Showdown

by Leon Wieseltier | April 13, 2010

Since I have no reason to believe that Benjamin Netanyahu is bluffing about his readiness to attack the nuclear facilities of Iran, I find his recent behavior incomprehensible. In the wake of an Israeli attack, terrible things will almost certainly happen. There will be another war with Hezbollah, whose missiles will this time reach Tel Aviv. The Iranians may themselves respond directly with force. The price of oil will explode, afflicting ordinary people everywhere with the consequences of Israel’s strike, and provoking a new revulsion against Israel, and also against the United States. And the only ally that Israel will have in that disordered and dangerous hour will be the United States. Otherwise it will be friendless. The American government will likely be infuriated by the attack, but there is a formidable tradition of American solidarity with Israel, all bickerings aside, that may mitigate its fury. Strategically speaking, therefore, Israel’s relationship with the United States should be of supreme importance to its government. I myself am not persuaded of the wisdom of an Israeli attack on Iran—I do not see that it can accomplish its purpose: the only real solution is a democratic government in Tehran, secular and reasonable and transparent and intent on rescuing Iran from its modern adventure in medievalism—but I understand why Israel believes that it must damage and delay the nuclearization of this vicious and anti-Semitic tyranny. My disagreement on this question is uncharacteristically humble. But less humbly I insist that it is mad for Netanyahu to think that he can have it all: the strike on Iran, the steadfastness of America, the churlishness about a peace process, the apartments in Ramat Shlomo. In these strategic circumstances, Rabin and Sharon would have damned the apartments, and the small perspective that they represent. For all his lectures on history, Netanyahu lacks their historical amplitude. He cannot tear himself away from his numbers. I concur that Israel has the right to build in Ramat Shlomo: I have the right to jump off my building, which some of my Jewish readers may wish me to do, but it would not be the intelligent course of action. What most alarms me is that there has occurred in Israel an eerie loss of faith in the art of diplomacy. At this hour the Israeli government should be a hive of diplomatic creativity. It should be swarming with proposals and concepts: a map of its vision of Israel and Palestine; or a program of measures to strengthen the Fayyad-Abbas administration, because the alternative is Hamas, with its scriptures and rockets (I am not persuaded that the quiet on the Gazan frontier denotes anything more than the success of Israel’s harsh campaign); or a draft of a West Bank-first agreement, with all the blandishments that it will bring to Palestinians in the West Bank, so that Palestinians in Gaza may eventually seek to enjoy them; or a plan for an interim armistice agreement of the sort that Ehud Yaari has described; or anything else that will demonstrate that Netanyahu’s commitment to two states is designed to make peace also with Palestinians and not only with Americans. Instead I observe in the Israeli leadership a rigid and insensible attachment to the status quo, which consists in a prosperous high-tech contentment protected by a wall and a bi-annual war in the north or the south. Some of this status-quo-ism results from the pettiness of Israeli politics, which is what Obama rightly wishes to challenge; but some of it results from a despair of the world, to which Obama is callously indifferent. Netanyahu’s ideal is no good: a normal life does not go with a despair of the world. He seems to regard Israel’s unpopularity as evidence of the justice of its cause, and in this dirty world I half-see his point; but Israel is not an island. It would be a monumental failure of statecraft to lead his country into complete isolation.

