Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.
Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.
In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
When I met not long ago with David Cameron, the prime minister of Great Britain, I knew that he had repeatedly and publicly professed concern about the safety of his country’s Jewish citizens, but I did not know that he was thinking deeply about the nature of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism—in a similar manner to Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, who is Europe’s leader in combating anti-Zionism and Judeophobia. (You can read more about Valls and his opposition to anti-Zionism here.)
In my conversation with Cameron, parts of which appeared in my April cover story on the future of European Jewry, he made it clear, in much the same way that Valls made it clear, that the issue of anti-Semitism ought not to be the concern of Jews alone. He stressed that he is worried that the international movement to declare Israel an illegitimate state—with its contention that Israel’s existence as an independent, Jewish-majority safe haven is morally unsupportable and should therefore be brought to an end—shares characteristics with anti-Semitism. In light of what is happening in Europe—not only the kind of anti-Semitism that prompted me to write the cover story, but also the slow vanishing of the line that separates anti-Israel discourse from straight-up anti-Semitism—I thought it would be worthwhile to post longer excerpts of our conversation.
Jeffrey Goldberg: You’ve been speaking out about anti-Semitism fairly regularly. What is motivating you?
David Cameron: It is so important for European countries, post-Second World War, to prove that they can be successful multiethnic and multiracial democracies. I think we in Britain have had great success in avoiding the hatreds and prejudices of the past.
Goldberg: But you have this unease in large swaths of British Jewry, a feeling that something is going awry. It’s not as serious a feeling as it is in France or other countries on the continent, but it’s there. Is this fight not being won?
Cameron: The Jewish community in Britain makes an incredibly important contribution to our country. It is so well-integrated into every part of life. What is frightening at the moment, because of the rise of Islamist extremism, is that you see a new threat—a new anti-Semitism—and not the traditional anti-Semitism. Look, there’s always been some difficulties between religions in European history. But this is a new scale of threat against Jewish communities. I don’t think in Britain we have all the answers, but we’ve been quick off the mark in stopping the hate preachers coming in. We have to clear up the problems you find on campus, we’ve got to go after incitement and hatred and violence, we’ve got to do more work with the Jewish community to help them protect themselves. And we’ve been doing these things.
Goldberg: What do you think when you read stories in the papers about Jews saying they’re contemplating leaving?
Cameron: It’s not surprising that when you have these attacks taking places across Europe, you hear from some people in Jewish communities the question, "Is it safe here?" I don’t think they’re particularly saying that about Britain. In Britain we’re working as hard as we can to make people feel safe. But I can quite understand why Jewish people in Britain, or anywhere in Europe, ask these questions after what happened in the Holocaust. So I think in Britain we’re taking the right approach, tackling anti-Semitism, emphasizing the contributions of the Jewish community, and all the rest of it. It’s something that needs renewed attention.
Goldberg: Are there things that Israel could do that might ameliorate some of this tension?
Cameron: I start from the position that it is unfair and wrong to lay at the door of Jewish communities in Europe the policies pursued by the government of Israel that people might not agree with—it’s completely wrong.
Goldberg: Is there a bright line in your mind that separates anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism?
Cameron: As well as the new threat of extremist Islamism, there has been an insidious, creeping attempt to delegitimize the state of Israel, which spills over often into anti-Semitism. We have to be very clear about the fact that there is a dangerous line that people keep crossing over. This is a state, a democracy that is recognized by the United Nations, and I don’t think we should be tolerant of this effort at delegitimization. The people who are trying to make the line fuzzy are the delegitimizers. And I have a very clear view, which is that if you disagree with the policies of Israel, fine, say so, but that is never a reason to take that out on Jewish communities. We have to be very clear about threats—this is a dangerous line that people keep crossing over, that says that anti-Zionism is a legitimate form of political discourse.
Goldberg: When, in your mind, is criticism legitimate?
Cameron: It depends on how you define it. Is it a legitimate view for people to attack the government of Israel for building settlements or not immediately establishing a two-state solution? Of course people hold that view. I think the two-state solution is needed. I don’t support settlements, but this all has to be negotiated.
Goldberg: Is there sometimes an overreaction to legitimate criticism?
Cameron: People have every reason to be concerned because you’ve got several things happening at the same time. You’ve got the poisonous narrative of Islamist extremism, which is targeting Jews generally. You’ve got specific attacks in Europe. And you have the rise of anti-Semitism on campuses or in public life, including sadly in Britain in some cases. Plus, you’ve got the issue of delegitimization being pushed, the boycotts of the state of Israel by universities and the like, and soon you add all these things up and you can see why some in the Jewish community are very concerned.
Goldberg: Do you think you’ll ever face a situation in which large numbers of Jews look for the exit?
Cameron: I read your piece about Manuel Valls, in which he talked about the threat of a France without Jews, and I thought it was fascinating. The way he put it was very powerful, and it resonated with me. I would be heartbroken if I ever thought that people in the Jewish community thought that Britain was no longer a safe place for them. I think we are miles and miles away from that, but I understand the concerns they have and I think we’re addressing them.
Tom Cotton strikes me as the most interesting Senate freshman for any number of reasons, not least of which is his uncanny ability to draw attention to himself, most notably when he convinced 46 of his Republican colleagues to sign an open letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. In the letter, Cotton, the extremely junior senator from Arkansas—he's the youngest member of the Senate, at 37—and his co-signers warned Khamenei that Congress might use its power to overturn or, at the very least, modify whatever agreement the Iranian regime eventually chooses to sign with President Obama and his great-power allies.
The letter made Cotton a hero among those who believe, as he told me in an interview last week, that Obama's deal is not a deal at all, but instead simply a "list of concessions." To his critics, Cotton's decision to argue publicly to a longstanding American adversary that the U.S. president's word is not binding was semi-mutinous or, at a minimum, despicable.
I went to speak to Cotton not only because his letter interested me, but because he is quite obviously positioned to lead the most hawkish wing of the Republican Party. He is exceedingly bright, and blessed with a wonk's mind—I will readily admit that his knowledge of Middle East minutiae is impressive, even if I disagree with much of his analysis. And he is a superior standard-bearer for the confront-Iran-before-it's-too-late faction in the Senate because, as an Iraq combat veteran, he cannot be labeled a chickenhawk.
Confrontation is what it seems he's after. Though he pays lip service to the notion that the alternative to this deal is not war but a stronger deal, he clearly appears to believe that an American- or Israeli-initiated military confrontation soon—one that would not resemble the Iraq War, he thinks, but instead would be a strike of short duration and limited regional fallout—could prevent a nuclear confrontation sometime in the years to come. "If we agreed to the kind of proposal the Obama administration has made, then military confrontation may be further off, but it might also be nuclear," he argues.
In our conversation (a lightly edited version of which appears below), we spent a great amount of time talking about the details of the provisional deal and their meaning. But we also talked about America's role in the world and President Obama's understanding of America's role in the world, and we autopsied the Iraq War as well. Cotton did not take away from the Iraq War a lesson I learned, and that many Republicans also learned, which is that America is not expert at fighting long wars on complicated Middle East battlefields.
Jeffrey Goldberg: You’ve argued that an attack on a group of Iranian nuclear sites would not lead to all-out war. It seems to me that an American attack on Iran’s nuclear sites would lead to an indirect response—or a somewhat direct response—by Iran against America’s Gulf allies, or against American facilities in the Gulf, and that an even more certain response would come from Hezbollah in the form of a sustained rocket salvo against Israel. That doesn't seem credible to you?
Senator Tom Cotton: Well, Operation Desert Fox [against Iraqi facilities] in 1998 lasted a number of days. [Former Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister] Ehud Barak just said that he thought it would just take one night.
Goldberg: But I'm talking about the second-order consequences.
Cotton: I've consulted with various senior members of the Israeli government over the years, and they're aware of the possibility that Iran might use Hezbollah, in particular, to retaliate in an asymmetric way for any military strikes, either American or Israeli, and the assessment I've heard from them is that while that is a risk, it is a risk they can manage. This is different from what you might have seen nine years ago during the Hezbollah war in 2006, or even five years ago, when the talk of an Israeli strike was at its peak, in large part because of Iron Dome [an anti-missile system], and also because of the strain that sanctions have put on Iran—its ability to fund these kinds of operations and continue to replenish Hezbollah and their weapon stocks.
Goldberg: OK, that's the Israeli side. What about the response in the Gulf, whether against Gulf allies or against American facilities in Bahrain or Central Command itself in Qatar? These things don't worry you?
Cotton: I think the president is his own worst witness against this proposed course of action. He said in, I would say, almost mocking terms, in reference to the Iranian military over the weekend, that they know they can't challenge us—we spend $600 billion a year on our military, they spend $30 billion a year on theirs. This is correct. Not only do we have the ability to substantially degrade their nuclear facilities, but we have the capability, along with our Gulf allies, who have increased their military spending by over 50 percent, to largely protect them from any kind of retaliatory air or naval strikes.
Goldberg: Go to the deal. There's nothing in it that's fixable to your mind?
Cotton: Well, there's no deal within the framework, in my opinion. There's a long list of concessions that Iran's leaders continue to dispute they actually made. This framework, as you've written, is only a success within the specific reality they've created. And they created a very narrow and risky reality in which they were focused on getting any kind of deal they could. Now we're to the point where it is considered unrealistic to expect the United States to demand that Iran not engage in terrorism while we’re granting them nuclear concessions. I thought that [Israeli Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs] Yuval Steinitz had a good list of proposed changes to the president's proposal, and I don't think you can argue those changes are unrealistic, because all he did was take all the statements that President Obama and John Kerry and [chief U.S. negotiator] Wendy Sherman made at the very outset of these negotiations about stockpiles of enriched uranium, about the past military dimensions of this program, about inspections and so forth. The positions he lists are positions that our government previously held.
Goldberg: If you were president right now, would you not be engaged in this negotiation at all? Would you issue an ultimatum?
Cotton: Let's go back almost two years now, when I was one of 400 members of the House who voted for stronger sanctions against Iran. This is the summer of 2013. Those didn't pass in the Senate because the White House put immense pressure on Senate Democrats not to sponsor it, and Harry Reid didn't bring it to the floor. I certainly would have—if I had been advising the president at the time—gone ahead with those sanctions. I mean, he fought against CISADA sanctions [the Iran sanctions act], ultimately accepting them only when they passed 99-0. But I wouldn't have started down this course of granting concessions to Iran, giving them billions of dollars when in return all we're getting is their willingness to sit at the table. They should be pleading with us to come to the table. And at numerous times through the negotiations, we should have been willing to walk away from the table and put more pressure on Iran.
Goldberg: Did the criticism about your open letter to Ayatollah Khamenei resonate with you at all? The idea that you are telling a foreign adversary, ‘Don't trust in our president—the man who's making our foreign policy?’ Did that cause you to ask yourself, 'Maybe I am undermining the executive branch?'
Cotton: No, in part because the letter didn't say that. The letter simply stated indisputable facts of constitutional law, and Iran's leaders needed to hear that message, and they needed to hear it from us. What we did was certainly more measured than what past senators had done, in conciliating with people like Manuel Noriega, Bashar al-Assad, or Leonid Brezhnev. The difference is we openly stood up to a dictator, and in a lot of those past precedents, Senate Democrats privately conciliated and coddled dictators.
Goldberg: Why do you think your general outlook is so disparaged, even in parts of the Republican Party? I don't mean the Rand Paul wing, even. I mean, I hear from Republicans who are wary of going down a path that would lead to another Middle East war. Or let me put this another way: Do you believe that the country is tired of these sorts of wars and of this kind of engagement?
Cotton: I think that Americans—and this is not true just now, but over the years—are not fundamentally opposed to war. They're fundamentally opposed to losing wars. And that's one reason why President Bush lost support for the Iraq War in the period of 2004 to 2006.
