As the world’s leaders converge in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is encountering an unusual confluence of activities and initiatives concerning nonconventional weaponry in the Middle East. Some of this activity appears to be working to Israel’s benefit, some of it against Israel. Netanyahu is working overtime to emphasize the negative, in ways that could prove counterproductive for Israel.
The Middle East backdrop to this year’s G.A. is ostensibly encouraging. The United States and Russia are backing a program to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons — a strategic threat to Israel. Iran has elected a president, Hassan Rowhani, who, with the backing of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is pushing a program of dialogue and compromise. Rowhani and his foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have been bombarding the media with moderate statements regarding their policies and intentions, from traditional disclaimers of any military nuclear intentions to eye-openers like Rosh Hashanah greetings.
Rowhani and the usually extremist Khamenei have even bluntly told the powerful Revolutionary Guards, who are responsible for a lot of Iran’s terrorist evildoing and support for genocide in Syria, to stay out of politics.
(Between Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards, Rowhani is almost certain to have the ground cut out from under him sooner rather than later. But that’s a different story.)
So why is Netanyahu frantic? He calls Rowhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and his representatives advise “not to be fooled by the Iranian president’s fraudulent statements.” Even the Rosh Hashanah greetings produced growls of hostility from Jerusalem.
This appears to be a case of reading the strategic situation correctly but completely muffing the tactics.
Netanyahu believes, correctly, that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons capability, despite its denials. He has accurately analyzed the recent drama in Syria: Without a credible American threat of massive military force, the agreement on chemical weapons disarmament would not have been reached. And he, like many of Israel’s Arab neighbors who are worried about both Syria and Iran, views the Syria drama as a graphic illustration of America’s withdrawal from military involvement in the Middle East, one that weakens America’s deterrent against Iran and thereby places a greater burden on Israel.
Moreover, almost inevitably, the mere hint of progress toward nonconventional disarmament in Syria and Iran has put the spotlight on Israel’s nuclear potential. Russian President Vladimir Putin has equated it with Syria’s chemical weapons and opined that Israel will have to go the same disarmament route as Damascus. The Arab states just led an almost successful attempt at the International Atomic Energy Agency to call on Israel to join the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.