It’s Deceit, Stupid

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is perceived as someone for whom deceit is an integral part of his character.

In 1982 and 1983, the Reagan administration launched its ambitious “Star Wars” program to develop a defense system based on satellites, missiles and laser beams in space, which would intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles heading toward the United States. The project was unprecedented in terms of the cost and the technological challenge. It was designed to destabilize the nuclear balance of fear with the Soviet Union since World War II and give the United States a decisive advantage on the international stage.

The move was a tremendous success. Moscow softened its stance in its negotiations with Washington over slowing the nuclear arms race, and Stars Wars played a significant role in breaking up the Soviet bloc.

The move was a tremendous success because it was based on a bluff: Ronald Reagan never really intended to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in developing space-based weaponry. On his advisers’ advice, he unveiled Star Wars after he was convinced by intelligence reports that the Soviets' military power was low, that their weapons systems were poorly maintained and that the Kremlin didn't have the resources to engage Star Wars. Sovietleader Mikhail Gorbachev gave in and Reagan notched up a great victory.

Is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s performance against Iran’s initiative to develop nuclear weapons similar to Reagan's Star Wars? Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said last week his successor's moves were hallucinatory and the NIS 11 billion price tag a waste. Netanyahu replied that Olmert's comments were irresponsible and hard to understand, and that investing in defense wasn't a waste.

Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon said the government’s conduct on Iran's nuclear threat had put the issue on the international agenda, and that the investment would make clear that Israel was willing to use force to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced that investing in operational capabilities wasn't a waste because it boosted the Israel Defense Forces against threats both now and in the future.

These reactions don't lift the doubts about the effectiveness of the prime minister’s moves. Was his conduct against Iran's nuclear program a real threat or one big bluff to create the impression he intended to attack and make the international community threaten tough economic sanctions?

Is Olmert right when he charges that a bluff has wasted a tremendous sum, or is Barak right when he says this was a worthwhile investment – and not only concerning Iran? And maybe Ya’alon was right when he confirmed Olmert’s version, explaining that the investment was mainly designed to demonstrate Israel’s intention to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

The common citizen asks: NIS 11 billion just to pretend? Then he remembers what former Shin Bet security chief Yuval Diskin said in his juicy description of how he, former Mossad director Meir Dagan and former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi prevented Netanyahu and Barak from putting the IDF on an operational footing for a possible attack on Iran. Was that also part of the bluff? Bluffing has been in the repertoire of nations from biblical days (Joshua’s conquests) to the launch of Operation Pillar of Defense.

Does Netanyau’s conduct vis-a-vis Iran belong in this category? Is it a reasonable move whose result justifies the cost? Is it similar, for example, to the way Defense Minister Moshe Dayan deceived Egypt and Syria before the Six-Day War when he declared that it was both too early and too late to attack, and Israel had to continue with diplomacy? Or does it remind us of Saddam Hussein’s bluffing when he pretended to have weapons of mass destruction – a false appearance that led to his end?

Netanyahu, sad to say, is perceived as someone for whom deceit is an integral part of his behavior, not to mention his character. Anyone who declares his willingness for a two-state solution but doesn't refer to it in the Likud-Beiteinu platform, who appears to back MK Yohanan Plesner's efforts to draft yeshiva students then leaves him on his own, who promises to act on the Trajtenberg Committee's recommendations on socioeconomic change but ignores most of them can't expect to be believed when he announces construction in the E-1 corridor. He can't be believed when he says he'll reimburse those harmed by a storm, when he says he'll deploy the huge forces on the Gaza border, or when he declares himself “a strong man.”

Bill Clinton coined the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid” when competing with George H.W. Bush for the U.S. presidency in 1992. It’s time Netanyahu’s rivals in the current election told the voters “It’s deceit, stupid” when convincing them that Netanyahu isn't fit to lead the country.