Goldberg: Do we have to win wars quickly to make them popular?
Cotton: I don't think we have to win quickly necessarily, but we have to win. By the time the 2008 election arrived, we had finally won the Iraq War, or we were on the road to winning it. We won starting in the summer of 2007 going into late 2011. Had President Obama, for instance, accepted our commanders' recommendations to keep a small residual force in Iraq, I think the country would have supported that decision. Also, the predictions of so many at the time have now proven correct—that there was a chance that Iraq, absent American forces, would be destabilized, and ultimately now we may end up with more troops in Iraq at the end of this president's tenure than we would have if he had just accepted his commanders' recommendations in 2011 to keep a residual force in place.
In the same way, this president, knowing that Americans don't want to lose a war, and in our most recent experience in Iraq, the war looked to be won, he’s now trying to create what he always accuses his opponents of trying to create: a false choice—'this deal or war.' And he defines war in Iran as 150,000 heavy mechanized troops, not something like Operation Desert Fox.
Goldberg: Let me just come back to this one point. How do you know you're right? The experience of Iraq taught me that once the kinetic piece starts, you just don’t know for sure what’s going to happen. And I don't know that you can predict the response of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to a direct American assault on [the Iranian facilities of] Natanz, Fordow, and Parchin. Maybe they will be intimidated into silence, but maybe they'll lose their minds? Yes, it's a $30-billion defense budget, but they have asymmetric ways of making life miserable for the United States and its allies. So how are you so sure that the response of the Iranians to an attack that would destroy their nuclear infrastructure, at least temporarily, would be limited and/or manageable?
Cotton: Well you never know these things for sure, but I think history provides me precedents. I mean not just, for instance, [the Israeli attack on the Iraqi reactor at] Osirak or the [Syrian nuclear reactor], but also, for instance, in the tanker operations in '87 and '88, when we helped secure free transit in the Persian Gulf. Iran did ultimately pull in its horns to some degree because they realized that Ronald Reagan was serious when he made those promises, when we flagged those vessels. And we do have amazing capability gaps over a country like Iran, as Israel does. We also have the support of allies throughout the region that traditionally have not been as supportive as we might like for operations like these.
Goldberg: What is Obama seeking here, in your mind?
Cotton: Well, I think he clearly wants to have a kind of grand rapprochement with Iran. This goes back to his actions in his earliest days, when he was silent in the face of [Iran's] Green Revolution, and even some of his statements in the campaign.
Goldberg: What's wrong with wanting a grand rapprochement with Iran?
Cotton: I would love to see that happen. As Secretary Schultz and Secretary Kissinger wrote, they've been in government when Iran was an ally, not just of the United States but of Israel. The Iranian people, if you look at their demographics and their level of education, could be a strong source for stability in the Middle East. The problem is they're run by an apocalyptic cult of ayatollahs.
Goldberg: How do you know they're apocalyptic?
Cotton: Their own words.
Goldberg: They seem to respond to incentives unlike, say, North Korea. Obviously, in 2003, when they thought that George W. Bush was pivoting their direction, they ceased doing work on their nuclear program, correct? They do seem to respond to reality.
Cotton: They react to threats that are severe enough. But it would be different if they had nuclear weapons. They refer to Israel as a "one-bomb state," which as you know means that Israel can be annihilated with one bomb. And they know as long as they don't have nuclear weapons that they are susceptible to the United States military, whether it was Reagan's actions in the tanker war or a fear of being next in 2003, as Muammar Qaddafi was at the time. But I think you can't count on that kind of attitude if they were to get nuclear weapons. I also think that Iran is more skillful at playing off of Western delusions than is the Kim regime [in North Korea].
Goldberg: Come back to the grand rapprochement that you talked about. One school of thought holds that President Obama wants to simply create equilibrium in the Middle East that would allow us to actually get out of the Middle East.
Cotton: I think there's something to that, if he wants to try and create a balance of power between Sunni and Shiites and simply exit the Middle East, or at least continue an ill-advised pivot to East Asia. I say ill-advised not because East Asia is not an important part of the world, but because the global superpower can't pivot. You have to be focused everywhere. So I think there's some of that. I mean, I think he believes fundamentally that American strength and leadership in the world has been as much a source of instability and disorder as it has been stability and order.
Goldberg: What are you implying? That he believes that America can be a force for bad as well as good in the world?
Cotton: Yes, that, if America was less of a leader in the world, then the world would probably be a better and more stable place. Unlike President Obama, I would say that I support the long-standing bipartisan post-War belief that American global strength and leadership secures our national-security interests and it also promotes order and stability in the world. And it gives us immense influence in the world, and deters our adversaries and reassures our allies.
Goldberg: Why do you think the Middle East is the way it is today?
Cotton: What do you mean by ‘the way it is?’
Goldberg: State disintegration, Sunni-Shiite proxy wars, chaotic, brutal, shocking violence, no particular hope for democratic development at the moment, and so on. There are two branches to the question. The first is: Is this beyond our control? Are the problems so big that there's nothing we can do about it? And the related question is: Are we equipped with knowledge, willpower, staying power to actually go in and try to create order out of the chaos?
Cotton: I think we can exercise a greater degree of control than we have, although that's not to say that it's simply within our control, of course. It's a large and complicated region with many different influencers and players, but because of American retreat I think we have contributed to the instability there. Take the Islamic State, for instance. If we had maintained a small, residual force in Iraq, I don't think the Islamic State would have risen to power as it has.
Goldberg: Can I take you one step backward and ask this question: If we hadn't ripped the lid off Iraq—in other words, if we had left the Sunni strongman in place—would any of this be happening today?
Cotton: Iraq would have remained a security threat over the last 12 years, because Iraq was a non-stop security threat from the moment Saddam Hussein took power in the 1970s. So it's hard to predict how that security threat would have manifested itself, but there’s no doubt that Iraq would have been an ongoing source of security threats to the United States and our allies and instability in the region. I was in Iraq in the worst period, 2006, but from 2006 to 2008, and especially through 2011, the American military and the government of Iraq made huge strides in making that country a source of stability with a relatively representative government that was seeking pluralistic engagement from all the factions within the government. I'm not saying it was a panacea, but it was much better than it ever had been and than many people thought it could be.
Goldberg: Stay back in 2006. When you were there, did it ever cross your mind, ‘We're in over our heads. What are we doing here? These people hate each other so much that there's nothing we can do to fix this.’ I mean, you were younger then, you didn't have as much exposure to different ideas—
Cotton: I've become more moderate with age.
Goldberg: Tell me what you thought.
Cotton: No, I never thought we were in over our head. I never thought it was hopeless. But I did know that we were losing. I had no doubt about that. I felt it. And I would say almost everyone on the front lines—by which I'd say battalion level or below, most of the people who were really out patrolling—knew it. You know, we didn't have enough troops, we didn't have the right strategy, and we weren't making any progress, which meant we were losing.
Goldberg: Do you think that the mistake—if you even accept the word mistake—of the invasion was getting involved at all, or was it bad planning that brought the U.S. to the near-abyss of 2006?
Cotton: I think it was an underemphasis on security in the early days, in 2003 and 2004. Security is sine qua non. I'd say there was too much focus on second-order steps necessary in that kind of environment, like building governmental structures and promoting economic development, none of which can occur without basic security. We simply didn't have the troops-to-task ratio needed to sustain our presence.
Goldberg: I don't meet that many people these days who think that the problems in Iraq were due to planning issues, study issues, rather than an underlying, faulty premise. And obviously this brings us to the way we think of Iran. We believe we have a limited set of options in Iran because many people in Washington and other places have ruled out the idea of engaging in a kinetic, preemptive strike because of their experience of watching Iraq spin out of control after America intervened in a difficult problem. That's why I find it so interesting that you believe there are answers to these questions.
Cotton: Well I mean, I think the answers were largely found and executed effectively from 2007 to 2011. Again, it's something that many thinkers in the military—not necessarily the highest level—thought in the 2003-2006 timeframe. The ones on the front lines understood. We could hear it from Iraqis. You can imagine what it would be like in an American city if you had a foreign army that was supposed to be providing security that didn't speak your language and came out for six-hour patrols and then went back to base three hours later, when you have someone who did speak your language there saying, 'When they leave, we're going to kill you.' Who are they going to side with? It's the same problem that we have with organized crime in urban areas. So, we saw that, and we saw what was going on and we saw what could go right, and I think that's what happened after the [Iraq troop] surge occurred. You know, it’s important in war that you defeat your enemy and to have your enemy know that he’s been defeated. The heart of the Sunni resistance, which became the heart of al-Qaeda in Iraq, didn't see that.
Goldberg: Do you believe there's any condition in which Barack Obama would use force against Iran?
Cotton: I hope there are conditions under which the leaders of Iran and most Middle Eastern leaders think that the United States would take military action against Iran. But Iran does not believe that America has a credible threat of force against them right now. I think that's clear from their behavior. It's also something that senior Arab leaders have communicated directly to me—that very few people, if any, in the Middle East believe that there is a credible threat of force by the United States. I think Iran does fear that Israel may strike them. To the extent that there is daylight between the United States and Israel—to use the president's term from 2009—it makes the threat of Israeli military action less credible in the leaders of Iran's minds. So I do think that there may be some policy objective in trying to create this kind of daylight with the government of Israel, to further dissuade their leadership from taking action if they deem it necessary to their national survival.
Goldberg: What conditions do you believe would have to obtain before Barack Obama would use military force against Iran?
Cotton: Right now I'd say they'd have to be very severe. If that Iranian naval fleet mined or otherwise blocked traffic through the Mandeb Strait, I hope that we would take prompt action to reopen it and punish them appropriately. But that's about as severe as it gets in international relations.
Goldberg: Let’s go to the nuclear deal.
Cotton: The list of concessions.
Goldberg: Is that what you call it?
Cotton: It's not a deal.
Goldberg: Well, you wouldn’t agree that the Iranians made tremendous concessions?
Goldberg: How could a provisional decision to reduce their stockpile from 10,000 kilograms to 300 kilograms of highly enriched uranium not be understood by you as a concession?
Cotton: It's still unclear when or how they will do that—
Goldberg: I use the word provisional because we don't know anything about a final deal yet.
Cotton: It's unclear how and when they'll do that. It's unclear how that will relate to the number of centrifuges they'll be able to maintain. And I don't think of almost anything to which they've agreed as much of a concession when, by the terms of their own proposal, President Obama has conceded that Iran will build and develop a nuclear weapon 11 years from today.
Goldberg: I'm willing to see that both sides have domestic constituencies, and they're going to work things the way they work them. But let me get to the—
Cotton: No, I think it's different than just domestic constituencies. President Obama plainly said at the Saban Forum in December 2013 that Iran does not need an underground fortified bunker at Fordow. We have now conceded that they will have centrifuge cascades in that bunker.
Goldberg: Not spinning uranium though.
Cotton: It doesn't really matter what they spin as long as they're developing the technology and the skill sets to do it. I don't think President Obama or anyone on his negotiating team intends to walk back that concession. I don’t see any circumstance under which they will say, 'We insist on the closing of Fordow.' I do, however, see the supreme leader of Iran walking back on virtually everything they're presumed to have agreed to. They did it just last week on exporting their enriched uranium stockpiles to Russia, something that long ago had been conceded.
Goldberg: Let’s say it's June 30, and you’ve won. You and the Republicans and some of the Democrats have managed to kill this deal. What happens on July 1? Does Iran say, 'Screw you all. You can keep sanctions in place but we're going to continue to spin and we're going to move toward breakout.' And so you have a situation in which Iran might have a nuke in six months as opposed to 12 years? How is that a better situation?
