Netanyahu's Remarks on Iran: A Cheap Shot at Obama

PM Netanyahu is both foolish and plain wrong to criticize President Obama by stating that Israel can only rely on itself to act on Iran in view of the U.S.'s risk-averse Syria policy.

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Alon Pinkas
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alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

You knew it was coming. After several weeks of prudent and calculated silence; after numerous clarifications that Israel in neither involved nor has a stake in the Syrian civil war; after consenting to a request to assist President Obama in his efforts to muster support in Congress and all that time knowing that a U.S. strike on Syria may not necessarily benefit Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu just had to say something.

And in the best tradition of such statements, both the substance and the timing were off, unhelpful and meaningless.

Evoking just the first half of the sage Hillel’s ancient maxim: “If I am not for myself, who will be?” Netanyahu essentially criticized the U.S., implying that in the case of Iran, Israel will have to rely only on itself since the U.S. approach to Syria can and should be projected into the future in respect to Iran policy.

Conveniently, Netanyahu omitted the second half of Hillel's existential determination: "...and if not now, when?" immediately soliciting instant-analyses that the Syria crisis incentivizes Israel to strike Iran sooner rather than later.

There are several possible ways to interpret such a statement. The easy one is to dismiss it as "so he said it, so what?" Netanyahu was uttering a general Jewish/Israeli cliche that has cultural foundations rooted in 2000 years of statelessness and persecution. Jews strived for self-reliance and figured out the hard way that they need to control their destiny. In fact, most nations act on this principle, so Netanyahu said nothing profound.

Secondly, self-reliance is a basic tenet of Israel's national security doctrine. From David Ben-Gurion to Netanyahu Israel always adhered to the principle of defending itself, seeking material support and diplomatic cover from France, Britain and for the last forty five years the US, but always vowing - as a matter of value and policy - to never ask a foreign power to defend it physically. In this respect, Netanyahu said nothing new.

But there is a two-fold foreign and security policy dimension to what Prime Minister Netanyahu said. The first has to do with the possible U.S. strike on Syria and the second, by implication, is the Iran issue.

The odd thing about the Syria crisis was that the U.S., Russia and Israel had a common policy preference: A weakened, hemorrhaging, under-attack Assad in power is better than any other alternative, certainly the chaos, anarchy and inherent instability that would inevitably ensue the regime's fall from power. Yet none of the three ever admitted that this was their definition of "The best of a host of bad options and scenarios". Supporting Assad outrightly is unaesthetic, immoral and wrong to pronounce given his unpredictability. Furthermore, it is safe to assume that Israel had no strategic advantage resulting from a U.S. strike, certainly if it had devolved into a 'rolling operation' replete with complications and escalation that could have potentially sucked Israel into the fray.

So when President Obama reportedly enlisted AIPAC to help in his Capitol Hill campaign, Israel was less than enthusiastic. Israel's detractors always see an Israel-AIPAC symbiotic relationship, so had the President failed to gain authorization for a military operation in the House of Representatives AIPAC's image and perception as an oh-so-powerful lobby would have been dented. Had he managed to get both the Senate and the House to support Israel would, in some quarters, been (falsely) seen and criticized as driving the US to (another) adventurous Middle East war on its behalf, reversing the Hillel-Netanyahu foreign policy principle.

Enter the Iran issue. Undoubtedly, when Mr. Netanyahu said: "If I am not for me, who will be?" he was referring to Iran. Clearly, Netanyahu is making a direct linkage between U.S. Syria policy and pattern of behavior and the future Iran policy. The logic is simple: Obama showed lack of resolve; allowed a red line that he demarcated to be breached with defiance and tease; vacillated on the use of force and capitulated to Russia.

That is a legitimate interpretation. It also happens to be distorted and wrong. There are no U.S. interests in Syria, no political or geo-political objectives, no allies to side with and no clear and present danger to the U.S. A nuclear Iran is the exact opposite. Regional proliferation, regional instability, Israel and Saudi are endangered allies, a nuclear Iran is undeterrable if the regime senses it is in existential danger. Assuming the U.S. will craft an Iran policy based on its risk-averse policy in Syria is a miscalculation. The reason Russia proposed the diplomatic plan is precisely because the Russians saw the U.S. threat as credible and real and were protecting their interests: the alliance with Syria and the naval base in the port of Tartus.

But there is an alarming underlying quality to Netanyahu's "self-reliance" statement. What if he is taken at face-value and the world, so weary, fatigued and fed up with the Middle East basically ignored him and by implication says: Do what you think you have to do, just leave us out. How could that possibly benefit Israel?

Even if you have reservations about U.S. policy vis-a-vis Syria, President Obama is your ally, indeed your only ally, on Iran. What is the point of effectively telling him: "I don't trust you"?

Alon Pinkas was Adviser to four Israeli Foreign Ministers and was Consul General of Israel in New York. He is currently a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the weekly gov't conference in Jerusalem. May 24th, 2013.Credit: Emil Salman

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