The prize for this week's most stupid remark has to go to the officials, officers and experts who described Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the candidate Israel prefers to win the election in Iran, and were even happy he did. It is hard to think of a more blatant manifestation of the narrow horizons of Israeli strategic thinking.
The claim of pro-Ahmadinejad Israelis goes like this: The president in Iran is a puppet of the real powers - the religious leaders, led by Ayatollah Khamenei. Iran's nuclear plans have advanced and will continue no matter who is president and what that person's positions are. Therefore, it is better for us that Iran's most prominent spokesperson to be a Holocaust-denier who threatens to destroy Israel; that way it will be easier to garner support from around the world for pressure on Iran.
To understand how baseless this approach is, it is enough to look at what has happened over the four years of Ahmadinejad's rule. The Iranian nuclear project has crossed the "technological threshold" and reached the capability to independently manufacture enriched uranium without really being bothered from abroad except for hollow sanctions. During this period, Israel enjoyed a loving relationship with the Bush administration and a reasonable relationship with Europe, yet did not manage to get the international community on board to stop the centrifuges in Natanz. Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran's allies, armed themselves uninterrupted.
Israeli PR ostensibly had an easy job. All it had to do was distribute Ahmadinejad's hate-filled speeches and harvest the fruit. But it achieved nothing. The bizarre initiative, which enjoyed Benjamin Netanyahu's support, of putting Iran's president on trial in The Hague for incitement to genocide, got no attention. No one in the world accepted the argument that Iran is Nazi Germany and Israel is Czechoslovakia, and the year is 1938. Bush, the friendly president who gave Israel a green light in Lebanon and Gaza and to bomb Syria, did not allow Israel to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
Barack Obama is specifically demanding that Israel does not attack, and that it does not spring any surprises on the United States. The presentation of Ahmadinejad as Hitler and Iran as a police state a la "1984" ignores the internal pressure in Iran for greater democracy and openness. Those who see Iran only through its centrifuges will also find it hard to understand and accept the Obama approach, which seeks dialogue with Tehran's rulers and smiles at the Muslim world. To the Israeli establishment this amounts to kowtowing to the neighborhood bully.
Less than two weeks after his Cairo speech, Obama has reasons to smile: Hezbollah lost the election in Lebanon and in Tehran, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to protest election fraud and support the reformist Mousavi. The demonstrations forced the Guardian Council, headed by Khamenei, to announce an investigation and a recount of some of the ballot boxes; that is, to sacrifice Ahmadinejad in an attempt to save themselves from the irate masses. It is difficult to imagine such an outcome in Hitler's Germany.
Obama was right not to intervene. He did not accept the results of the election but he did not publicly declare support for the protesters. Thus he gave the reformists room, without seeming to be pulling the strings from afar. It is too early to tell how events will pan out in Tehran, if the regime will really mellow, but the demonstrations offer a chance of change in Iran for the first time in 30 years.
It is also clear that "the world" has come to terms with Iran being a "nuclear-bomb threshold" power which possesses the technology but not the actual bomb. The world may will also come to terms with an Iranian bomb. Israel will have difficulty bombing Iran with Obama against it, and may even be too late. Under such circumstances, it would be best for Israel if there were people in the Iranian leadership who could calm things down in the region, not stir up strife.
Netanyahu has internalized the strategic change that Obama generated. He quickly responded to the Cairo speech with agreement to a Palestinian state, and also changed his public position on Iran: Instead of threatening war and talking about the Holocaust, he returned to Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert's approach that the problem is international and not only Israel's. Perhaps after meeting Obama, Netanyahu understands the reality better than his officers and his officials.
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