Netanyahu's Latest Affront to Obama


The most amazing headline of the day comes from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: "Israel told U.S. Iran must halt enrichment ahead of nuclear talks, sources say."

Let me set the background for this.

For years, at the cost of great effort and diplomatic capital, the U.S. has painstakingly assembled a regime of international sanctions against Iran. And--let's be honest--it has done so largely on Israel's behalf. Now, finally, we seem to have gotten some payoff for this effort: Iran is saying it will resume negotiations, thus opening the door, however slightly, to a peaceful resolution of the current standoff.

Israel's way of saying thank you--to America and to the international community--is: "Sorry, we've decided we don't want negotiations resumed after all." And make no mistake: this is the message in that headline. Demanding that Iran suspend uranium enrichment before the talks start would guarantee that the talks don't start at all. And Bibi Netanyahu knows that.

There are several possible interpretations. I'll start with the least charitable.

1) Netanyahu doesn't want a peaceful solution. He's decided that Israel's interests go beyond just keeping Iran forever nukeless and extend to starting a conflict with Iran (a conflict, as I've argued, that would begin with bombs but would probably lead to the invasion and occupation of Iran).

2) Netanyahu believes that a peaceful solution isn't possible. He thinks Iran is hell-bent on getting a bomb, and that these negotiations are just a stalling tactic.

3) Netanyahu doesn't define "solution" the way the US and the international community do. Israel has said Iran mustn't be allowed to have a nuclear "capability"--i.e., the wherewithal to put together a nuclear bomb should it choose to. The US and most others in the international community, in contrast, are willing to let Iran keep enriching uranium for demonstrably peaceful purposes--and that amounts to giving Iran a nuclear capability at least in the loose sense that Iran could produce a bomb in a matter of years, as is already the case. (The international community does want Iran to suspend enrichment pending an agreement about how to resume enrichment under tighter international monitoring--but the idea was that the suspension would be a result of the next round of talks, not a pre-requisite for them.) In other words: Maybe Netanyahu does favor a peaceful solution, but his definition of "peaceful solution" is something the international community doesn't think is possible, because it realizes that Iran's leaders can't be seen by their people as giving up the prerogative to enrich uranium. So he wants to sabotage the international community's pursuit of its conception of a peaceful solution.

It's also possible that the Haaretz headline is about negotiations not between the international community and Iran but between Netanyahu and Obama. Maybe, in preparation for next week's visit to Washington, Netanyahu just wants to expand his list of Obama "asks" on the assumption that the more things he asks for, the more pressure Obama will feel to say yes at least once. And Netanyahu would love to get Obama to say he now agrees that an Iranian nuclear "capability," not just a nuclear weapon, is unacceptable. (Though Obama's interview with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg suggests to me that he's not planning to budge on that one.)

The Haaretz story is attributed to a "senior foreign ministry official"--which means it was almost certainly an intentional leak on the part of the Netanyahu administration, timed to precede Netanyahu's Washington visit. This gives us additional reason to believe something that was already pretty clear: Netanyahu has no intention of being on good terms with Obama. He figures the best way to get what he wants out of America's President is to put public pressure on him. The guy is all sticks, no carrots. That's the way he's approaching Obama, and that's the way he wants us to approach Iran. I hope for the world's sake--and that includes Israel's sake--that he goes 0 for 2.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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