Netanyahu, in Damage Control Mode, Enlists JFK and American Football in Calling for 'Red Lines' on Iran

Telling comment by columnist Jeffrey Goldberg on NBC: I have never seen an Israeli PM who has so mismanaged Israeli-US relations.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu urged President Barack Obama on Sunday to emulate his predecessor John Kennedy and to set “red lines” for Iran in the same way that Kennedy set “red lines” for the Soviet Union in the 1962 missile crisis. That’s the best way to avert war, Netanyahu claimed.

But the Cuban Missile Crisis, as Netanyahu well knows, is engraved in American memory not only for Kennedy’s ultimatums but also for having brought America to the brink of nuclear war. And it is the suspicion that Netanyahu is trying to goad the United States into launching a war that most Americans do not want, more than the claim that he is interfering in the presidential elections, that is currently damaging both his and Israel’s standing. Many American Jews who have spent much of the last decade deflecting allegations that Israel and the Jewish lobby were behind the war in Iraq, are now watching helplessly as the Israeli prime minister appears to be doing the same for Iran, but in public and in no uncertain terms.

In an attempt to mitigate some of the damage caused by his harsh statements last week, Netanyahu appeared on CNN and on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday and successfully avoided making any statement that might be construed as endorsing Mitt Romney. He may also have set up the ladder that will allow him to climb down from his demand for US action before the upcoming elections by stating that Iran will have 90% of the material needed for a nuclear bomb – but only in six months’ time. In fact, when drawing on football terms with which his American audience is familiar, as is his wont, Netanyahu actually appeared to be inching closer to Obama’s own positions, saying that the Iranians are now in a “red zone”, 20 yards from the “red line”, but must not be allowed to score “a touchdown”, that is acquiring a nuclear weapon.

But even if Netanyahu’s efforts at damage control are successful, this is another opportunity to invoke the saying that a clever man extricates himself from a trap that a smart person would never have fallen into in the first place. Netanyahu’s insistence on waging an acrimonious public debate with the President in the middle of an election campaign, his refusal to call on Republicans to desist from using Israel as a wedge issue in the elections and his attacks on Obama’s Iran policy with Romney standing by his side in Jerusalem – all of these were harmful to Israel’s image and standing, especially among Democrats and their supporters.
But things deteriorated last week, when it seemed that Netanyahu was trying to publicly push Obama into a corner over “red lines” and after he invoked such loaded terms as “moral authority” that grated on American ears.  The ensuing attacks on Netanyahu by some of his long time critics in the American media were unusually harsh and unpleasant, as if an unspoken code of restrained comment had been broken. Other than in the hawkish wing of the Republican Party, there doesn’t seem to be much support, for the President to lock himself into a course that could lead to an inevitable war or much sympathy for a foreign leader who seems to be pressuring him to do so.

The killing of the American diplomats in Benghazi and the outburst of hostility against the US in the Arab and Muslim world are no doubt eliciting feelings of anger and frustration in America that may be blunting some of the criticism directed at Netanyahu, but it’s not clear yet where these reactions will lead: to tougher attitudes and support for  projections of force, as many Republicans and Israelis would like, or to resignation and disengagement from the area as a whole, as those on the fringes of both left and right are sure to suggest.

In the discussion that followed Netanyahu’s appearance on Meet the Press, it was instructive to hear Atlantic magazine and Bloomberg blogger Jeffery Goldberg - whom right wingers consider to be a leftie, left-wingers view as a rightie and most Jews embrace as a voice in the middle - say that “I have never seen a prime minister who has mismanaged Israeli-US relations like Netanyahu.” And while Goldberg’s stature may be light years away from that of the legendary Walter Cronkite, my immediate association was to the oft-told but never-proven account of Lyndon Johnson’s reaction to Cronkite’s assertion in early 1968 that the Vietnam War was unwinnable: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”

Finally, it should be noted that amidst such weighty issues as Iran’s nuclear race, presidential politics and Israel’s standing in America, the sentence that drew the most attention in the Sunday shows was that of Meet  the Press host David Gregory who described Netanyahu as “the leader of the Jewish people”, Gregory thus stirred the Jewish hornet’s nest by stepping into the ultra-sensitive historical controversy over Israel vs. Diaspora and “dual loyalties”, eliciting howls of protests on Twitter and Facebook from people who refused to be annexed against their will to Bibi’s realm.

Shana Tova and have a Sweet and Happy New Year

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev

Olivier Fitoussi