Cotton: If they accept the terms of the deal they could be in the same position regardless in one year. They could just cheat on the deal anyway. There is a long and ignominious history of rogue regimes like Iran accepting these deals and immediately starting to cheat, as happened in North Korea, as happened in Iraq. The idea that a one-year breakout time—even if you thought that was technically correct—the idea that all of a sudden you're going to have inspectors catch this in a country the size of Iran, who immediately are able to report back, and then you’re going to develop a consensus in the civilized world, at the [International Atomic Energy Agency] or the UN Security Council, and then you're going to impose sanctions and those sanctions will not have any effect in a year—this is just fanciful, completely fanciful. So I don't think the proposal actually improves the situation that much, and it could ultimately pave the path for Iran to get a nuclear weapon, whether they follow the proposal or violate the proposal.
Goldberg: I don't get the sense that you're in total disagreement with Barack Obama on one point, which is that if there is no deal, the likelihood of a military confrontation as the solution becomes very, very high.
Cotton: Well I think we should try to get a better deal, and one way to try and get a better deal is to show the Iranians that we're serious about getting a better deal.
Goldberg: How would you do that? Let's say you're Wendy Sherman for a day. What do you do?
Cotton: Just take last week. It was reported that President Obama told his negotiators, 'Blow through the deadline, but make it clear that we're willing to walk away.' I don't think that's a result of Barack Obama being inexperienced or incompetent or a bad negotiator. I think it's a reflection of his ideological commitment to get a deal at any cost.
Goldberg: But go to this point: He says that if we don't have a deal, then you, the people who are against the deal, are actually saying that we need a military solution.
Cotton: We’re not saying that. [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu did not say that in his joint address [to Congress] and I'm not saying that. I'm saying that we have to be willing and we have to make the leadership of Iran realize that we are willing to take military action.
Goldberg: So you're not advocating for a 1998 Desert Fox-style operation?
Cotton: Iran's leaders need to know that we have both the capability and the willingness to take that kind of action. Unfortunately, when your commander-in-chief draws red lines and then he erases them, that sends a very dangerous signal to allies and adversaries alike.
Goldberg: Let me ask you this: The last nice thing that Benjamin Netanyahu ever said about Barack Obama he said to me, when he praised the deal that removed most of Syria’s chemical weapons. You could see the Iran deal as the same sort of thing: 'You give up this component of your WMD program, and then you, the regime, can remain in power.' From the Israeli perspective, that was not a bad thing—to get rid of the chemical-weapons depots right next door.
Cotton: So it's simply led [the Syrian regime] to more chemical attacks in different form, and it has strengthened Iran's hand and Russia's hand in the region. I mean, it's widely reported that President Obama in his private letter to Khamenei, not his open letter, basically granted Iran a legitimate sphere of interest in Syria, reassuring Iran that our campaign against the Islamic State, meek as it has proven to be, would not endanger Assad continuing in power.
Goldberg: What would you do in Syria right now?
Cotton: I would certainly be taking the fight to the Islamic State more aggressively—
Goldberg: What about to Assad?
Cotton: I'd say that the Islamic State is the more immediate threat, and Syria is their base of power—eastern and southern Syria—and right now, even in Iraq, the operations are too restrained. So I'd be taking the fight to the Islamic State much more aggressively. You know, Syria's a great example of how you need to try to nip these problems in the bud. They never get better with time. If you let these problems fester, then they continue to grow. That's the lesson time and time and time again. Obviously that's the lesson of the 1930s, but if you don't want to go to that example, then just look at what happened in the Balkans in the early 1990s.
Goldberg: Wait, is this the 1930s to you?
Cotton: It's unfair to Neville Chamberlain to compare him to Barack Obama, because Neville Chamberlain's general staff was telling him he couldn't confront Hitler and even fight to a draw—certainly not defeat the German military—until probably 1941 or 1942. He was operating from a position of weakness. With Iran, we negotiated privately in 2012-2013 from a position of strength, not a position of weakness. The secret negotiations in Oman. This ultimately led to the Joint Plan of Action of November 2013. So we were negotiating from a position of strength—not just inherent military strength of the United States compared to Iran, but also from our strategic position.
Goldberg: You obviously don't believe that this deal could have an ameliorating effect on Iran—that it could strengthen the hands of the moderates who want to rejoin the international community in some kind of way.
Cotton: I am skeptical that there are many moderates within the leadership—
Goldberg: You don't consider [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani a moderate?
Cotton: No, and I don't think the students he oppressed in 1999 would consider him a moderate. [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani, you know, a famous moderate, called for the nuclear annihilation of Israel. I don't consider that to be moderate either. I think it's kind of like the search for the vaunted moderates in the Kremlin throughout most of the Cold War, with the exception that we could always count on the Soviet leadership to be concerned about national survival in a way that I don't think we can count on a nuclear-armed Iranian leadership to be solely concerned about national survival.
I would also just say that there are actions over the last two years that have disproved the thesis that there might be these emerging moderates who are ready to take the reins of powers, that Iran can change its behavior as long as the ayatollahs are in power. I mean, just look at what they've done throughout the region. Why would we grant them these concessions? I mean, imagine, if they get a nuclear weapon, they'll have a nuclear umbrella and then that'll be tremendously destabilizing. I think it will probably lead to the detonation of a nuclear device somewhere in the world, if not outright nuclear war. But it could even just lead to greater conventional threats. What would Hezbollah do if their sponsor had a nuclear weapon?
Goldberg: Is it unfair of me to say that if we follow the course that you would have us follow, there is a high likelihood that the president will be facing, within the year, an Iran moving toward breakout, because—what’s the Janis Joplin line?—‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing to lose’? If they don't get their sanctions lifted or they don't get a deal, then they'll just go for breakout. So, is it unfair of me to say that your path would lead us to either total capitulation to a nuclear Iran or a military confrontation with Iran within the next six to 18 months?
Cotton: I think the more likely outcome is a total capitulation because of the proposal that we have made. I also think that military confrontation is possible, although it would be a conventional military confrontation. If we agreed to the kind of proposal the Obama administration has made, then military confrontation may be further off, but it might also be nuclear.
Goldberg: Wait—that’s interesting and clarifying—you actually see the possibility of nuclear military confrontation 10 years down the road if this deal goes through?
Cotton: Twenty years, 10 years, 12 years, who knows? The proposal puts Iran on the path to being a nuclear-arms state, and I think once Iran becomes a nuclear-arms state, this will lead inevitably to some kind of military confrontation. It may not be initially with the United States, but I think that's virtually inevitable.
Goldberg: And so your feeling is, deal with the problem now, before it gets worse?
Cotton: In security matters, this is almost always the case.
Goldberg: And if that means dealing with it militarily, then deal with it militarily?
Cotton: The world probably wishes that Great Britain had rebuilt its defenses and stopped Germany from reoccupying the Rhineland in 1936. Churchill said when Chamberlain came back from Munich, 'You had a choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will therefore be at war.' And when President Obama likes to say, 'It's this deal or war,' I would dispute that and say, 'It's this deal or a better deal through stronger sanctions and further confrontation with [Iran's] ambitions and aggression in the region.' And if it is military action, I would say it's more like Operation Desert Fox or the tanker war of the 1980s than it is World War II. In the end, I think if we choose to go down the path of this deal, it is likely that we could be facing nuclear war.
The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, spent part of his weekend appearing on American news shows, denouncing the framework nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers. "I'm not trying to kill any deal. I'm trying to kill a bad deal," Netanyahu told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press.
Netanyahu will most likely fail in his attempt to kill the deal, assuming Iran can bring itself to sign off on its still-undecided requirements (right now, the deal is much more "framework" than "agreement"). It is difficult for a small country, even one backed by Sheldon Adelson, to defeat a superpower. And it is very difficult to go up against a president who believes, as Barack Obama apparently does, that the Iran deal may be his signature foreign-policy achievement.
Unlike Amir Oren, who argues in Haaretz that Netanyahu's campaign against the Iranian nuclear program has been an "absolute failure," I believe Netanyahu's 10-plus-year campaign to highlight Iran's nuclear ambitions has usefully concentrated world attention—and President Obama's attention—on the need to counter its program. But Netanyahu's goal now is both unrealistic and destructive to Israel and its relationship with the United States. He has already done great damage to his country's relationship with the Democratic Party by playing so obvious a partisan game.
If Netanyahu would only move away from his maximalist goal of spiking the deal and think instead about shaping the deal in ways that could meet many of Israel's needs, he would have a much greater chance of success. However, in order to do this, he needs a domestic partner. He himself has close to zero credibility in the White House, which sees him as a political adversary on par with John Boehner. The officials around him—among others, his ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer; his current defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon; the man who may be the next defense minister, Naftali Bennett—have no credibility with the Obama administration either.
Someone who has credibility, however, is Isaac Herzog, whose Zionist Camp party received the second-highest number of votes in the recent Israeli election. As Aluf Benn argues in a very smart column, Israel is facing such acute challenges on the Iran front—and on the American front—that it cannot afford to send officials to Washington who will be ignored. Herzog would not be ignored, which is why a national-unity government makes sense. Here's Benn:
The guiding principle in [Netanyahu's] efforts to form a government should be the national interest, not power struggles on the right. Timing is critical. The framework deal has changed the balance of power in the region, challenging U.S.-Israel relations. A unity government is the correct way of contending with these changes. A right-wing government will only enhance Israel’s isolation and weaken it vis a vis Iran and no fiery speech by Netanyahu can prevent this from happening. That can only be achieved by a government that projects political moderation.
Herzog and Netanyahu are not as divided on the Iran issue as one might think; Herzog holds down the right flank in his home party, Labor, and Netanyahu—believe it or not—holds down the left in the Likud (a Likud leftist being defined today as someone who still comprehends basic geopolitical reality, particularly as it relates to America's indispensable role in Israel's security). Herzog would do a better job than any official in a narrow-right coalition of making Israel's case for a tougher, more foolproof final Iran deal. And Israel has legitimate worries. Again, Benn:
Israel has several important demands to make of the U.S. administration. Firstly and above all, Israel’s nuclear capabilities and deterrence must be maintained, and a guarantee that any regional or international initiatives to impose a nuclear agreement on Israel that would restrain its power would be foiled. Iran will probably demand that the reactor in Dimona also be placed under strict limitations and supervision in the arrangements that are hammered out, just as will be the case for the facilities in Natanz, Fordow and Arak. The United States must protect Israel from such a demand.
The second demand must be to strengthen the conventional capabilities of the Israel Defense Forces, including funding the setting up of the David’s Sling (Magic Wand) missile system, which was successfully tested last week. The system is designed to afford protection from Hezbollah missiles. Further financing is required for Iron Dome batteries, for protection against short-range missiles and for the Arrow 3 system, designed to protect against Iranian surface-to-surface missiles. Also required are a strengthening of intelligence-gathering capabilities and more long-range unmanned aerial vehicles, and possibly a squadron of F-35 fighters, so beloved of Israel’s Air Force commanders.
It seems fairly obvious that if Netanyahu indeed believes that Iran poses a unique threat to Israel's survival, then he would seek to have the most effective advocate for Israel making the country's case in the place it matters most: the White House.
Three years ago, President Obama, in a discussion about the threat of a nuclear Iran, bluntly rejected a policy of containment. It would be dangerous, he suggested, to believe that the United States could contain Iran in the same way it contained a nuclear Soviet Union. In an interview with me, and then in a speech before AIPAC, he argued that a nuclear-armed Iran would represent an acute threat to Israel, as well as a “profound” national-security threat to the United States itself, in part because the existence of an Iranian bomb would likely trigger a nuclear-arms race in the world’s most volatile region.
