The noted pundit and the Reform Union's past president discuss Bibi's Iran campaign.
Help me understand why Prime Minister Netanyahu is taking sides in the American election. He pulled back a bit at the UN, but enormous damage has already been done.
Allies do not interfere in each other’s elections, and small countries do not attack great powers from which they need support. Netanyahu must address the grave threat from Iran, but the crisis with America was unnecessary. It may serve the interests of Sheldon Adelson, but does not serve the interests of Israel. Rather than educating Americans and moving them in the direction of Israel’s concerns, it has done the opposite. American Jews are distressed, and the majority of Americans are no closer to supporting American involvement in an attack on Iran.
In dealing with America, Israel should focus on persuasion, building trust, avoiding the trap of partisan politics, and honest, tough talk - in private. Zionism is meant to give a sovereign Jewish state control over its own destiny. But for now, America’s help is needed to confront Iran, and Israel’s leaders must be smart in securing that help.
There is deep anxiety among Israelis, too, about the growing rift between Netanyahu and Obama. A personal feud between the American President and the Israeli Prime Minister will inevitably affect the wider relationship. If Netanyahu can’t bring himself to praise Obama, then he shouldn’t praise Romney.
You write that allies don’t interfere in each other’s elections. Unfortunately, the historical record reveals several examples in which American and Israeli leaders have done exactly that. President Clinton made his preference clear for Peres over Netanyahu in the 1996 elections. In 1972, Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s ambassador to Washington, expressed a preference for Richard Nixon over George McGovern.
Israelis sympathize with Netanyahu’s frustrations with Obama. The President failed to give him the credit and the backing when he imposed an unprecedented 10-month settlement freeze and instead provoked one of the worst crises between the two countries. That was a terrible miscalculation, as I think the adminstration itself came to realize. When Netanyahu tried to extend the 10-month freeze, his outraged cabinet voted against him. If both men are reelected, then the special relationship between our countries will face its most serious test since the Six-Day War.
Netanyahu’s pique has at times been provocative and unwise. Still, I disagree with your assumption that he has used the Iranian issue as a political wedge to undermine Obama. The Netanyahu who spoke from the podium of the General Assembly seemed to me desperate to wake up the world - and administration, too - to the urgency of the Iranian threat. Netanyahu is challenging Obama on Iran despite the election campaign, not because of it.
I don’t believe that Netanyahu is scheming with Sheldon Adelson, as you imply, to bring down Obama. My plea to you, Eric, is that we argue these life and death issues without impugning each other’s integrity. By all means challenge Netanyahu when he oversteps the bounds of the American-Israeli relationship. But give him the credit he has earned after 10 years of relentless campaigning on the Iranian threat.
Finally, Eric, a question to you: Why aren’t American Jews making the administration’s policy on Iran more of an electoral issue? Why aren’t Obama’s Jewish supporters challenging him to explain his refusal to draw a red line on Iran?
Given the administration’s failure to deter Iran, I am disappointed that Obama doesn’t have to work harder for the Jewish vote. Just as the President felt impelled to offer concrete concessions on illegal immigration to Hispanic voters, he should be feeling domestic pressure to go further on Iran.
If American Jewish anxiety on Iran were more clearly expressed, then Israeli anxiety could be more muted, especially during the election campaign.
I understand, at least to some degree, Israeli concern about Obama. He bungled the settlement issue early in his term. Obama supports Israel, but without the emotional connection of Bill Clinton or George Bush. Still, he sees Israel as a vital American interest, and on matters of defense and security, he may be the most supportive President ever.
I was not suggesting, heaven forbid, that Netanyahu was scheming with Sheldon Adelson to bring down Obama. I was saying that when you are the Prime Minister and your friend and major supporter is one of America’s most prominent and virulent Obama opponents, you need to proceed with the utmost care to avoid even the hint of partisan motivation.
But the key, as you say, is to look forward, and here I think you are misreading the American political map.
When it comes to Iran, Netanyahu has done an extraordinary job in the last three years in putting the Iranian nuclear threat on the agenda. But his indispensable partner in this effort has been the American Jewish community.
You seem to feel that now, if only the Jews would make Iran more of an electoral issue, America would get really tough, draw red lines, etc. But you are making the mistake that Israelis often make about American Jews: You are exaggerating our power.
The presidential campaign is focused almost entirely on the economy and domestic issues. American voters like the idea of America being “strong,” but they don’t like the idea of additional military action at this time. Furthermore, there is no chance of playing one candidate off against the other because they are both saying exactly the same thing.
The day after the election, no matter who wins, American Jews will need to work with the President and Congress to make the case for a possible American military attack on Iran. Netanyahu, with his political missteps of the last few months, has made that job harder. Still, it is a job that we must do. Because on this we agree: Under no circumstances can the Iranians be permitted to produce a nuclear weapon.
I agree with you about the damage of settlement expansion. In fact, a conversation you and I had in Jerusalem a few years ago helped clarify for me the damage that settlement building is doing to us. More than the arguments you made, I was haunted by your anguish.
Obama deserves our gratitude for the military aid and cooperation - and also for coming through for us at several crucial moments. But he has also severely undermined Israel’s position internationally by conveying a sense of distance and at times hostility toward the Israeli government. It has appeared as if Obama feels a visceral contempt for Netanyahu he expresses for no other world leader. His mishandling of the Middle East has combined to undermine American power and Israeli security in the region.
You may well be right that we in Israel tend to exaggerate the impact of American Jews, but if we expect too much, it’s because we acutely feel that we need you more than at any time perhaps since the terrible weeks of May 1967. One positive result, incidentally, of growing Israeli anxiety is a new-found appreciation and respect here for American Jewry, whose support has been too often taken for granted.
The question of unilateral Israeli action on Iran presents us with a wrenching choice between two cherished Zionist goals: self-defense, and securing Israel’s place among the nations. As our international standing becomes more precarious, we are even more dependent on American goodwill.
In working with American Jewry to prevent a nuclear Iran, Israeli leaders need to be mindful of American Jewish sensitivities. At the same time, American Jews need to appreciate the growing desperation that is motivating Netanyahu.
I’m grateful for the chance to share my frustrations and anxieties with you.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is the President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism.
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