Israel's Iran Debate Comes to America

Two Push Opposing Views at Height of Election Season

By Nathan Guttman

Published September 14, 2012, issue of September 21, 2012.
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It was a tale of two Israels, put on display just miles apart in the nation’s capital, in the midst of a presidential race in which Israel seem to be insistently interposing itself.

Dan Halutz
nathan guttman
Dan Halutz

As that race goes into its last and most intense lap, two top Israeli political figures arrived here to promote dueling views on the way to deal with Iran’s nuclear threat, even as Israel’s prime minister publicly accused the Obama administration of lacking the “moral right” to constrain Israel should it decide to attack Iran.

The overlapping visits to Washington of Danny Danon, a deputy speaker of Israel’s Knesset and a rising star in the ruling Likud party, and Dan Halutz, former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, may have been coincidental, but they demonstrated the manner in which voices on both sides of the Israeli debate over Iran are seeking to have an impact on American public opinion at a crucial political moment.

“We need to say in a clear way that President Obama is not a friend of Israel,” Danon told the Forward in a blunt interview September 10, even as he disclaimed any interest in involving himself in the presidential election.

Danon, who has just written a book harshly criticizing the Obama administration, gave the interview at Politics and Prose, a popular local bookstore, where he was inaugurating a book tour that will take his message across the country.

Meanwhile, on the same day, Halutz told a gathering for reporters sponsored by J Street, the dovish Washigton-based pro-Israel lobby, “I believe that what [Obama] is saying, he means it and that he is standing behind his words” when he vows that Iran will not be allowed to develop or obtain nuclear weapons. Like Danon, the retired military commander, who was briefly involved in Israeli politics as a member of the opposition Kadima party, disclaimed any intent to influence or interfere in U.S. politics.

Their disclaimers notwithstanding, both men presented highly charged political views, with Danon openly attacking the president, and Halutz defending the administration’s policies toward Israel and Iran.

As both Israelis aired their differences in public, tensions ratcheted up between the White House and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel had asked the administration to declare a set of demands and deadlines to which Iran would be required to adhere. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton flatly rejected the request, triggering an angry response from Netanyahu, who, used particularly hard language, in response on September 11.

“Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel,” Netanyahu told a news conference.

That same day, word leaked from Israel that the Obama administration, citing scheduling problems, had turned down a request by Netanyahu to meet with him in New York in late September, when the Israeli leader will be there to address the United Nations. (The White House, noting that Obama will not be in New York that day, denied that the Israeli had ever asked to meet him in Washington).

Danny Danon
getty images
Danny Danon

Political rivals in the United States were quick to pick up on the dispute, with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney accusing Obama of not doing enough to stop Iran’s nuclear program. Romney also called Iran Obama’s “biggest failure.”

This view was bolstered by Danon, an up-and-coming player in Israel’s right-wing politics. He was promoting his book, “Israel: The Will To Prevail,” which he views as an “unapologetic response” to critics of Israel’s policy regarding the Palestinian conflict, Iran and the United States.

During his talk, Danon laid out his vision of a “three-state solution,” which rejects the idea of an independent Palestinian state in favor of dividing responsibility for the Palestinians among Israel, Jordan and Egypt. It was a tough sell to the members of the largely liberal crowd, many of whom are Jewish, but Danon said he is on a mission to change the discourse between Israel and the international community and that such a change will require time.

“As a representative of the national camp, I felt the need to say, ‘We have an alternative way,’” Danon said in an interview. He used the term “national camp,” which is synonymous in Israel to the right-wing — Likud — settler alliance. “The national camp in Israel has grown, but its views are not represented outside Israel, especially in the United States.” According to the deputy speaker of the Knesset, though most Israelis have already shifted away from the notion of “territory for peace,” when speaking abroad, Israelis feel the need to apologize and stick to the two-state solution model.

While declaring time and again that he does not wish to take sides in the American presidential election, Danon nevertheless used his book and public speeches to describe Obama’s approach to Israel in starkly negative terms. According to Danon, the administration’s latest refusal to set red lines for negotiations with Iran is “further proof that Iran will continue arming itself as the West sits idly by.” Obama, according to Danon, has not been effective in blocking Iran. “You don’t get A’s for effort,” he added.

Would Romney be any different?

“I don’t know, but what I do know is that the current administration made serious mistakes.”

Danon’s open criticism of Obama during election season could be seen as breaking the unwritten rule of not intervening in another country’s politics, but the young lawmaker tried to make clear that he is not endorsing Romney, simply stating his views on Obama. “I don’t see any intervention. The prime minister has been very careful about it,” he said. “What we care about is the good of Israel, not who wins the elections.”

Yet for some observers, Danon’s direct attacks on Obama, and the public chill coming from the prime minister’s office toward the president, are reminiscent of the 1972 elections, when Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s ambassador to Washington, openly supported Richard Nixon.

Ever since, Israelis tried to steer clear of American election politics, but the prominent role Israel is playing in the foreign policy debate in this election cycle has made them difficult to avoid. Both candidates have been pointing to Israeli leaders as backing their views: Obama and his campaign by quoting Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and President Shimon Peres praising Obama’s friendship, and the Romney campaign by producing a video message showing the warm embrace the candidate received from Israeli leaders during his July visit to Jerusalem.

“Iran has become a kind of political case, and that’s the wrong approach,” argued Halutz, a retired lieutenant general. The former IDF chief of staff and Air Force commander presented his listeners with a view opposite of that of Danon, one that the Obama campaign could gladly embrace at the meeting for reporters sponsored by J Street.

The dovish lobby is advocating for a diplomatic resolution of the Iran crisis. The group noted, however, that Halutz was speaking on his own behalf, not on that of J Street.

In his presentation, Halutz warned against using the American political system to bypass the president. He stressed that as long as Israel isn’t facing an existential threat—which, in contrast to Netanyahu, he did not consider Iran to currently present—Israel should “take some risks in order to keep the relationship” with the United States. Obama’s resolve to prevent Iran from going nuclear, Halutz said, “is not measured by how many times he comes to visit Israel,” a quip at critics who say Obama refraining from visiting Israel as president reflects his negative feelings toward the Jewish state.

Explaining the administration’s refusal to draw red lines, White House spokesman Jay Carney said on September 10 that it “is not fruitful as part of this process to engage in that kind of specificity.”

Halutz offered a more colorful iteration of this policy. “I don’t think super powers should use red lines,” he said. “An elephant doesn’t use red lines against an ant.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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