Since I have no reason to believe that Benjamin Netanyahu is bluffing about his readiness to attack the nuclear facilities of Iran, I find his recent behavior incomprehensible. In the wake of an Israeli attack, terrible things will almost certainly happen. There will be another war with Hezbollah, whose missiles will this time reach Tel Aviv. The Iranians may themselves respond directly with force. The price of oil will explode, afflicting ordinary people everywhere with the consequences of Israel’s strike, and provoking a new revulsion against Israel, and also against the United States. And the only ally that Israel will have in that disordered and dangerous hour will be the United States. Otherwise it will be friendless. The American government will likely be infuriated by the attack, but there is a formidable tradition of American solidarity with Israel, all bickerings aside, that may mitigate its fury. Strategically speaking, therefore, Israel’s relationship with the United States should be of supreme importance to its government. I myself am not persuaded of the wisdom of an Israeli attack on Iran—I do not see that it can accomplish its purpose: the only real solution is a democratic government in Tehran, secular and reasonable and transparent and intent on rescuing Iran from its modern adventure in medievalism—but I understand why Israel believes that it must damage and delay the nuclearization of this vicious and anti-Semitic tyranny. My disagreement on this question is uncharacteristically humble. But less humbly I insist that it is mad for Netanyahu to think that he can have it all: the strike on Iran, the steadfastness of America, the churlishness about a peace process, the apartments in Ramat Shlomo. In these strategic circumstances, Rabin and Sharon would have damned the apartments, and the small perspective that they represent. For all his lectures on history, Netanyahu lacks their historical amplitude. He cannot tear himself away from his numbers. I concur that Israel has the right to build in Ramat Shlomo: I have the right to jump off my building, which some of my Jewish readers may wish me to do, but it would not be the intelligent course of action. What most alarms me is that there has occurred in Israel an eerie loss of faith in the art of diplomacy. At this hour the Israeli government should be a hive of diplomatic creativity. It should be swarming with proposals and concepts: a map of its vision of Israel and Palestine; or a program of measures to strengthen the Fayyad-Abbas administration, because the alternative is Hamas, with its scriptures and rockets (I am not persuaded that the quiet on the Gazan frontier denotes anything more than the success of Israel’s harsh campaign); or a draft of a West Bank-first agreement, with all the blandishments that it will bring to Palestinians in the West Bank, so that Palestinians in Gaza may eventually seek to enjoy them; or a plan for an interim armistice agreement of the sort that Ehud Yaari has described; or anything else that will demonstrate that Netanyahu’s commitment to two states is designed to make peace also with Palestinians and not only with Americans. Instead I observe in the Israeli leadership a rigid and insensible attachment to the status quo, which consists in a prosperous high-tech contentment protected by a wall and a bi-annual war in the north or the south. Some of this status-quo-ism results from the pettiness of Israeli politics, which is what Obama rightly wishes to challenge; but some of it results from a despair of the world, to which Obama is callously indifferent. Netanyahu’s ideal is no good: a normal life does not go with a despair of the world. He seems to regard Israel’s unpopularity as evidence of the justice of its cause, and in this dirty world I half-see his point; but Israel is not an island. It would be a monumental failure of statecraft to lead his country into complete isolation.

Yet some intellectual pressure must be put also on Obama’s airs, and on a central assumption behind his policy toward Israel. This assumption—one hears it in Washington all the time—is that our strategic objective must be to restore America’s standing in the Muslim world. This is an article of faith in the anti-Bush catechism, which imputes all foreign enmities to Obama’s predecessor. It contains an important element of truth: the United States has essential interests—and hundreds of thousands of troops—in Muslim lands, and insofar as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict complicates or harms those interests, the United States should desire it to be swiftly resolved. But the analysis cannot stop there. Is this prudence, or a doctrine for a realignment? And what, exactly, is the Muslim world? (Indonesia is not the rule, even if the president grew up there.) Which Muslims hate the United States, and which do not? Which of those anti-Americanisms are based upon American actions and alliances, and which are rooted in prior and autonomous beliefs that no American behavior will mollify? Which of those actions and alliances should be abandoned to realism, and which of them should be upheld as a matter of national honor, even if it drives realists crazy? (Driving realists crazy is God’s work.) And there are still more questions. To what extent does the American aim of improving our reputation in various Muslim societies entail American acceptance of the current state of those societies? Is such an acceptance—say, Obama’s creepy habit of addressing Muslims in religious terms, when there is no more urgent battle in “the Muslim world” than the battle for its secularization—not also a way of taking a side, a decidedly unprogressive side, in the struggle with, or against, modernity? And why, after the speech in Cairo, and after the showdown with Netanyahu, have the Iranians and the Saudis given Obama nothing? Perhaps they do not want what he wants. Perhaps they want what they want. How many clenched fists will it take to refute the extended hand? I want Israel to make peace with the Palestinians even more than Obama does, because I love the Jewish state and I fear for it; but because I love it and fear for it, Obama’s adamant refusal to open his famously large heart to the depth of Israel’s anxieties, to offer Israel the same “strategic reassurance” that he weirdly offered China, to recognize that his coldness toward Israel has the effect of confirming its delegitimation in many corners of the globe—his unmoved pursuit of perfect impartiality and a middle way, the whole Gautama Obama thing—repels me. It is also bad community organizing. 

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. 

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