To reassure Israelis, whose country is targeted for elimination by the Iranian regime, he said, in the interview: “I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff. I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.”
The preliminary nuclear deal announced on Thursday in Switzerland means that Obama may very well succeed in keeping his promise to Israel. Iran, it appears, will not gain possession of a nuclear weapon while he is president. If Iran adheres to the terms of the deal, as best as we understand those sketchy terms today, it will not have a nuclear weapon during the terms of the next one or two U.S. presidents. However, this deal, should it actually be ratified in June, formalizes Iran’s status as an eventual nuclear-threshold state by allowing it to maintain a vast nuclear infrastructure. This was not part of the international community’s original plan, and it is a cause for worry.
I’ve been reading many of the early analyses of this deal, and I agree with the commentators who argue that the United States and its partners in the "P5+1" group of world powers actually succeeded in extracting significant concessions from the Iranians. Opponents of the Iranian nuclear program should be pleased to see in the preliminary deal limitations on the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed to operate; they should be pleased to learn about the level and intensity of outside inspection of Iran’s nuclear facilities; they should also be provisionally pleased to learn, contra statements from the Iranian foreign minister, that many sanctions will be lifted only in response to specific Iranian actions.
But the truth remains that this provisional agreement can be considered a success mainly within a specific reality created by Obama and his European partners. This reality is one in which the goal was to moderate Iran’s behavior on a single issue, and not to remove the regime responsible for this behavior; this reality was one in which the Western powers preemptively agreed that Iran possessed an inherent “right” to enrich uranium on its soil, and possessed a right to maintain a nuclear infrastructure; this reality was one in which sanctions may not have been given sufficient time to work. I was struck, early in this process, by the first American concession to the Iranians. This came when Wendy Sherman, the chief American negotiator, labeled as “maximalist” U.N. Security Council demands that Iran cease enrichment activities. Once the U.S. signaled to the Iranians that they did not have to take the Security Council seriously, the die was cast.
All that said, within the specific reality Obama and his partners created around this issue, the deal appears to be better than expected in some important ways, though, of course, the details of many of the deal’s provisions have yet to be settled. I’ll review some of those specific details in a future post.
The best argument Obama can make for this deal is the argument he’s consistently made—that a deal is better than the alternatives. There is much apocalyptic talk emanating from Israel at the moment, and I understand it. The imbalance in the Iran-Israel relationship is not often understood, especially by cheerleaders for a deal. Iran seeks the physical annihilation of Israel. Israel seeks cordial relations with Iran. Of course Israel is worried that an anti-Semitic regime will be allowed to maintain a nuclear infrastructure.
But I hope Israelis listen to people such as the columnist Nahum Barnea, who wrote, following the announcement of the deal, “Obama presented the agreement as the lesser of two evils. The other options—striking at Iran’s nuclear facilities and thus starting a war, or continuing with sanctions and allowing Iran to get the bomb—would have led to a far more dangerous reality.”
War would not end the Iranian nuclear challenge. Israeli strikes, and certainly U.S. strikes, could destroy much of the physical infrastructure of the Iranian nuclear program, but cruise missiles cannot destroy knowledge, and I doubt they could destroy the will of the regime. Iran would rebuild those facilities, and would do so free from the burden of international sanctions, which would most likely crumble after such a preventative attack. Sanctions, too, were not bringing Iran to total capitulation. I do think that sanctions concentrated the attention of the regime, and that additional sanctions might have helped improve America's negotiating position. But the Iranian regime was not going to capitulate in the face of a collapsing economy. It would have adapted.
The biggest test facing the Obama administration now—apart from actually getting the deal, in all its complicated detail, done by the end of June—is in confronting the challenge a resurgent Iran is posing across the Middle East. Two things about President Obama are true: He and his team approached these negotiations assuming that Iran would lie, cheat, and steal, but he also holds out hope that a deal—and the economic benefits that flow from such a deal—will strengthen the hands of Iranian moderates. I tend to doubt this last part. I don’t believe that a bullying, terror-supporting, Assad-backing would-be regional hegemon whose ideology is built on anti-Americanism becomes more reasonable once it becomes richer and more empowered.
Which means that Obama will now have to do the thing he has been reluctant to do so far: confront Iran in Syria and Yemen and Lebanon in a sustained and creative way. He’s been reaching out to Israel and to America’s Arab friends in order to formulate such a strategy—a strategy U.S. allies in the Middle East have been begging him to devise—and I believe he realizes that he has a freer hand to confront Iran’s regional ambitions now that he’s secured a preliminary nuclear agreement. I hope he uses his power to check these ambitions, and I hope he spends the next three months making sure that the final deal is as stringent as possible. There is no way for an American president to guarantee that, years after he leaves office, Iran will not gain control of nuclear weapons. But there are still things this American president can do to check Iran’s power in long-lasting ways.
I've spent the past couple of weeks writing about the consequences of Israel's complicated politics (I don't know if you've heard, but they recently had an election), but I've also been working at the American Academy in Berlin, mainly on my next book about the Middle East. The book will address, among other topics, the happy-go-lucky relationship between the Israeli prime minister and the American president (working title: Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?). But I hope to turn soon (meaning, now, more or less) to the discussion surrounding my cover story for the April edition of The Atlantic, about the future—or non-future—of Europe's Jews.
There has been a great deal of reaction to the piece. Some of it has been critical, mainly though not exclusively on the far left and the far right (as we know, there are a couple of subjects about which extremists of the left and right generally find themselves in agreement), and I'll address those critiques later on, but for now I wanted to try to answer a particular question sent to me by a reader in Belgium. I've received numerous variations of this question from a number of people—including from friends—over the past couple of weeks.
I will extend this general conversation out over the next month, but I thought I would turn to the question, and then turn over this discussion to Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, who serves as the Paris representative of the American Jewish Committee, and who is one of the most eloquent and influential advocates for European Jewry on the continent.
But first, from a Jewish person in Belgium who asked to remain anonymous: "I read your article, and the experience of the Jews of Belgium is similar, or maybe worse, than the experience in France, because our government is quiet on the subject and there are not so many of us here. However, I don't want to leave. This is my country. You probably feel that way about your country. If you were a Belgian Jew, what do you think you would do?"
The answer is very difficult, of course. As I wrote in the article, I do not sense a great future for Jews across much of Europe. The trends are not moving in positive directions, even putting aside the most obvious negative trend of all: In 1939 there were nine million Jews in Europe, and today there are roughly 1.4 million. But my answer is this: If I were a completely assimilated Jew, one who, say, has married out of the faith; one who is not raising my children Jewish; and one who does not associate with Jewish people in specifically Jewish places, then I think I would be fairly safe in Belgium. It is possible to be secure in a place like Belgium by avoiding Jewish institutions (synagogues, schools, and so on) and, of course, by not participating in any obviously Jewish activity, or dressing in an obviously Jewish manner. So it comes down to a person's relationship with Judaism. Obviously, the Nazis are not coming, and so it is not unduly dangerous to have Jewish ancestry. The article I wrote, however, was about normative Jewish life. For those people who want to be actively Jewish, a place like Belgium could, in fact, be dicey. I suppose that if I lived in Belgium, and could afford to be mobile, I would be getting mobile. But these are terribly hard questions. If I had parents, or siblings, who were tied to Belgium, I probably wouldn't be so quick to look for an exit.
I put some some of these sorts of hard questions to Rodan-Benzaquen, who thinks about these problems continually. I think her answers to my emailed questions are illuminating, and I'll be posting similar conversations in the coming weeks.
Jeffrey Goldberg: You are a European—Romanian-born, German-raised, now bringing up your own family in France—working for an American Jewish organization. What don't American Jews, and others, understand about the current situation facing Europe's Jews?
Simone Rodan-Benzaquen: Most American Jews probably do not understand how difficult everyday life is for some European Jews; that bringing your kids to Jewish school, that going to synagogue, or putting on a kippa in certain areas in public, or going to a kosher supermarket, can be everyday acts of courage.
For the more informed and alert American Jews who know that there is a serious problem of anti-Semitism in Europe, I think there is a misconception on the other end of the spectrum. Some of those American Jews believe history is repeating itself and that we are now in a period that resembles the 1930s. But there is a profound difference [between] the 30s and today, in that the governments of Europe are today not only not anti-Semitic, but that most of them have made it a priority to fight anti-Semitism.
Goldberg: The governments are with the Jews, but are the people?
Rodan-Benzaquen: Yes, the governments are thankfully very outspoken in the fight against anti-Semitism. The people? This is, unfortunately, different. There has been a lack of civil-society mobilization against anti-Semitism. We have not seen massive demonstrations on the streets after the murders of Ilan Halimi in 2006 or after Toulouse in 2012, and one wonders what would have happened if there had only been the attack against the kosher supermarket, and not Charlie Hebdo right before it. Would we have seen 4 million people on the streets demonstrating?
Maybe the attacks this January have served as a wakeup call to France's civil society. Maybe people will understand that Jews have been the canary in the coal mine, that it might start with the Jews, but that it never ends there. Today it will be the Jews, tomorrow journalists and policemen, and then someone else? Maybe people will understand that Prime Minister (Manuel) Valls is right when he says that when Jews are attacked, France is attacked.
Goldberg: You mention Prime Minister Valls. Obviously he is committed to the security needs of the Jewish community. But do you feel comfortable that the political class will continue to be worried about the Jews?
Rodan-Benzaquen: There are probably very few political leaders who are as determined as Prime Minister Valls in combating anti-Semitism. He is pretty unique in this sense.
That being said, there seem to be more and more politicians from both major parties in France who understand what is at stake. A parliamentary group on anti-Semitism has recently been created with more than 80 members from all parties, except the extreme parties, and several of them are quite strong.
Goldberg: No extremes? What happens if the extremes eventually come to power? We see that Marine LePen, for instance, is already the most popular politician currently in France, according to the polls.
Rodan-Benzaquen: The National Front feeds off fear of Europe, fear of globalization, as well as a fear of radical Islamism. In this context I am obviously concerned that the National Front is gaining ground and [about] what will happen if they win the next presidential elections. I just can’t exclude this possibility. But it will be up to the democratic parties (on the right and the left) to reclaim a voice in the fight against Islamist extremism [and] anti-Semitism and reaffirm the values of the French Republic. In the recent departmental elections the polls were proven wrong; the National Front, while certainly gaining ground, turned out to be only the third-largest party after the conservative and socialist [parties]. While we would be foolish to celebrate this as a victory, maybe it can teach us a lesson—that the traditional parties should not shy away from addressing some of the more difficult issues. If they do, the extremes win.
Goldberg: What do you say to American Jews, and other diaspora Jews, who say that Europe is a lost cause—that Jewish charitable money should be directed to Israel, or to other Jewish communities? Sometimes, I myself feel that propping up small and shrinking Jewish communities, while admirable, is not the best use of limited communal resources.
Rodan-Benzaquen: I would say that we are probably going through a defining moment in history, for Jews, for our values, for liberal democracies. Much of this is playing out in Europe.
If Jews were to leave Europe, it would be bad for Jews all over the world, because I believe in the need for a strong diaspora. It is a vital, creative and necessary force for Judaism, and also essential for Israel. It would also be a bad sign for Europe, as it would be a sign that its values are crumbling, that Europe is losing the battle against extremism. What happens if we "lose" Europe? Wouldn't this profoundly change the world equilibrium?
Many European Jews believe this is a battle worth fighting, for ourselves, for Europe, for democracy, for our values. And I think they are right. This is exactly where the money should be put, not only by Jews, but by non-Jews. Giving up on the destiny of European Jewry means issuing a death sentence on the fight against extremism, on the idea of liberal democracy.
