How Benjamin Netanyahu's Scowl Campaign Hurts Israel

Negativity Hands Iran a Victory — and Isolates Jewish State

Where’s Our Charm? Iranian President Hassan Rouhani continues to present a moderate face to the world. Why is Benjamin Netanyahu playing nasty?
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Where’s Our Charm? Iranian President Hassan Rouhani continues to present a moderate face to the world. Why is Benjamin Netanyahu playing nasty?

By Yossi Alpher

Published September 25, 2013, issue of October 04, 2013.
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Netanyahu, understandably, probably feels that he is almost alone on the international scene in warning of the need to be tough on Iran. And he feels that he’s fighting an uphill battle to hold President Obama to his commitments regarding the ultimate use of force against a nuclear Iran. When he meets Obama on his upcoming trip to the White House, he wants Congress and American public opinion behind his tough stance.

Last year, at the United Nations, Netanyahu drew a red line on a sketch of a bomb. It was a memorable gimmick, but one of doubtful validity: Iran has carefully avoided reaching Netanyahu’s red line of enrichment, yet the country has contrived to advance toward military nuclear capability by other means. Now Netanyahu is presenting a more complete list of demands: a halt to uranium enrichment, removal of enriched uranium from the country, dismantling of the secret Fordow nuclear plant and elimination of a new plutonium track that produces an alternative nuclear explosive to uranium.

Even the conservative IAEA essentially backs up the Israeli case. It accuses Iran of enriching uranium far in excess of its needs for a peaceful nuclear program; of achieving a “break out” ability of a few weeks to obtain weapons-grade uranium; of advancing toward obtaining plutonium, and of working on nuclear weapons designs. Few Israeli or American intelligence officials doubt where Iran is heading.

Netanyahu presumably knows that in a best-case scenario of successful negotiations between Iran and the United States, only a portion of the measures he proposes will be achieved. Another thing he presumably knows is that in return, crippling international sanctions against Iran will be relaxed — yet another reason, he apparently believes, to be tough and unyielding in his approach.

Tough and unyielding, yes. But why the scowl? Why shouldn’t Netanyahu offer, for example, to meet with Rowhani at the United Nations? “You seek a meeting with the Big Satan; how about the Little Satan?” (Rowhani will refuse, but he’ll be put on the defensive.) As the leader of the Jewish people, shouldn’t Netanyahu simply thank Rowhani for his Rosh Hashanah greetings?

Besides taking a “trust but verify” attitude toward Rowhani’s openness, Netanyahu could use the G.A. podium to reiterate Yitzhak Shamir’s very logical condition from 1991 regarding nuclear disarmament: When Israel has peace with all its neighbors, without exception and including Iran, we’ll discuss it seriously. And he could show some flexibility while in New York regarding the Palestinian issue, on which Israel has locked itself into ever-growing international isolation.

Otherwise, Netanyahu’s fears of yet more isolation as a consequence of events in Syria and of the Iranian “smile offensive” will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yossi Alpher is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.


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