It’s difficult to recall a time when an Israeli prime minister has inserted himself into a presidential election campaign in the way that Benjamin Netanyahu has. It’s even harder to recall a time when a trusted ally openly urged the American president to undertake a questionable, unpopular and highly risky war. We sure hope Netanyahu knows what he’s doing, because the stakes for him — and for the two nations he professes to care about the most — could not be higher.
Any hard-nosed assessment of Iranian actions underscores the seriousness of the nuclear threat to Israel, of this there can be no doubt. Containment of Iran’s nuclear capabilities is an extremely dangerous option. This murderous regime cannot be compared with other unpredictable nations that have nuclear bombs, because those other nations don’t share Iran’s aggressive regional ambitions. North Korea doesn’t fund and supply terrorist attacks on its neighbors; Pakistan doesn’t act as if it wants to rule the world.
A nuclear Iran could wreak more havoc than it already does without ever pulling the atomic switch. So it is understandable that Netanyahu and Israeli leaders before him view Iran’s nuclear developments with growing alarm.
But there’s a reason the preponderence of Israeli military and security experts warn against a unilateral strike, as a recent analysis by the Forward showed in detail: The outcome would be highly uncertain, and the collateral damage to Israel, the region and the United States frighteningly steep, with even a successful strike unleashing a torrent of destabilization while setting back Iranian development a few years at most. Meantime, economic sanctions are biting hard and the Iranian regime is struggling to maintain control, suggesting that it’s possible other diplomatic moves may bring the desired result.
This is the kind of agonizing diplomatic conundrum that ought to be played out between close allies with ultimate care, discretion and coordination. Instead, Netanyahu has assumed the public role of prophet of doom, chiding the American administration to do more and scolding it when it doesn’t meet his expectations.
He may be overplaying his hand. Americans are deeply wary of another military involvement in the Muslim world. Most Americans oppose a military strike against Iran. Most even oppose coming to Israel’s aid should it be attacked by Iran. A recent poll by the nonpartisan Chicago Council on Global Affairs posed this hypothetical situation: Israel attacks Iran, Iran retaliates and and the two nations go to war. Only “38 percent say the United States should bring its military forces into the war on the side of Israel. A majority (59%) says it should not,” the poll showed.
The Israeli public itself is also solidly opposed to a unilateral strike against Iran.
Netanyahu’s critics, even among his former allies, are quick to accuse him of improper meddling in American elections. As Shaul Mofaz, the Kadima leader who recently joined and then fled from the ruling coalition, asked: “Please explain to us, who is the greater enemy — the United States or Iran? Whose regime are you aiming to replace? The one in Washington or Tehran?”
We’ll leave it to the raucous Israeli political culture to impugn the prime minister’s motives in such a fashion. We recognize that fault for the frosty relationship between Netanyahu and President Obama lies with both men. But it’s been an unwritten rule of this long and trusted alliance that Israel stays away from the American electoral fray and that American Jews should never be put in the position of picking one nation over another. Israel is not on the ballot. It should never be.