Goldberg: All of that is fine, but you know as well as I do that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Jews, in the suburbs of Paris, in Marseilles and Toulouse and Lyon—and in Brussels and Copenhagen and Malmo, by the way—are frightened for their physical safety, and for the safety of their children. How can you argue to them that they should stay where they are for the sake of a principle, when they are worried about the safety of their children?
Rodan-Benzaquen: First of all, I want to be very clear: I would never tell anyone that they should stay or leave. It is a very personal choice that I would never judge. As you say, there are thousands of Jews in Europe who are frightened and it is understandable that they choose to leave.
But my mission is to assist those who choose to stay and make sure that they continue to have a future here. AJC's mission is to get the government, civil society, the media, and policymakers to understand that we are going through a crucial moment in history, where the destiny not only of the Jewish people will be decided upon, but that of Europe and liberal democracies worldwide. And while we still have leaders such as Manuel Valls, Angela Merkel, and David Cameron, who seem to understand this and make it their priority to transform this into policy, maybe there is still place for hope.
I’m in Berlin, not Lausanne, and I haven’t spoken to anyone associated with the Iran nuclear negotiations in more than a week. Though there is a lot of good journalism being produced out of the talks, it is still difficult to discern what is actually happening at this moment. Those predisposed to believe that these negotiations will bring about a non-violent solution to the Iranian challenge, and also quite possibly encourage the Iranians to be more moderate in their approach to their neighbors, seem somewhat optimistic that the West will make the necessary compromises to win Iranian approval. Those who believe that the West is about to capitulate to Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader, and set him on a path to the nuclear threshold seem to be praying that Iranian shortsightedness, or dumb luck on the part of the West, subvert these talks.
The more extreme positions on both sides are distasteful. The Pollyannas who not only seem to believe that Iran should be allowed to maintain an advanced nuclear infrastructure if it promises to behave nicely, but who also believe that this nuclear accord will somehow serve to convince the Iranians to moderate their approach to their neighbors and, for instance, stop sponsoring terrorism and murdering large numbers of people in Syria (among other places), are dangerous and naïve. On the other side, those who argue that no negotiated settlement will ever be good enough to keep Iran from the nuclear threshold—that only military action would guarantee an end to the Iranian nuclear program—believe that it is wise to start an actual war now in order to prevent a theoretical one later. If you believe that we are living in 1938, and that Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are playing the role of Czechoslovakia, then I suppose this position makes sense. I don’t think we are there, however.
I’ve been making lists of questions I have about the parameters of a framework deal, and a list of experts whose judgment I would trust to evaluate the technical aspects of a deal.
Here are a few questions that have, helped by various news stories about the talks, repeatedly crossed my mind in recent days. I would prefer to see a nuclear deal struck, of course, but unsatisfactory answers to these issues would be cause for real worry:
1) What will Saudi Arabia do in response to a deal? If the Saudis—who are already battling the Iranians on several fronts—actually head down the path toward nuclearization, then these negotiations will not have served the underlying purpose President Obama ascribed to them. The president has warned, in interviews with me and others, that a nuclear Iran would trigger a nuclear arms race across the Middle East, the world’s most volatile region. One goal of these talks is to assure the rest of the Middle East that Iran cannot achieve nuclear status. If Saudi Arabia (and Egypt and Turkey and the U.A.E.) does not believe that a deal will achieve this, then it will move on its own to counter the Persian nuclear threat.
2) If the underground enrichment facility at Fordow—which had been hidden from Western view for several years, and which the U.S. and Europe have repeatedly said needs to be closed—is allowed to run centrifuges, even to spin germanium and other elements that cannot be used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons, then doubt could legitimately be sown about the strength of this deal. Already-spinning centrifuges in a maintained, guarded, and fortified bunker can be retrofitted to handle uranium, should the Iranians choose to break their agreement. It would be better to see Fordow filled with cement, or otherwise crippled.
3) The Iranians have never answered most of the questions put to them by the International Atomic Energy Agency about the possible military dimensions—the so-called PMDs—of their nuclear program. These questions must be answered before sanctions are even partially lifted. Otherwise, the West will never get answers.
4) The proposed speed of sanctions relief is, of course, something to watch carefully. The Iranians want immediate sanctions relief, but the West should only agree to a stately pace of sanctions-removal, predicated on 100-percent Iranian compliance on intrusive inspections, among other issues.
5) The largest question in my mind concerns the matter of break-out time—how long it would take for Iran, once it made a decision to violate the terms of a deal and go for full nuclearization, to actually make a deliverable weapon. The goal of the Obama administration is to make sure that it would take Iran at least a year to cross the threshold. The assumption is that a year would give the West time to devise a response—including, if necessary, a military response. This will be among the issues of greatest controversy because this is an easily misunderstood and distorted matter, one that is both devilishly complicated and, in many ways, theoretical. On this issue, as on others, I will be listening to experts I respect. There are several, but three of the people I will be listening to carefully on this issue in particular are Gary Samore, formerly President Obama’s point man on the Iran nuclear file; David Albright, of the Institute for Science and International Security, and Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director general of the IAEA. If these three, and a handful of others, seem nervous about the details of a framework deal, should one be reached, then I'm going to be nervous as well.
Last year, I interviewed President Obama about, among other things, the nature of the U.S. commitment to Israel. He talked about strong security ties between the two countries, and the unbreakable nature of their relationship. But he also suggested that, should the peace process break down in dramatic fashion, America's ability to manage the international ramifications for Israel—in the United Nations Security Council, and elsewhere—would be limited. "[I]f Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited," he said.
At which point, I asked, "Willingness, or ability?"
He responded, "Not necessarily willingness, but ability to manage international fallout is going to be limited. And that has consequences."
Well, we seem to be moving into a different phase, one that Obama did not see coming—or would not acknowledge that he saw coming. The question on the table now is not about the U.S. ability to protect Israel internationally, but its willingness. On Monday, Netanyahu, in a desperate, and ultimately successful, attempt to shore up his base on election eve, renounced the two-state solution. After his victory on Tuesday, he un-renounced his renunciation, but it is obvious that the White House is not buying the walk-back.
"Words do matter, and that I think every world leader or everybody who is in a position to speak on behalf of their government understands that that’s the case, particularly when we’re talking about a matter as serious as this one,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
The consequences of this are profound. Jennifer Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said, "We are currently reevaluating our approach but it doesn’t mean that we’ve made a decision regarding changing our position at the UN." Though she said that the U.S. will continue to block resolutions that are "unfair or biased"—which is to say, nearly all resolutions in the Israel-scapegoating UN—it's clear that President Obama is not particularly interested in spending political capital on behalf of Netanyahu in order to block a resolution recognizing Palestinian statehood.
It is up to Netanyahu, in the coming weeks, to show he is actually committed to preserving the possibility of a two-state solution. I would like it, of course, if the White House would cease to dump on Israel for a day or two—it would be nice if it would exhibit the same restraint it shows when talking about the actions of the Iranian regime, for instance—but, nevertheless, this is a problem largely created by Netanyahu's deep cynicism, and cast-iron obstinacy.
If the Security Council recognizes Palestine as an independent state, Netanyahu will have no time at all to get his house in order before Israel becomes a true pariah. I've been arguing for years that Netanyahu has had two choices: Arrange for the birth of a Palestinian state in an orderly, secure way, over a period of several years, or do nothing over a period of several years, and then face a sudden crisis in which Israel loses its ability to manage the situation.
Here's something else Obama said in that interview last year: "I have not yet heard ... a persuasive vision of how Israel survives as a democracy and a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors in the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution. Nobody has presented me a credible scenario."
He went on, "The only thing that I’ve heard is, 'We’ll just keep on doing what we’re doing, and deal with problems as they arise. And we'll build settlements where we can. And where there are problems in the West Bank, we will deal with them forcefully. We’ll cooperate or co-opt the Palestinian Authority.' And yet, at no point do you ever see an actual resolution to the problem. ... And my assessment, which is shared by a number of Israeli observers, I think, is there comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices."
Over the past couple of days I've had several conversations with American Jewish leaders—those who are located in the broad middle, between the J Street/Sheldon Adelson ends of the spectrum—and they are uniformly, and deeply, anxious. The message was the same: Netanyahu's next, even-more-right-wing-than-usual government, they fear, will only take steps to further Israel's isolation, from America and from the world, and the Obama administration, which feels such deep, emotional anger toward Israel, will only make the situation worse, by misunderstanding, and downplaying, Israel's anxieties. (Sad but true: Some Israelis voted for Netanyahu because they're frightened of Obama.)
Practical suggestions were in short supply, though a number of people suggested—and I endorse, for what it's worth—that the Obama administration deputize Tom Donilon, the former national security adviser, and that the Netanyahu government deputize Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States (and probable future member of the Netanyahu ruling coalition) to together hash out a provisional modus vivendi. Donilon understands Israelis better than most anyone in Obama's circle, and Oren understands American politics, and the Democratic Party, better than most anyone in Netanyahu's orbit. Such a dialogue won't solve everything, but at least it would lower the too-high temperature.
UPDATE: A couple of people have pointed out to me that it is highly unlikely that either Oren, or especially Donilon, will be deputized to therapize the relationship. Yep, true. But they'd be good at it nonetheless.
The chairman of Israel's Central Election Committee, Salim Joubran, a judge on the country's Supreme Court, is an Arab Israeli. In other words, the man who just supervised the Jewish state's latest election (and who also, by the way, sent a former Israeli president to jail), is not Jewish. This, of course, is a good thing. Arab Israelis (or Palestinian-Israelis, as many prefer to be called), suffer from various forms of discrimination as a minority group, but they have the franchise (17 members, out of 120, of the next Knesset will be Arab), and they are playing increasingly important roles in the law, academia, science, and in medicine (it's become a bit of an inverted Jewish joke that so many Jewish Israelis go to Arab doctors).
Israel should be proud that, in a disintegrating and brutal Middle East, it has managed to maintain its democratic traditions (in Israel proper, not in the West Bank, of course) and that it treats minorities in ways that minorities in much of the rest of the Middle East can only dream of being treated.
The now-and-apparently-forever prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, ought to be proud of his country's record of enfranchisement. He should be happy that Arabs vote in large numbers, just as Jews vote in large numbers. But Netanyahu was not happy yesterday when he saw Arabs heading to the polls. He said, in a message distributed on social media and meant for his base, "Right-wing rule is in danger. Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations."
It is often said (by me, among others) that Netanyahu would do very well as a Republican candidate for governor or senator in America. In the past, I imagined him fitting in with the fiscally conservative, rhetorically responsible, socially tolerant, foreign-policy hawkish wing of the party. What I didn't fully understand was just how much of Lee Atwater he had in him. Atwater, you'll remember, was the South Carolina Republican operative who was one of the prime innovators of racial dog-whistling, an approach used by a good number of Republicans to instill fear in white voters.
Netanyahu, of course, wasn't dog-whistling here: He didn't refer, say, to "people in Israel's north who don't have Jewish interests at heart," or some other such variation (Paul Ryan's "urban" voter formulation from 2012 comes to mind). Instead, he screamed, 'The Arabs are coming!"
What is doubly cynical about this is that the Arab vote was not actually Netanyahu's main concern. Whether the Joint List—the combined Arab party— gained 14 seats in the Knesset, or 16, was not what was worrying Netanyahu. He won this election by consolidating support for his Likud party at the expense of other right-wing parties. Arab voters had nothing to do with that, except as props in his campaign of scaremongering.
As I wrote yesterday, the most consequential of Netanyahu's last-minute statements concerned his renunciation of support for the two-state solution. This about-face will cause long-lasting, and negative, political and diplomatic repercussions. But his decision to talk about Arab citizens of Israel in the manner in which he did could divide Israeli society in calamitous ways.
