Netanyahu Faces a Tough Decision Should Obama Not Give Him a Green Light on Iran

How the United States would act were Israel to disregard its position is impossible to determine. In this respect, the decision that Netanyahu must make is much tougher than what faced Olmert in summer 2007.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The prevailing view is that at the summit meeting in Washington on Monday, the cards will be put on the table. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will beseech U.S. President Barack Obama to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, or at least make a credible threat to strike them. If Obama turns him down, Netanyahu - who waxes effusively in interviews about his loneliness as a leader - will leave the White House as the loneliest person in the world.

Apart from Netanyahu, only one person alive in Israel today has experienced firsthand the excruciating dilemma of reaching a similarly weighty, life-or-death decision: Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu's predecessor as premier. According to memoirs (including those of former President George W. Bush, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ), Olmert went to the White House in June 2007. This was not a routine visit. At the time, nobody knew that Olmert had demanded of Bush that the United States destroy the nuclear reactor in Syria, whose existence had been discovered a few months earlier, hidden in the desert. Israeli officials possessed information suggesting that the reactor would become operational by the autumn. Rice thought the reactor's existence should be disclosed to the world, and that a campaign of economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure ought to be launched. Vice President Dick Cheney supported Olmert's position. Bush equivocated. Olmert returned empty-handed to Israel.

Obama and Netanyahu speak in the Oval Office, May 20, 2011Credit: Reuters

A few weeks after the White House meeting, Bush and Olmert talked on the phone. According to the president's memoirs, Bush informed Olmert in this conversation that he had now taken Rice's side on the question. The United States, he said, could not attack a sovereign country without the recommendation of the intelligence branches. At the time, America's intelligence organizations were unable to corroborate Israel's feeling that the reactor was close to being operational. Bush proposed that Rice leave immediately for Israel, and that she stage a joint press conference with Olmert in which the two would disclose the reactor's existence to the world.

Bush's advisers told Olmert's aides that Olmert had said to the president, "Your strategy is very disturbing to me. I will act on the basis of Israel's national interest" - whereupon the president apparently turned to his aides and said, "Do you see why I like that guy? He has balls." In his book Bush writes that Olmert did not ask for a green light for the Israeli strike which, according to foreign sources, it apparently carried out on September 6, 2007. And Olmert never obtained such a green light.

The risks were staggering. Syria could have declared war in response to the aerial raid. Under such a scenario, Hezbollah would probably have joined forces with Damascus. The entire region was in danger of conflagration.

Former Prime Minister Olmert (left) and former President Bush. No such trust and respect binds Netanyahu and Obama.Credit: GPO

Yet, nothing happened. Olmert's gamble paid off.

Now, as then, an existential threat is posed to the State of Israel. Now, as then, Israel's prime minister demands of the U.S. president that he act to remove the threat facing Israel. Now, as then, American intelligence forces are not persuaded that circumstances warrant a military act. Now, as then, Israel is liable to find itself in a corner, alone, defended only by its own capabilities. Now, as then, it is clear that no Israeli prime minister will ask for advance authorization from the American head of state for a strike, and that no U.S. president would give his approval for such an operation at this time.

There are also differences. In the Syrian case, the reactor was a secret. Today, everything is out in the open. Today, the price that Israel and the world are liable to pay for such a military strike - a wide-ranging war, international terror strikes, elevated oil prices - is much higher, in view of Iran's capabilities.

But the most significant difference is the lack of mutual trust between the two country's leaders. Bush and Olmert enjoyed a rare relationship of congeniality and mutual respect. Had something gone wrong, America would presumably have come to Israel's assistance, even though it never signaled a green light. Olmert knew this was the case.

No such trust and respect binds Netanyahu and Obama. How the United States would act were Israel to disregard its position is impossible to determine. In this respect, the decision that Netanyahu must make is much tougher than what faced Olmert in summer 2007.

'It's a black hole'

"Nobody understands Histadrut politics," opines MK Eitan Cabel (Labor ), a self-appointed candidate for the position of chairman of the Histadrut labor federation. "There's nothing like it, certainly not national politics. People think they know what's going on at the Histadrut, but they haven't got a clue. It's a black hole. Had I not served as Labor Party secretary in the past, I also wouldn't have a clue. Nobody can imagine the depth of the corruption, violence and aggressiveness. Who knows that 70 percent of its members do not come out to vote in elections? Or that the remaining 30 percent who do vote are, by and large, organized? I'm trying to reach the 70 percent. If I succeed in bringing some of these people out to vote, I've done my part."

