With Friends Like These

Daniel Levy
Daniel Levy
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Daniel Levy
Daniel Levy

There has been something almost grotesque about much of the mainstream Israeli reaction to post-election developments in Iran. Certainly one shouldn't be surprised that official Israel has viewed the situation as an opportunity to advance its arguments against the Islamic Republic's current leadership. This approach is probably legitimate, and Tehran's leaders most certainly deserve the rebukes. But Israeli discourse, especially among the commentariat, has gone well beyond that, becoming an occasion for bashing the Obama administration's supposed weakness in the face of the Iranian crisis.

Although Israeli political leaders have hinted at such criticism, it is really the analysts and commentators of the press who have set the tone. In so doing, large segments of the punditry class have indulged in an orgy of self-righteousness, while revealing an awful lot about their ignorance of Iranian affairs, of Israel's potential role in influencing developments, and indeed of the limitations on constructive external involvement in this situation.

Leading the attack have been Ari Shavit in Haaretz and Ben Caspit in Maariv, both echoing the approach of the now thoroughly discredited neoconservatives in the U.S. While most of America has moved on, the extremes of far-right rhetoric, advocating a more aggressive foreign policy, still resonate in Israel.

The Obama administration has so far managed to avoid the pitfalls of self-defeating grandstanding. And the American public is with its new president. A new CNN poll highlights that only 33 percent feel the president should be more belligerent, while the vast majority approve of Obama's handling of the situation, and oppose direct American intervention, or any U.S. military action.

President Obama has achieved something that is both difficult and rare in national political life - he has demonstrated an ability to act on the understanding that while Americans may perceive their country as an unblemished beacon of freedom and democracy, the real-world perception of that image is not quite so generous, thereby rendering certain interventions, even rhetorical ones, counter-productive.

Obama appreciates that an over-enthusiastic embrace on his part of the Mousavi protesters would actually work against their interests. As he himself put it: "The last thing I want to do is have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States." And he has maintained this restraint in the face of rightist Republican calls for the president to "do more, do something." Obama is also clearly cognizant of the limitations of what the U.S. can actually do for the opposition in Iran; to make unkeepable promises would be beyond irresponsible, and also endanger the physical well-being of thousands.

The protesters themselves, and the overwhelming body of Iran experts in the U.S., have sided with Obama's line. Azadeh Moaveni, the Iranian author of "Lipstick Jihad," has been quoted as saying, "The protesters in Iran have a perhaps surprising view on Obama's cautious approach - keep it up."

This finely calibrated American approach was described just last week in these pages by Ari Shavit as "the paralysis that seized the king of the world in the face of Iranian evil - he [Obama] stammered and hesitated and apologized." Ben Caspit also bemoaned Obama's "stammering": Where is the wondrous rhetorical ability of Barack Obama?" he asked, calling him a "new version of [Neville] Chamberlain." Caspit, in an op-ed co-written with Maariv colleague Ben-Dror Yemini, did not stop there, also attacking Europe and the West in general, contrasting their supposed silence over Iran with their hyper-activism in responding to Operation Cast Lead and other Israeli misdemeanors in the territories.

Never one to be outdone, the Jerusalem Post's Caroline Glick accused the Obama administration of "effective support of the mullahs against their people."

Unfortunately, this is the kind of hypocrisy, self-indulgence and ultimately stupidity that Israel's punditocracy has been treating us to for the past fortnight.

Let's start with the hypocrisy. Caspit, on the eve of the Iranian election, did not make do with calling on Israelis "to convince friends in Iran to vote for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - [As] no one will serve Israel's PR interests better," he even offered to "pray that Ahmadinejad will win." Glick, post-election, went even further, arguing that if Israel led international support for Mousavi's supporters but later was "compelled to attack [Iran]," the protesters would understand and remember who had stood by them.

Neither Iranians nor the rest of the world are stupid. They can read. They can recognize Israeli self-interest and the lack of any genuine human empathy today from those very people who just weeks ago were agitating for their country to be bombed, or supported Ahmadinejad's re-election for selfish reasons. They are also aware of the regime of closure, checkpoints and violence imposed by Israel in the territories, including the over 900 civilians killed in January's Gaza operation. How can apologists for the occupation hold any appeal for the Tehran protesters?

Indeed, Israel needs to develop a self-awareness that, unfortunately, one effect of the continued occupation is the silencing of Israel's moral voice on the world stage.

But, most of all, what is happening today in Iran is simply not about Israel or America - it is about Iran. Iran expert Suzanne Maloney, of the Brookings Institution, in Washington, noted that, "No matter how much Americans like to think that they are shaping events in Iran, it's just not true." Israelis, too, should heed Maloney's advice. This is not about Israel.

Or as Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American and author of "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ," said of the neocons and other Iran hawks who had supported military action and aggressive regime change in Iran, but belatedly embraced the Mousavi protesters: "You are offensive, go away."

Daniel Levy is a senior fellow at the New America and Century Foundations.