I suppose he could try to walk all of this back. I'm not sure, at this point, who would believe him.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is fond of recalling Vice President Joe Biden's suggestion that he nail himself to a very large cross.
It was 2011, and they were in Jerusalem, in Netanyahu's office. Biden was encouraging the prime minister to make a bold leap for peace, and not to waste time on half-measures. "My father always said, 'Don't crucify yourself on a small cross,'" Biden said. Netanyahu laughed. Only Joe Biden, he would tell people later, would travel to Jerusalem to encourage a Jewish prime minister to crucify himself. Netanyahu's ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, told me he thought that Biden posssessed a particularly acute understanding of the challenge Netanyahu was facing. He also told me that Netanyahu was up to the Biden challenge.
Netanyahu constantly let his American interlocutors know that he was committed to real compromise with the Palestinians, mainly because he understood the threat posed to Israel by its continued occupation of the West Bank. There was no point, he said, in making small, futile gestures. He had his skeptics in the Obama administration—first and foremost, Obama himself—but Netanyahu argued that he would be willing, under the right conditions, to risk his governing coalition and even his political career in order to make the brave leap.
It was Obama's rise that forced Netanyahu to confront the issue of Palestinian statehood in the first place. He had always doubted Palestinian intentions, and he was, in any case, ideologically committed to settling Judea and Samaria, the ancient Jewish names for the territory of the West Bank. In 2009, in a speech at Bar-Ilan University, Netanyahu, under pressure from Obama (with whom he then had a semi-functional relationship), announced his support for the creation of a Palestinian state: "In this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect," he said. "Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other."
Through the intervening years, Netanyahu maintained his rhetorical commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state, even as he continued to expand West Bank settlements, and even as he frustrated his American friends by dodging Biden's cross. He had a partner in avoidance, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who proved to be an irresolute partner in peace, to put it mildly. But it was on Netanyahu to break through the morass—he was the one who controlled the territory on which the Palestinian state would be created.
President Obama's main criticism of Netanyahu—at least until the latest Iran-centered crisis—was that he was not, in fact, willing to risk political capital for the sake of compromise. In an interview in 2013, Obama told me that his message for Netanyahu was simple: "If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who?” Obama went on to say that if Netanyahu “does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach," adding, "It’s hard to come up with one that’s plausible.”
Despite his doubts, Obama allowed his secretary of state, John Kerry, a sincere believer in the possibility of peace, to pursue negotiations. Kerry and his chief negotiator, Martin Indyk, threw themselves at the problem with enthusiasm. American negotiators became convinced, to varying degrees, that Netanyahu would soon make the bold move they were hoping for. Even Kerry's predecessor, Hillary Clinton, who watched her husband grow frustrated with Netanyahu during his first term as prime minister, in the 1990s, came to believe that he had changed. "I saw Netanyahu move from being against the two-state solution to announcing his support for it, to considering all kinds of [Ehud] Barak-like options, way far from what he is, and what he is comfortable with," Clinton told me last summer.
Yesterday, Netanyahu announced to the world that this analysis was incorrect. In a fight for his political life against an opponent he did not take seriously, Netanyahu attempted to shore up his right-wing base by renouncing the commitment he made at Bar-Ilan. "I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel," he said in an interview with a right-leaning Israeli website. "There is a real threat here that a left-wing government will join the international community and follow its orders." And earlier today, he played the role of demagogue, warning his right-wing base that the left was encouraging Arab Israelis to vote, in order to sink his government.
So much for his commitment to Israeli democracy, and so much for his commitment to a two-state solution.
It is possible to understand an Israeli leader's hesitancy about creating a Palestinian state at this exact moment—one in which the Arab state system seems to be in partial collapse; one in which Sunni extremism is on the march; and one in which Iran appears to be in an expansionist mode. But a leader who is interested in protecting Israel's status as a haven for the Jewish people (a haven whose necessity is being proven again, unfortunately) while maintaining it as a democracy, would at least create conditions on the West Bank that could allow a Palestinian state to one day emerge, and he would certainly not disavow his promise to work to bring such a state about, no matter how many votes were at stake.
I admire John Kerry greatly for trying as hard as he did to negotiate a two-state solution. He was criticized as naive, but he saw an opening, and he took it. It was worth the risk. But if Netanyahu somehow returns to office—and anything is possible in the free-for-all of an Israeli election—I can't imagine that Kerry, or his boss, would choose to devote any more time in turning Netanyahu toward compromise. And though I haven't asked him yet, I'm fairly certain Joe Biden also believes that Netanyahu will not be seeking out a cross on which to nail himself. Netanyahu, it seems, is about the perpetuation of one thing—Netanyahu.
There is no guarantee, of course, that Isaac Herzog, the Labor Party leader who might emerge as Israel's next prime minister, will take bold steps toward peace, or succeed in this pursuit. But, unlike Netanyahu, Herzog seems to understand that the status quo is not sustainable over the long term, and he understands that the prime minister's office is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
Of the many differences between Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and the man who may unseat him, Isaac "Buji" Herzog (I'll post separately on the ridiculousness of Israeli nicknames), none strikes me as more immediately consequential than the contrasting ways in which they view President Barack Obama.
Yes, Netanyahu and Herzog differ stylistically and dispositionally, and yes, their views on a range of economic, security, and social issues are miles apart, but it is their diverging approaches to management of the American file that is most dramatic.
About Netanyahu's approach, what else is there to say? The prime minister decided to turn the leader of the United States, the country that is Israel's chief benefactor, diplomatic protector, weapons supplier and strategic partner—into an adversary by, among other things, making common cause with Obama's domestic political adversaries. Netanyahu has legitimate criticisms of the Obama administration's handling of the Iranian nuclear issue, but he mismanaged the relationship so badly that the doors of the White House are practically closed to him. (And yes, it may be unpleasant to acknowledge, but it is true that responsibility for the maintenance of the relationship rests with the junior, dependent, partner, not with the superpower. Please see my recent conversation with Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., for more on this subject.)
We know, alas, what Netanyahu thinks of Obama—last year, people close to the prime minister told me that he had "written off" Obama, which is, of course, a geopolitical impossibility. But what does Herzog think about Obama—and specifically, about his handling of the Iran nuclear talks? Here is what he told me in December, when I interviewed him at the Brookings Institution's Saban Forum: "I trust the Obama administration to get a good deal."
Whether he actually does, I do not know. But I do know that he is clever enough to talk about the U.S.-Israel relationship with discretion and nuance. Herzog is more hawkish than his right-wing foes have painted him, and his principal adviser on defense affairs, Amos Yadlin, a former military intelligence chief who was one of the eight Israeli pilots who bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, is not soft on the issue. But what he is —and what Herzog is—is practical. Both men know that Israel loses in the Iran equation if it alienates the U.S. president, and both men believe that Obama's pursuit of a deal is not Chamberlain-like, but instead a regional necessity—so long as Iran is kept at least a year away from nuclear breakout.
Herzog does not downplay the Iran matter, but nor does he cast it in apocalyptic terms, as Netanyahu does. “I agree that a nuclear Iran is extremely dangerous, and I believe that it must be prevented,” Herzog toldThe Washington Post recently. "No Israeli leader will accept a nuclear Iran. All options for me are still on the table,” including the military option. But when asked if a nuclear Iran posed an "existential threat," he demurred: "It is a big threat. That’s enough."
On another pressing, possibly existential issue, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, Herzog argues that the status is quo is unsustainable, which puts him in line with Obama's own thinking on the subject: "This is not a situation where you wait and the problem goes away," the U.S. president said in an interview I conducted with him in 2013.
In my conversation with Herzog in December, he opened with an adamant declaration that his candidacy was a serious one. "There is ... this notion that Netanyahu, or the Likud, is unbeatable," he said. "I am here to tell you that I will form the next government and I will lead Israel to a different direction. And it's feasible if we build the proper coalitions in Israeli politics."
What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Okay, Mr. Prime Minister, how are you going to build that coalition?
Isaac Herzog: I think you have to understand that it requires a lot of things. Number one—that our egos are set aside. I lead Labor—Labor is the party that founded the state of Israel; it's deeply rooted in Israeli society. We believe, and I believe that from day one, since I took office, that we should have a front running together. There has to be a centrist Israeli bloc that presents a clear alternative, an unequivocal alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu.
Goldberg: Let's talk about you and your candidacy. You're obviously a man of accomplishment. You come from a very famous family in Israel. But you are known in Israel as, let's say, a non-charismatic figure.
Herzog: Thank you.
Goldberg: You're welcome. There's a certain assumption made about—
Herzog: Do you know how many charismatic leaders we had and what happened to them? Just think about that.
Goldberg: There's a certain understanding in Israeli politics, and maybe this is just received wisdom, that the voters want somebody, especially from the center or center-left, who is either a general or is burly or gruff. No one would mistake you for Gabi Ashkenazi walking down the street. [Gabi Ashkenazi is a former Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff. Click here to see what he looks like.] So talk about the barriers to your success among the voters, and then we'll talk about the Labor Party's barriers.
Herzog: No. It's combined. It's intertwined, where the staging of Labor is an issue of itself.
Labor is staged right now in the center-left. It should resume its role as a mother party of a major bloc, together with all the other parties which I mentioned, because Labor has the capability of being so.
Now as for myself, since I don't intend to have kind of a psychological treatment with you. The real story is the following. There is an innate fear that runs within Israeli society of all that we see and hear around us, and you know what? It's a natural reaction of human beings. And my duty and role is to acquire enough trust. In all of the data and the polls, people trust me. This is one of my virtues. They have to be able to trust in me. And this is what I'm focusing on. That's my main challenge.
Goldberg: Come to this large question of the Labor Party. Why is the Labor Party in such a diminished state? Where did it go wrong?
Herzog: It's not necessarily in a diminished state.
Goldberg: Well, certainly compared to the founding of the state.
Herzog: Right now the Israeli political map is comprised of medium-sized parties. The last one who had more than 40 mandates was Ariel Sharon. But as for your question. A few processes, undercurrents—the first one was that we lost touch with some of what the public really feels is important to them. For a long time, we were members in coalitions of other leaders. We kind of were erased of our identity. It took us time to recover, and we also lost touch with new groups in society while taking the role and demanding to be part of it.
For example, the Russian immigration of a million people. We kind of lost them somewhere. They supported both Rabin and Barak. And they were turned off. Add to it other groups. The Arab population—they gave 96 or 98 percent support to Ehud Barak.
Couple it with the fact that there's a young generation who took over, who's coming in, who's voting, and they don't remember the legacy of Labor. And add to that the fact that even within that young generation, or the general public at large, we were viewed as giving up too quickly to the Palestinians or the Arabs.
Goldberg: On that subject, imagine that it's April of next year and you're the prime minister. You're a big advocate, obviously, of the two-state solution. I want to know specifically from you why you think that you will achieve what Ehud Barak failed to achieve and what Ehud Olmert failed to achieve. They tried to make peace, the first with Yasser Arafat, the second with Abu Mazen [current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas]. It didn't work.
Herzog: I'm not going in with any illusions. But I'm not willing to give up. And moreover, I believe that part of it has to do with psychology. We are not dealing with psychology at all. The fact that there is no connection, no discussion, no discourse or no trust between the leaders, is adverse to the ability to reach an agreement. Yesterday morning I had breakfast with Gerry Adams, the leader of the [Irish Republican Army's political wing] Sinn Fein. May I remind you he was an outcast? He came to Israel and Palestine. I know him. And we had breakfast. And I said to him, “Gerry, could you tell me, what was the moment of truth, that all of a sudden you guys moved?” And he said, “When we all came to realize that we won't achieve it in any other way—both sides.”
And also, there was a unique configuration of leaders. Amongst them, or predominantly one of them is Bill Clinton, who knew how to work on the psychology of the leaders and the peoples. This is part of it and nobody is dealing with it.