Relying on some peculiar arguments, the Histadrut labor federation's election committee this week disqualified both Amir Peretz and Cabel as candidates. Next week, the controversy over their candidacies will be decided, one way or another. Should Cabel be deemed eligible, Peretz says he will withdraw his candidacy and proffer his support to him. Cabel believes he can get people to leave their homes and cast ballots, mainly because he is totally unlike current Histadrut head Ofer Eini, and all that Eini represents. Cabel also hints that he views himself as being quite unlike all that Peretz represents.

Should Peretz be deemed eligible, and Cabel remain ineligible, Peretz will keep his hat in the ring. Should both remain disqualified, the Histadrut chairman elections will resemble, not for the first time, referenda in Syria, such as the one staged this week.

A theory took hold this week in the political arena and in Histadrut circles: Peretz wants to run for the Histadrut slot not because he really wants to head the labor federation. He's looking ahead to the next Knesset election campaign. Suppose he does not oust Eini, but his Otzma faction wins 20 percent or 30 percent of the Histadrut vote. Such an achievement would bring to his own coffers more than NIS 10 million. And where there is money and there's a faction - there is a basis for the formation of a new party. With a party of his own, Peretz would not be dependent upon Labor chair Shelly Yachimovich. That would help Peretz, should he discern that Yachimovich is taking steps to liquidate him politically in primaries for the selection of Labor's next Knesset list.

It's a gas

Ehud Barak likes to quote something Ariel Sharon told him during Barak's first days in politics: "When we fought on the battlefield, whoever was lost, was gone, forever. On the political battlefield, you read day after day that this person or that person is gone, that his career is over, that he's taken a mortal blow. But you always see the same exact people around you."

Once again, Netanyahu faces a dilemma: Should he come across as a serial capitulator, this time with regard to gas prices, and do the right thing, by making life a bit easier for Israeli drivers? He's chosen a unique policy path: He isn't capitulating and he isn't making anyone's life easier. As always, his decision was reached at the last minute.

For a week, discussions have been held at the Prime Minister's Office, in an effort to do something about the unprecedented prices at the gas pumps. PMO director general Harel Locker was given the assignment of devising a solution; he failed. Meanwhile, public pressure mounted, along with media reports and rumblings evinced by Likud MKs who (unlike Netanyahu ) get around the country - and the pressure forced Netanyahu into reaching a decision. Without finding a budgetary source to fill in the gap, he decided on Wednesday to reduce gas prices by 10 agorot per liter.

That's a decision Netanyahu could have reached on Monday or Tuesday, in an orderly fashion. But in the PMO, an opportunity is never missed to miss an opportunity.

It's a new Mideast

Next Tuesday, as part of his 11-day, coast-to-coast North America visit, and after he meets with Obama and speaks at the AIPAC conference in Washington, President Shimon Peres will visit Silicon Valley. He will meet with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and the two will officially open an international Facebook page for Peres, oriented to young people in the Arab world. That's as New as the New Middle East gets. The initiative was announced a week ago by Peres' office. Telephones in the PMO's started to work overtime. The target: Facebook's inner sanctum. The goal: organizing a meeting for Netanyahu with Zuckerberg, early next week.

Since Netanyahu is a busy man, he is unable to criss-cross the U.S. like Peres. So the prime minister's men came up with an idea: Zuckerberg should show his respect for Netanyahu by meeting him in the nation's capital. Zuckerberg didn't buy it. Perhaps we can do a video conference, Netanyahu's aides proposed. That also did not move mountains. The PMO waved a white flag.

So only Peres will meet Zuckerberg. Only Peres will get an international Facebook page. Perhaps some consolation and comfort can be gleaned from this Facebook drama: If, on such a fateful/crucial/dramatic trip, Netanyahu and his staff have had time to deal with Facebook pages and concomitant issues of ego and respect - perhaps circumstances are not so fateful/crucial/dramatic after all.

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