern war? To hear some of America's most influential pundits tell it, Israel - not the state pledging to wipe it off the face of the earth - will be guilty should the latter's pursuit of nuclear weapons result in a military conflagration.
On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the rounds of the American Sunday talk shows to warn that Iran is about six months away from reaching the point where it will have 90 percent of the material required for the construction of a nuclear weapon. This alarming news, Netanyahu argues, makes the Obama administration's announcement of clear "red lines" - Tehran's crossing of which would result in preventive military action by the United States - a necessity, something that Washington has thus far refused to do.
This plea by the Israeli leader, many commentators argue, amounts to interference in the U.S. presidential election. The Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan writes that Netanyahu's sounding dire warnings "in order to plunge this country into a war whose consequences are unknowable and potentially catastrophic is a new low." New Yorker editor David Remnick, sitting comfortably in his office in Times Square, opines that "it is hard to overestimate the risks that Benjamin Netanyahu poses to the future of his own country." Last week on MSNBC, Time's Joe Klein said that he had never "heard of another example of an American ally try[ing] to push us into war as blatantly, and try[ing] to influence an American election as blatantly, as Bibi Netanyahu and the Likud Party in Israel is doing right now," behavior he termed "outrageous and disgusting" (Klein must be unaware of British policy toward the United States between 1938 and 1941 ).
In response to this outburst, co-panelist Mike Barnicle asked Klein, in all seriousness, "Who is the more dangerous player on the world stage right now, the Supreme Leader in Tehran or Bibi Netanyahu?" This was an outrageous question, to be sure, but the logical one amid a morally inverted discourse that has switched the role of victim and perpetrator. Klein responded by calling Khameini a "fascist," apparently surprised that anyone would respond to his tirade with such a ridiculous question.
Following the American debate over Israel and Iran these past few weeks, one could easily get confused as to which government has repeatedly pledged to "wipe out" another, defied international nuclear weapons statutes for over a decade, is the leading state sponsor of terrorism, and regularly churns out racist hatred the likes of which have not been seen since the time of Nazi Germany. Waving these facts away by pointing out that Israel too has nuclear weapons is at best disingenuous, at worse ethically obtuse, considering that Israel has never termed Iran a "cancer," much less threatened to destroy it.
The other purpose of this moral relativizing of democratic Israel and authoritarian, terrorism-exporting Iran, is to allow commentators to condemn Netanyahu's lobbying - something all international leaders do - as crass intervention in U.S. politics. It ignores the fact that Netanyahu is the popular leader of a state (whose views on the Iranian threat are hardly opposed, as Remnick blithely remarks, by "a decisive majority of the Israeli population" ) constantly threatened by terrorism from a country that is on the verge of obtaining a nuclear weapon. While sanctions have certainly worked to weaken Iran's economy, they have had no effect whatsoever on stopping the regime's nuclear program, as numerous reports from international intelligence services and the International Atomic Energy Agency confirm. Far from supporting Mitt Romney, Netanyahu is worried that Obama's real policy, as opposed to his stated one, is containment, a fear with ample evidence to support it, considering the administration's continued refusal to declare the aforementioned red line.
The corollary to the argument that Israel is attempting to sway an American election is that a group of American "neocons" is acting on behalf of Netanyahu. Last Sunday in The New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd took a break from her normal beat of catty commentary on politicians' clothing and hairstyles to claim that Mitt Romney advisor Dan Senor is a "puppet master," who acts with "a duty to invade and bomb Israel's neighbors."
Many liberal commentators are unable to accept that some Americans - Jewish and gentile - may disagree with their president's policy on Iran, believe that Washington and Jerusalem's interests are intertwined on the question of Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, and that it may be worth going to war to stop it. No, the Kleins, Remnicks, Sullivans and Dowds tell us, these "neocons" are taking instructions from a foreign capital, knowingly working against the interests of their own country.
This debate isn't new. It's just a replay of the decade-old arguments over Iraq, when the notion of a "war for Israel" became an article of faith among a disturbing number of American progressives. Far from supporting that war, however, the Israeli government at the time was skeptical. This time, many Americans would rather obfuscate the threat that's unfolding right before their eyes; After all, it's easier to blame a democratic ally that is deeply sensitive to criticism than confront the reality of a nuclear Iran. If Israel does indeed eventually feel the need to attack, it will be the fault of a world that did not take the threat of a nuclear-equipped Iran seriously enough.
James Kirchick is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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