I speak a lot to Abu Mazen, and I said to Abu Mazen, “People say that even if I negotiate with you, you'll never make peace with us.” And he laughed, and he said, “I'm sure we can reach an agreement.”
It depends on building trust. It depends on confidence-building measures. It depends on being innovative, bold, and it depends on radiating to the people that there is hope. The situation that we see right now is so devastating because there's a feeling of lack of hope. There's a despair feeling and most worrisome of all is the unleashing of feelings of religious hatred that is so dangerous to all of us, turning it into religious war.
Goldberg: You are prime minister—what is your settlement policy?
Herzog: My settlement policy first and foremost is based on the famous [Clinton] parameters. I believe in the blocs. I definitely believe in Gush Etzion [a major settlement bloc just outside Jerusalem] being part of Israel. It's essential for its security.
Goldberg: When the U.S. administration tells you to stop building in Gush Etzion—
Herzog: Wait, wait, I haven't finished.
Goldberg: No, no, no, I want to get this in. When the U.S. administration tells you, no building in Gush Etzion, and you're prime minister, what do you say?
Herzog: It will be a mistake that you go in with all these—I learned from Hillary Clinton. She said, I won't answer the theoretical questions. Because I believe that Israel, as always—I always said it—Israel should put a plan on the table. Israel should move forward and offer. And within that umbrella of movement, there are things that both sides can do.
I believe in freezing settlement construction outside the blocs as part of confidence-building measures. But it should be part of a plan that Israel presents. And this plan should of course take into account, most importantly, the basic inherent security needs of the state of Israel.
Goldberg: What if it doesn't work? Do you have a plan B? I mean, you've spoken very feelingly about the unsustainability of the status quo.
Herzog: That's true.
Goldberg: But what is the plan B?
Herzog: The problem is that when we speak of plan Bs, we already negate the possibility of moving on with plan A.
I know there are many experts who don't believe in the negotiating process and rather believe in unilateral steps. I think Israel suffered a certain trauma from a unilateral step of pulling out of Gaza. We have to attend to that fear. We were there—I was there. We were blamed for pulling out by our brothers and sisters from the settlements in Gaza and we said to them, there will be the new Hong Kong of the Middle East, and it didn't work out. So we have to take it into account.
I do believe however, unequivocally and from the bottom of my heart, that since it's a must, it's a must under all circumstances, to separate from the Palestinians, that if it fails, we will have to take steps that define our borders in a clearer way.
Goldberg: That's unilateral withdrawal.
Herzog: Depends on which way you do the unilateralism side. There are ways, even if you don't negotiate, you can coordinate. Even if you can freeze settlement construction as I mentioned. You can do steps that say, I gave priority to that area and not the other. But I think it's a mistake that we already assume that it's over. It's part of the tragedy that unfolds in front of our eyes. It is not true, I'm telling you absolutely. It is possible, absolutely possible still, to make peace with the Palestinians.
Goldberg: I'm just trying to put myself in the shoes of an Israeli voter who hears you say that, if all else fails, we are going to have to unilaterally withdraw from parts—large parts—
Herzog: I did not say that.
Goldberg: Well, what are you saying?
Herzog: I said we'll have to work smartly in making efforts, whether legislative or others, in arranging the fact that most Israelis will be in certain areas. But I'm not willing to go into any detail.
Goldberg: Let's turn to relations between the United States and Israel. You have spoken about this as a crisis.
Herzog: I think that the policies of the Israeli government have led us to a situation of total lack of trust—total lack of trust between the administrations or their leaders. Now it's essential—it's essential to have trust between the leaders, not only the professionals, not only the government level, but the leaders. It's a fact. It's a fact that there is no trust at all between the president and the prime minister. And we will have to attend to it. And one of my first aims will be to mend those relationships. Throughout Israel's history, the ability to have direct contact, trust, and conversations between the top leaders was essential in critical moments, to Israel's wellbeing as well as to regional peace and safety.
Goldberg: Do you blame the American side or the Israeli side more for this?
Herzog: I'm not in a blame game. Listen, I'm telling the Israeli people that there are so many faulty policies that we will have to correct, and there are so many mistakes that Netanyahu has done that we will correct.
Even if we argue, we should do it in closed rooms. We knew how to argue, even if we debate, but there's the issue of trust, of sharing common interests, of telling each side what's the problem and where—what's my interest, what's your interest, let's try to get together and agree. Because the United States is really still the major superpower of the world, because the United States is not pulling out of the Middle East as people were perceiving it to be. It's wrong, it's not true. And because the United States is our closest ally.
Goldberg: Well, I've heard people on the right in Israel talk about replacing Europe, for instance, with a China-India policy. You don't think that Israel can pivot east?
Herzog: There's nothing to compare, with all due respect to these important countries, economically they are very important countries. But we look at the record, look at the record in the United Nations. Look at the record in the UN Security Council. We have only really one trustworthy ally, which we really share affection and trust with on so many levels, and there's nothing to replace that.
Goldberg: I want to come to that in a second, but one more foreign-policy national-security question—where do you rank the Iran threat in the scheme of threats—in the range of threats. Obviously the current prime minister believes that Iran poses a unique existential threat, the Iranian nuclear program in particular, to Israel. Do you believe that that is the paramount threat facing Israel today?
Herzog: I believe it's a very, very important threat.
Goldberg: What is the most—
Herzog: It is definitely an important threat, and it is an important threat that has to be dealt with. And may I say the following. I think that the negotiation process is important. I think the United States and its allies should get the best deal possible. I think we should enable it to get the best deal possible, but we should not rule any alternative off the table until we see that deal.
Goldberg: Do you trust the Obama administration to get a good deal?
Herzog: I trust the Obama administration to get a good deal. We hope they'll get the best deal possible. That means a lot of elements, most importantly, the fact that we have to agree on a set break-out time that will give ample warning to everybody. If the Iranians want to break the agreement and move towards the bomb, I think the professionals have to work on it and we have to give it a chance.
Nonetheless, we shouldn't be naïve. We still live in a very dangerous and complicated world and region. The policies of the Iranian regime are clear to us. We've been discussing them here for years. And we shouldn't be naïve to believe that if there's a deal, all is well. There should be very strict supervision, very strict monitoring, and deciphering of whatever's going on in relation to that program.
Goldberg: I just have to step back and ask a very basic question at this moment. It's something I actually don't understand. Why is Israel moving towards elections right now? Can anyone actually explain what happened?
Herzog: This—the situation is like some sort of a theater act, whereby each side locked the other side to a situation where they couldn't move on together. And I think that part of it has to do with the ill decisions of Benjamin Netanyahu, decided that he can pull this one again. And if you ask me, the Israeli public will be faced with the question—is it willing to have another term of Benjamin Netanyahu? It will be the key question in this election.
In addition to all the important issues which you've discussed, but it will also be a question that will reflect the following. Will Israel skid dangerously into becoming a more extreme state in its behavioral mode, definitely as a government, or will Israel correct itself into the direction of a well-positioned policies that go together with the original envisionment of Zionism, understanding our regional situation, trying to move towards peace and social justice, alignment with the United States, economic recovery and most importantly, strengthening and fostering democratic values?
Goldberg: If you had been prime minister this past summer, how would you have handled the Hamas threat?
Herzog: First and foremost, I think we should have a combination, both of force and diplomacy. Part of the problem is that we entered that crisis with less international credit in our hands, and that led to a situation whereby within the second week, the international community started already showing nerves and short-sightedness in terms of what's going on in Gaza, because the pictures that came out of Gaza of course had a bearing and an influence.
One has to see how we deteriorated into that conflict, and how to make sure that we don't deteriorate again. Part of it has to do with building a very strong regional coalition that brings in the Palestinian Authority into Gaza, that gives hope to the people of Gaza, that opens up Gaza under strict supervisions and moves on as a basis for process with the Palestinians. This so far has been missed.
Goldberg: The Palestinian Authority is a fairly weak and corrupt body. Obviously Palestine itself is divided between two competing and sometimes warring parties. Why do you—you seem to have more faith in the Palestinian Authority than the average Israeli.
Herzog: Because they lead a moderate Palestinian political body. Let's be frank about it. We always love to judge everybody else's political systems. I'm not judgmental. If I have to take a decision between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, I believe in working with the Palestinian Authority, and I believe it's feasible.
And they are working. Look at the summer. Let's put it in perspective. Following the abduction of the three boys, which was a huge tragedy for Israelis and for everybody, the Palestinian Authority functioned properly. They coordinated with us [in our] efforts to find their whereabouts. They handled the situation in calming it down, despite the fact that there were many Israeli operations on the ground. Then came Protective Edge in the summer in Gaza, so before kind of always, everybody loves to term them as weak. So far, Abu Mazen survived four or five Israeli prime ministers to the best of my recollection.
Goldberg: Are you worried about the future of Israeli democracy?
Herzog: I am worried about the direction which Israeli democracy is moving into if we don't correct.
Naftali Bennett, who is a distinguished representative from the right, believes in annexing Area C [sections of the West Bank under full Israeli military control]. He believes in a deal that the world will accept unilateral steps of Israel in this direction. He doesn't answer the question, what will you do with a hundred thousand Palestinians who will become Israeli citizens?
Take the issue of Jerusalem. The recent terror attacks came from Palestinians from East Jerusalem who grew up under Israeli sovereignty with an Israeli ID card. So does it mean we will include another hundred thousand who have no loyalty to the state of Israel in the sense that they won't feel part of Israel, but rather under occupation?
There is no other choice, despite all the fears; we will have to get over those fears. We will have to try again. Otherwise, the direction that Israeli society's moving into could be bleak and that's what we are doing, in order to correct it.
And I'm worried about undercurrents that are trying to limit and contain and curtail the beautiful vista of Israeli democracy. The fact that in our parliament there is such a wide range of views, of free speech laid down by our supreme court. To me it's holy, and I'll do whatever I can with my colleagues to protect it. And there are endless efforts, and Tzipi Livni was there, as minister of justice, trying to block every week, another piece of legislation which, from the outside, for those with liberal understanding of what democracy is all about, seems incomprehensible and dangerous.
Goldberg: Israel is quite obviously a Jewish state. What's so bad about passing a law that says, Israel is a Jewish state?
Herzog: I will explain the following and I said it in the floor in the parliament when I debated with Netanyahu last week. I said that when it comes to the deal with the Palestinians, in the final-status moments, I think it's correct to say that both states are nation-states, that Palestine will be the nation-state of the Palestinian people and Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people, as it is derived from the November 47 UN Partition Plan of Resolution.
But this has nothing to do with what's within Israel. Within Israel, all citizens must feel they are equal, not only to say it, but they must feel it. And coming forward with this discourse, on Jewish state, treads on racist undertones, makes a feeling that somebody will be preferred on the other. The way a majority treats a minority is essential to the well-being of our society. The Arab community in Israel is 20 percent. It's comprised of all denominations of Christianity and Islam. Fascinating community—like all other communities in Israel, non-homogeneous at all. Many of them want to be part of an inclusiveness in the Israeli public life all throughout, and there are many who want to be secessionists. Our duty is to be inclusive, if you want to protect the well-being of the state. And to make anybody feel, in any form or manner, that he is not that, is not only a huge mistake; it's against the basic inherent declaration of independence of the state of Israel, which is our Magna Carta.
Goldberg: In your opinion, does Israel have PR problems, or does Israel have problems?
Herzog: Israel has both. I don't rule out the fact that we feel besieged and that the world doesn't understand us at times. However, I don't believe in the biblical proverb saying, "a people that dwells alone." We can't, in this era, dwell alone. We have to have allegiances. We have to have connections with our friends and allies. We have to cooperate together in the international arena. That's what boosts our economy and our internal strengths. And therefore we can't just go on saying to everybody, you know, crying out loud, we are the ones who are besieged.
