Israel’s Likudnik Prime Minister, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, was one of the driving forces behind the neo-conservative foreign policy doctrine of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). PNAC called for a new “realm” in the Middle East forged through aggressive military action. Its successful prodding of the United States to invade and occupy Iraq ranks as its greatest achievement. Every step of the way, Bibi Netanyahu was a cheerleader for George W. Bush’s misguided and bloody military adventure in the Middle East.
Monday, Bibi came to Washington to size up President Barack Obama and pump up the “existential threat” that an Iranian atomic bomb raises against the State of Israel. He’ll also push back against Obama’s desire for starting up a sane process toward settling the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He’s one of the few politicians who won’t even pay lip service to a “two-state” solution. And Bibi will do it with panache and self-confidence (but not style).
The greatly anticipated meeting between Obama (who is trying to foster multilateral cooperation in the Arab and Muslim world) and Netanyahu, (who prefers much blunter instruments of “diplomacy”) has led some blogs and newspapers, such as the Telegraph in the U.K., to report that Obama will warn Netanyahu today that Israel can no longer count on “blank checks” from the U.S. government. But Bibi knows he has powerful friends in Washington who will defend his every word and deed. Right-wing Republicans, liberal Democrats, the press corps, and the good offices of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) will support whatever he says and whatever he wants. I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point behind closed doors the more experienced and reactionary Israeli prime minister overshadows the less experienced and liberal president. It might be the case that Netanyahu has far more friends in Washington than does the President.
At the customary joint press conference following their meeting, President Obama will have some tough words for Iran while he restates the old Bush policy that Iran must never be allowed to acquire nuclear bombs. Bibi’s Amen chorus in the Beltway will applaud loudly. It’s far too early to say anything substantial about George Mitchell’s efforts in negotiating a Middle East peace so we’ll hear undecipherable diplomatese on the “two-state” thing.
But the “800-pound gorilla” in the room that hinders what Obama says he wishes to accomplish in curtailing Iran’s nuclear ambitions is Israel’s own nuclear arsenal. Mordachai Vanunu spent a long time in an Israeli prison because he confirmed long-held suspicions that Israel has nuclear weapons. The fact that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has not been shy about launching asymmetrical pre-emptive air wars against virtually all of its neighbors from time to time, might lead one to think it’s not too bizarre that a nuclear-armed Israel raises alarms in the region. The IDF could, if it so desired, annihilate every large city in Iran in a matter of minutes and turn a large swathe of the country into a smoking, irradiated ruin.
Israel’s nuclear arsenal causes more problems than it solves. It’s the driving force behind Iran’s desire to acquire its own nuclear weapons as deterrence against possible IDF nuclear attack. It undermines President Obama’s top international priority of aggressively reducing the existing number of nuclear weapons as part of his non-proliferation regimen. And by emphasizing the gravity of the prospect of an Iranian bomb without acknowledging even the existence of the Israeli bomb creates a set of false strategic choices making a conventional strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities sound like a “rational” decision.
Despite the mad ravings of the Dick Cheneys and the John Boltons and the Benny Morrises and the William Kristols and the PNAC dead-enders about the efficacy, indeed the “necessity,” of an IDF (or U.S.) pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, such an act of aggression would be an unmitigated catastrophe. For the United States it would endanger American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. For Israel it would lead to its skies being alight with Katyusha rockets from southern Lebanon. For the Middle East it would enlarge the area of violence and further enrage its people. And for the world it would disrupt the flow of oil and bring the attention (and possibly the intervention) of bigger powers with large stakes in Iran’s stability.
These are some of the reasons why even George W. Bush wasn’t crazy enough to attack Iran. Calmer voices from the Joint Chiefs prevailed, which led Bush to sideline Cheney and the other PNAC nut-bags before they could “bring ‘em on” in Iran too. That single decision not to attack Iran was the only wise one Bush made over the course of his two terms as president. Even now PNAC (which re-branded itself to the more innocuous sounding “Foreign Policy Initiative”) is still calling for military action against Iran.
But the only reasonable way to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions is to create a framework, which Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund has been talking about for years, where the Middle East becomes a “Nuclear Free Zone.” All nuclear weapons in the region must be dismantled and removed through international inspections, oversight, and multilateral agreement. Israel’s nuclear arsenal must go the way of South Africa’s. Then real peace negotiations can commence.
If any region in the world cries out to be “nuclear free” it’s the Middle East. Unless the Israeli bomb is included in President Obama’s nuclear non-proliferation goals his vision for a nuclear-free world will become nothing but a mirage. It’s easy to demand that our adversaries stop their nuclear programs. But nuclear non-proliferation only becomes real when we demand that our friends and allies and our own government move toward ridding the world of these terrible weapons.
by Joseph Palermo
Joseph Palermo is Associate Professor of American History at CSU, Sacramento. He’s the author of two books on Robert F. Kennedy: In His Own Right (2001) and RFK (2008).