The Challenge of Denial

Both Obama and Netanyahu will be judged by their ability to be leaders and not to be led.

Benjamin Netanyahu believes three subjects are on the national agenda - Iran, Iran and Iran. First of all, if Iran nuclearizes, the Middle East will nuclearize. Secondly, if Iran nuclearizes, the Middle East will become more extreme. Finally, if Iran nuclearizes, sooner or later, some religious nut could use this nuclear capability. So from Netanyahu's point of view, the coming year is the decisive year in Israel's history. The first mission is to get the world to block Iran. The second is to be prepared for the possibility that the world will not block Iran and Israel will have to face its fate alone.

Netanyahu genuinely believes that Iran is no less a threat to the West than to Israel. In his long talk with President Barack Obama last week, he warned that if Iran nuclearizes, the United States will have to face not one Pakistan but six Pakistan-like states. If Iran nuclearizes, he says, it will compete with the United States for hegemony in the Middle East, the U.S. will be weakened, and Obama will be remembered as the president under whom the international system went out of kilter. So there is no contradiction today between Israeli interests, American interests or European interests. More than ever, Israel is NATO's first floodgate against the huge wave from the East.

Netanyahu has the feeling that on the Iranian issue, above all, he won Obama's ear. The emphases are different and the rhetoric differs, but Obama understands. Even before he was elected president, he spoke about how the world could not tolerate an extremist Islamic country armed with nuclear weapons. And the intelligence assessments he has read since have deepened his understanding. The same is true of his talks with King Abdullah. Contrary to media reports, the Jordanian monarch, who fears for his future, spent most of his time in Washington on the Iranian threat. That's also what other Arab kings and presidents do in their talks with the U.S. president's emissaries and ambassadors. It's not the pressures from the Jewish lobby but the heartrending cries from the Arab leaders that make Obama realize that Iran is the challenge. It's Iran that will make or break him.

Thus the biggest problem facing Israel today is not the West's leaders but its public opinion. The heads of state sitting in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin understand Iran's significance. The political and security establishments of Obama, Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel likewise understand Iran's significance. There are no deep differences of opinion about the Iranian threat as there were seven years ago regarding the supposed Iraqi threat.

But there is an amazing gap between Western leaders' understanding and that of public opinion in their countries. Since World War II, the Europeans have not been prepared to pay a real price to defend their freedom or culture. Since the war in Iraq, the Americans have not been able to think about further adventures in the Middle East. That's why the five leaders of the free world are paralyzed. It's not because they are blind. It's not because they don't see the danger. Because of public pressure to be conciliatory, Western leaders willingly choose to act as if they're powerless.

This powerlessness arouses in Netanyahu a well-known historical association. When he compares the 1930s to the current decade, he does not mean a Holocaust is on the way. He is also aware that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not Adolf Hitler. It's possible that he will even leave the stage next month. However, the prime minister recognizes a similarity between the democracies' lack of will and knowledge both then and today. He recognizes a similarity between the motives that led Neville Chamberlain to meet wickedness with appeasement, and the motives that cause many leaders today to act with hesitancy and weakness toward evil. He has no doubt that the West will eventually wake up, regain its wits and win. But he is afraid that the awakening will come too late. The awakening is likely to happen not before Czechoslovakia but after.

This is a situation of denial. In the United States, Europe and Israel, people prefer not to look the truth in the eye. They prefer to deal with all kinds of trifles. So the test is a test of leadership. Both Obama and Netanyahu will be judged by their ability to be leaders and not to be led. The test of the American president and the Israeli prime minister will be in their ability to translate a joint understanding of a historic challenge into a joint historic action - one that is level-headed, coordinated, determined and responsible.