“Yes and No; Attack and Don’t Attack”
On March 5, 2012, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet US President Barack Obama in the White House. The name of the game will be “attack on Iran’s nuclear installations,” with each participant wanting the other one to be the aggressor. Israel’s options are limited; the only chance Israel has to win such a war is by utterly destroying the decision making bodies of the Iranian regime. The Islamic Consultative Assembly, the Guardian Council, the Presidency, the Supreme Leader institution, the military headquarters; all must be gone so that no one would be able to block Hormuz or order the bombing of Tel Aviv following the initial Israeli strike. These relatively few and concentrated targets would become the target not of Israel’s Air Force planes, but of Jericho missiles. It must be missiles, because the long fly time of planes would give the Iranian regime a much better chance of taking defensive steps. On October 28, 2011, I analyzed the situation in Israeli Defense Ministry Acknowledges Defeat; the article followed a comment on Israel’s incapability of defeating Iran in an interview given by Major General Amos Gilad, head of the Israeli Defense Ministry’s Diplomatic-Security Bureau. A missile attack is a dangerous bet; Netanyahu would prefer to see America attacking. For his part, Obama would prefer that the job be done by Israel, while the United States would come in afterward to restore order in the Middle East and secure for itself cheap oil for another generation or two. In their meeting, both poker players would try to outsmart each other. Following his raging public discourse at home, Netanyahu’s message to Obama would be simple: “hold me back, or I’ll attack.” Obama’s discourse is much more intriguing: “Yes and No; Attack and Don’t Attack,” he is saying, contradicting himself time and again. Will Netanyahu wag the dog?
Yes and No; Attack and Don’t Attack
President Obama discourse includes almost mutually exclusive statements. He said that he is “not bluffing” while claiming Iran should not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. In parallel, the US Ambassador in Tel Aviv said that the USA keeps all options open; this statement obviously includes the military option. Obama said in a recent interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffery Goldberg that there is an option of a “military component” when dealing with Iran’s nuclear plans, though he wasn’t specific. This sounds almost like Israel’s position. Yet, the same Obama has repeatedly declared that the sanctions on Iran should be given a chance and that attacking first would transform Iran into the victim. To the Israeli ear, Obama sounds like Shimon Peres.
The actual president of Israel may seem active, but his political career was finished in 1981, when he and Menahem Begin competed against each other in what became the hottest campaign in Israel’s very short history. Labor was trying to return to power after it lost it for the first time to the Likud Party in 1977. Following two despicable events during his campaign, a comedian working for the Likud, Sefy (nickname for Yosef) Rivlin, was invited to run the Likud television campaign. He conducted a successful personal campaign against Peres. Its motto was “Ken VeLo,” namely “Yes and No” in Hebrew. Peres was presented answering “yes and no” to everything he was asked (“Do you want sugar in your coffee?” “Yes and No! Yes and No!”). The combination of Peres’ shaky reputation with the funny voice used by Rivlin and his very disturbing eyes transformed Peres into a clown forever. Peres never won an open political campaign again. Obama—who is facing a reelection campaign later this year—sounds on the Iranian issue like Sefy Rivlin in 1981. “Yes and No; Attack and Don’t Attack.”
Palestine is not the main topic in the agenda of the upcoming meeting. On October 31, 2011, Palestine was accepted as a full member by UNESCO, which became the first UN agency to recognize it as an independent country. In retaliation, Benjamin Netanyahu immediately imposed sanctions on Palestine. Among them was the withholding of $100 million in revenues such as custom duties from being passed over to the Palestinian Authority. Politically, the latter is part of the State of Israel, which thus controls all Palestinian monies.
Then, on November 27, 2011, an unexpected thing happened. Netanyahu said at a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that he was considering releasing the money and that the cabinet would convene over the coming days to discuss the matter. He explained the reversal of his former decision on the suspension of Palestinian activities at the UN, coupled with the fact that Fatah-Hamas reconciliation does not appear to be on the horizon. The following Wednesday, the decision was taken. The cabinet (formed by the eight senior ministers of Netanyahu’s government) ruled that Israel would both transfer the withheld October tax funds and refrain from delaying taxes collected for the month of November.
Days later, on, December 4, 2011, it was disclosed that Netanyahu’s change of mind had been imposed by Germany (see Sanctions on Israel Redeem Germany). Yet, Palestine’s victory was not complete. Since then, the Palestinian Authority—fearing to lose its budget again —is keeping an extraordinarily low profile at UN institutions, with no other UN agencies expected to follow UNESCO in the recognition of Palestine anytime soon. Netanyahu blackmailed Palestine out of the agenda.
Wag the Dog
“Wag the Dog” is a 1997 film starring Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, which describes a situation in which the “tail wags the dog.” An unnamed President of the United States is caught in flagrante with a young girl scout less than two weeks before the elections. A hired political gun (De Niro) is brought in to take public attention away from the scandal. He decides to construct a fake war with Albania, hoping the media will concentrate on this instead. He contacts a Hollywood producer (Hoffman), who helps construct a theme song, build up interest and fake some footage of an orphan in Albania. In the end, with the President reelected, the producer is about to call the media to “set them straight,” when the President’s aide has him killed to save his political boss.
Already in 2009 I commented in Wag the Dog: Would the US attack Iran? that the 2003 American attack on Iraq resembled the Wag the Dog scenario, with Israel seemingly having wagged the USA into war. I asked then if Israel was attempting to Wag the Dog again, though this time sending the dog to attack Iran. In 2012, this is as relevant as then. Moreover, this year, Netanyahu can exert substantial pressure on Obama through the American-Jewish vote in November’s presidential elections.
In the first meeting between Netanyahu and Obama, in May 2009, the Israeli leader placed Iran at the top of the mutual agenda, while Obama talked about a freeze on settlements in the West Bank and possible solutions leading to an independent Palestinian state. The day after tomorrow, both leaders will meet again. Nobody knows the results of this dramatic meeting, but everybody knows the agenda is centered on a possible attack on Iran. The Palestinian issue is almost forgotten, mainly due to the abovementioned Israeli pressure on Palestinian leaders. There is no doubt we will witness the most sensitive moment in the careers of the two leaders, a moment that will define the years to come for all of us. Almost three years after the initial Obama-Netanyahu meeting, it is clear that the tail has at least defined the agenda. Both leaders are fighting for their political future. One arrives aggressive and confident, while the other closely resembles a clown. Will the tail succeed to wag the entire dog?