Memo to Netanyahu: 2013 Is Not 1938

Netanyahu could take a much more promising and creative approach than asking for complete abolition of Iran’s nuclear program.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

It was to be expected that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be unhappy about the U.S. engaging gradually and carefully with Iran, now that Rohani has changed Iran’s official tone dramatically compared with Ahmadinejad, whose delivered weekly Holocaust denials, anti-Western pronunciations and declarations that Israel needed to be wiped off the Middle East’s map.

Quite unfortunately Netanyahu’s worldview is fixated on the equation that 2013 (like all the years before that) were 1938; that Iran is Nazi Germany and that those willing to engage with Iran diplomatically are like Chamberlain in 1938 Munich. It does not allow him to see a number of vast differences.

In 1938 there was no State of Israel that, according to foreign sources, had a nuclear arsenal sufficient to wipe out Iran within minutes. Iran’s relative military strength does not begin to compare to that of Nazi Germany, and the U.S. are quite vigilant when it comes to Iran.

It also does not allow him to realize that his demand that the international community force Iran to shut down its entire nuclear program creates an insurmountable impasse. Not even the most moderate Iranian leaders are willing to relinquish this program. As Rohani wrote in a Washington Post oped, Iran’s nuclear program is a matter of national pride and identity. Netanyahu’s demand that the Free World force Iran to give it up creates, as Akiva Eldar has pointed out, a zero-sum game between Israel and Iran.

In recent years I have spoken to a number of Western diplomats who know Iran well, and spoke to me under condition of anonymity. They consistently pointed out that for Iran, both the nuclear program and Iran’s positioning as a central player on the Middle Eastern stage are a matter of national pride, and that any policy that does not take this into account is bound to fail.

Israel’s real problem with Iran is that Iran has channeled its desire for influence in the Middle East mainly through financing and arming organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, who are committed to Israel’s destruction. Furthermore, Iran alone is the only sovereign state in the Middle East that does not recognize Israel’s right to exist in principle. As opposed to this, the Arab League has repeatedly ratified a peace initiative that would grant Israel recognition, full diplomatic relations and normalization if Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders.

Netanyahu could take a much more promising and creative approach than asking for complete abolition of Iran’s nuclear program. He could go along with the Free World’s demand that Iran restrict its program for peaceful purposes and allow for close monitoring of this program by the IAEA. But he could add the demand that Iran recognize Israel’s right to exist along the lines of the Arab League Peace Initiative, and stop sponsoring organizations committed to Israel’s destruction. Given Rohani’s recent conciliatory statements towards world Jewry, a change in Iran’s position towards Israel seems more possible than it was during Ahmadinejad's times. In doing so, Netanyahu would greatly increase Israel’s security.

Quite unfortunately, this approach is closed to Netanyahu for a number of reasons. It would require him to accept the terms of the Arab League Peace Initiative that demands, inter alia, the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, while allowing for agreed land swaps. Netanyahu has so far refused to accept the 1967 borders as terms of reference both in the past and in the current round of Israel-Palestine talks initiated by Secretary of State John Kerry.

The Free World currently has considerable leverage over Iran, because its sanctions are crippling Iran’s economy. If Israel’s leadership was more creative, it could use this momentum to bring Iran closer to abandoning its wholesale rejection of Israel and its support for terror against Israel and Israeli targets along the world. Israel would have the backing of the vast majority of the international community for such a strategy and thus stabilize Israel’s security in the long run, among other things because this would force Hezbollah to change its basic policy. If Israel were to engage with the Arab League Peace Initiative in parallel, its whole standing in the Middle East could considerably improve.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, July 22, 2013. Credit: AFP

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