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How Will Benjamin Netanyahu Confront Iran’s Charm Offensive?

A nasty altercation looms. No issue has been more central to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy and his rhetoric than the threat of Iran. For years now, Iran has been the touchstone against which all else has been measured, as also the heart of Netanyahu’s representation to the nations of the world. Now comes President Hassan Rouhani, an entirely different Iranian leader from his predecessors, a leader with whom President Obama is inclined to seek at least a modus vivendi if not a full-blown reconciliation.

We know already from his intemperate reaction to Rouhani’s evident moderation that Netanyahu will not adjust easily to the shift. Whether or not Rouhani actually tweeted Rosh Hashanah greetings to Jews — there’s controversy about that — it is for sure that Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, did send such greetings. But Netanyahu is not merely skeptical; he is dismissive. “The Iranian regime will be judged only by its actions and not by its greetings,” Netanyahu has said. He added that the greetings’ “only purpose is to distract attention from the fact” that despite the election of Rouhani, considered a moderate, “it continues to enrich uranium and build a plutonium reactor for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons that will threaten the state of Israel and the entire world.”

There’s a method to diplomacy: If you’re given an opening, use it. But for Netanyahu to use the apparent opening would mean his letting go, at least tentatively, of the issue that has defined him more than any other, learning to sing a new song. So he will not credit Rouhani for saying, as the Iranian leader did in a lengthy NBC interview with Ann Curry, that “We have time and again said that under no circumstances would we seek any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever.” Nor, presumably, will the neocons — yes, the neocons, resuscitated — for whom conflict is an aphrodisiac.

Déjà vu? Are we once more about to be trapped into a brittle war-like stance? No Iraq this time — been there, done that — but lots of pushing and shoving and nastiness. And push and shove hard enough, you’ll find that you’ve stumbled into something not fully intended.

That is one reason we should vociferously oppose those in Israel — and here, too — who recommend that Israel preempt, that it attack Iran even without American “permission.” And that is also grounds for relief, since there’s no question at all that the Obama administration will resolutely oppose unilateral action by Israel. (In that connection, it will be especially interesting to hear what Joe Biden and Martin Indyk have to say next week then they address the JStreet convention in Washington.)

Am I proposing that Rouhani be taken at his word? Hardly. But President Obama has wisely said that he is willing to test Rouhani’s willingness to discuss the nuclear issue. “There is an opportunity here for diplomacy,” Obama told Spanish-language network Telemundo in an interview, “and I hope the Iranians take advantage of it.”

We know how fervently the President favors diplomatic solutions over armed intervention. (I am grateful for that, even as I wonder how he squares that perspective with his apparently very heavy use of drones.) We need only consider that, with all the missteps along the way, there seems now to be a viable resolution of the Syrian chemical weapons problem without a shot having been fired. The judicious threat of force can be and in this case appears to have been an effective tool of diplomacy.

But we know as well how fervently the neocons favor muscle over moderation. The immediate danger is that Jewish neocons, of whom there is a surfeit, will be seen as urging confrontation rather than cooperation, will resist the effort to test Rouhani’s intentions. So we have Bill Kristol, on CNN on June 18, calling himself “a knee-jerk negativist,” describing Rouhani’s statements as “the same old lies,” part of “a charm offensive.” The script is by now familiar; if it were not so dangerous, it would be boring.

Netanyahu sings his song, perhaps the only song he knows. The neocons sing theirs, with gusto. That is why it is so very important that those who sing a very different song make their voices heard.

Contact Leonard Fein at [email protected]

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