We have our problems. We need to explain them. Yes, there is a lot of Israel hate around the world and there is a lot of anti-Semitic undertones, but that has nothing to do with the fact that we have problems we need to deal with. We have to present our policies correctly; we have to change our policies correctly.
I always compare Israel to a mid-size ship in storm waters, in high seas, that has to maneuver within those seas correctly. Our leaders in the past knew how to do it. And to get today, we are in a situation where we find ourselves cornered without any ability to maneuver. That's our main problem.
Goldberg: Let me go back to one question, because I want to get you on record as much as possible here about the peace process. We tend to think of the peace process as starting 21 years ago with Oslo. But the Palestinians or their representatives have had four or five opportunities over the last 80 or so years, starting with the Peel Commission, moving through ‘47 and then onward—
Herzog: That is true.
Goldberg: —to have a state. Each time, the offer has gotten worse, obviously, from a pure territorial standpoint. My question is, and I think this is the question that plagues the left in Israel, is, after 80 years of having the division of the land being rejected by the Palestinians or their Arab representatives—what makes you think that now, which most people see as a very inauspicious time for a revised peace process—what makes you think that now is the time to try to move towards this two-state solution?
Herzog: It's not that now is the time. It has been a long drawn-out process. Don't forget Oslo. You're ignoring a lot of things. You're ignoring the Khartoum process of ‘68 and compare it to today. It's a totally different ball game, totally different arena. Today there is an intense interfacing and discourse between us and the Palestinians, not necessarily through the leaders.
But the fear—my fear is, that within the Palestinian and Israeli camp, the peoples are losing faith in the possibility of separating and coming to the two-state solution. It was there, believe me, it was there. In 1994, during the Rabin era, there was a huge majority for it in both peoples. Unfortunately, terror on both sides led to the fact that we got into a stumbling block with no possibility of moving forward, and then we repeated it time and again.
It's the easiest thing, is to tread on the psychology of fear. Okay, my adversaries in the political system, especially from the right, tread on fear. And I'm trying to challenge that and say, we cannot live only on fear. We have to be lucid. We have to be careful. We have to protect our interests, but we must talk. It cannot be that mothers and fathers on the other side don't want peace. It boggles me why would anyone, at the age of 35, with five children, would go in the morning and commit suicide, and butcher the people he's working with all his life, in the synagogue.
Goldberg: Where does that come from? Where does that impulse to suddenly slaughter a group of rabbis with a meat cleaver come from?
Herzog: There's no justification of it, none whatsoever. It's against any moral, legal, or human values, period. And it's shocking. Nonetheless, when you look at the whole picture, we have to analyze it, and in order to neutralize these elements, we have to bring hope. And we cannot give up on that.
For half a century, memories of the Holocaust limited anti-Semitism on the Continent. That period has ended—the recent fatal attacks in Paris and Copenhagen are merely the latest examples of rising violence against Jews. Renewed vitriol among right-wing fascists and new threats from radicalized Islamists have created a crisis, confronting Jews with an agonizing choice.
The kingmaker in Tuesday's election in Israel may turn out to be Moshe Kahlon, the Libyan Jewish center-rightist whose new party, Kulanu ("All of Us") stands to win at least eight seats in the next Knesset. Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger, the centrist Isaac Herzog, will need Kahlon's party with them in order to create a viable governing coalition.
Kahlon's emphasis is on economic issues; his foreign policy guru is Michael Oren, who is ranked fourth on the Kulanu list. Oren served as Israel's ambassador to the United States from 2009 until 2013, when he was replaced by Netanyahu's closest aide, Ron Dermer. It was Netanyahu and Dermer who helped force the most recent (and most serious) crisis in U.S.-Israel relations, and I called Oren last week in Jerusalem to discuss how the next government should go about repairing Israel's relationships in Washington. Here is our conversation:
(Update: Since posting this, a number of people have asked me, not unreasonably, what Oren's immediate future holds, beyond a seat in the Knesset. The short answer is, I don't know. If Israel's government were organized in a semi-sane way, then Oren would obviously be the country's next foreign minister, or at least deputy foreign minister—or, at the very least, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Managing Relations With Other People. But coalition politics are very complicated, so it's not clear exactly what role he would play, assuming his party enters the coalition. On to the interview.)
Jeffrey Goldberg: How much damage has been done to Israel's relations with the United States?
Michael Oren: I think we’re going to have to be proactive in order to get ourselves to a better place. I’m not starry-eyed. I understand that there are structural differences between the U.S. and Israel. The United States is a big country, far from the Middle East, that isn’t threatened the way Israel is. And there are ideological differences as well. But we must work to get this to a better place.
Goldberg: How did you keep the relationship from falling apart when you were ambassador?
Oren: I understood that preserving bipartisan support for Israel was a paramount strategic interest for us. And there was no place I wouldn’t go in order to preserve that.
Goldberg: But what were the mechanics of doing it?
Oren: America is going through a period of deep polarization, and both parties were trying to use us as a wedge issue. Not just the Republicans. So I was always trying to balance this. But the much more serious challenge came from the right, not the left. That’s something I found out when I got to Washington.
Goldberg: A few years ago, we thought that J Street, the Jewish left, was going to drive the agenda. But now people to the right of AIPAC (the mainstream pro-Israel lobby) are doing much of the driving. How did that happen?
Oren: There’s a very simple answer to that. J Street’s power derived from the fact that it is an extension of the Obama administration. The Obama administration invited J Street into the room with other Jewish organizations and sent high-level officials to speak at their conventions. But the reservoir of support for J Street is not particularly large. The American Jewish community is 5 million people. What percentage of that number is actually involved in Jewish affairs? What percentage of those are involved with Israel, and what percentage of people involved with Israel wake up in the morning saying, ‘I care about Israel but I’m pained by Israel’s policies.’ That’s a very low percentage.
The right is growing much more rapidly, even as a percentage within the Jewish community. There’s a greater percentage that is more religious, more conservative. That disparity is going to grow in favor of the right in coming years.
Goldberg: If you had still been ambassador these past two months, do you think what happened would have happened, or would have happened in a way that didn’t infuriate the White House and the Democratic Party?
Oren: I’m not going to criticize Ron Dermer. I worked very closely with him. Every ambassador brings his own skill set, his own worldview, and his own relationship with the prime minister. Ron has been a close adviser to the prime minister for more than a decade. It’s a different relationship. I don’t want to criticize Ron for certain assumptions that didn’t pan out.
My different approach stemmed from very fundamental conclusions I had made. Because I had taught in the United States in previous years, at Harvard, Yale, and Georgetown, I saw close up the transformations that had taken place in American society. This was not the America I had left in the 1970s. Many Israelis, particularly Israelis of my generation, remember a different America. And I knew that with all respect to President Obama, he was a symptom, rather than a cause, of these changes. Which is why I thought from early on that he would be a two-term president, and that his victory in 2012 would be more significant than his 2008 victory, because 2012 meant that some of these changes were quite permanent.
And so I brought to the job of ambassador an understanding that the United States is moving in a new direction, and as the crucial ally of Israel’s, we have to find out what direction the United States is moving in and then adapt ourselves to the greatest degree possible to this new direction in way consistent with our security interests.
Goldberg: You mean multicultural sort of changes?
Oren: Yes, among other things. As ambassador you have to build personal relationships, you have to invest a tremendous amount of time in the social life of Washington, you have to build a rapport with people with whom you might not agree all the time. But you have to be able to pick up the phone at any time, even in the middle of the night, and reach the people you need to talk to. You have to establish a level of personal trust.
One example is that we would actively reach out to different parts of the Democratic party, among them the black caucus. I spent a lot of time engaged in a dialogue with the Congressional Black Caucus.
So in 2011, when the prime minister gave a speech to a joint meeting of Congress, I don’t know that the White House was enthusiastic about it, but they were certainly kept in the picture. One of the principles of the U.S.-Israel relationship over the years has been ‘No surprises.’ And I did my best to pursue that principle.
Goldberg: Do you think the White House is oversensitive to what it perceives to be personal slights?
Oren: A primary difference in the political cultures of America and Israel is that Americans salute the rank, not the person. Israelis barely salute anyone. There is a tremendous amount of umbrage on the American side if you are seen to insult the presidency. A former president in America is addressed as Mr. President. A former prime minister in Israel is Ehud. It’s very different.
Goldberg: This is one of the reasons that (Georgia Democratic Representative) John Lewis stayed away from the Netanyahu speech.
Oren: When I heard that John Lewis was staying away from the speech, I felt like I got punched in the gut. I am a great admirer of his, and his support for Israel is precious to me.
Goldberg: Is it more the responsibility of Israel to fix this relationship than the U.S.'s?
Oren: It’s always on Israel, as the junior partner in the strategic relationship, to make the maximum effort.
Goldberg: What does the next government have to do to fix this?
Oren: It has to establish this as one of its top priorities, rectifying whatever damage was done and then strengthening the relationship, doing this with the knowledge that there will be ideological and structural differences.
Goldberg: This is what I don’t understand. How do you paper over real differences? This isn’t just about being polite and not surprising each other.
Oren: No question about it. It would be naïve to think that any two sovereign countries, certainly ones as disparate as the United States and Israel, always have interests that dovetail. The key to maintaining the alliance is to keep relationships close. Israel has no substitute for the United States as a paramount ally, and frankly, the United States doesn’t have a substitute for Israel, an economically and scientifically robust, unreservedly pro-American country in the Middle East. We have to work through our differences constructively.
Goldberg: But on policy, what do you do?
Oren: We have to understand that people who aren’t anti-Israel have criticisms of specific Israeli policies. We have to show greater flexibility on the peace issue. Israel is willing to go a serious distance on peace. We always have to show that we’re ready to sit at the table if the Palestinians are willing to act accordingly. That’s something we can do, we can make that case. Our problem has been building outside the settlement blocs and the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Those areas were recognized by the Bush-Sharon letter of 2004 as remaining within Israel’s boundaries in the event of a final-status negotiation. We should keep to that in a final-status-compatible way. If the Palestinians don’t want to do this, then here’s what we’re going to do on our own, to make the situation better and lay the groundwork for a future peace. That’s what we have to do, and I think that this logic would be compelling to most American decision-makers.
Goldberg: Is the damage in any way permanent here?
Oren: I think the damage could be diplomatic damage. I don’t think Americans are going to stop their work for Iron Dome (an American-funded anti-missile system). The rumors are that the U.S. is cutting back on intelligence-sharing, but that would a self-inflicted wound. But we could feel the damage at the UN, or some other international body. We don’t only rely on the U.S. for a military Iron Dome, but for a diplomatic Iron Dome as well.
Goldberg: How are you going to shape different approaches to foreign policy as a member of Knesset?
Oren: Foreign affairs is viewed as the poorer, younger brother of security affairs in Israel. We don’t have long-term strategic thinking about foreign affairs. We should take it more seriously here. Israel has to undergo a fundamental change—we have to realize we are not alone in the world. Our relationships, not just with the United States, but with the Far East, with Europe, with Africa, are vital for us. We haven’t looked in strategic ways about how to defend ourselves against BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions.) I understand why this happens—there is the old Zionist notion that it is not important what the non-Jews think, that it's only important what the Jews do. But we can’t function in the world with this attitude.
The letter drafted by the freshman Senator Tom Cotton, and signed by 46 of his Republican colleagues, warning Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that any deal he makes with U.S. Non-Supreme Leader Barack Obama might soon be undone by right-minded American legislators, is problematic on a number of fronts. But let me address just a couple, in the interest of time (I'm off to Germany to give a couple of talks on—of all things— the manner in which American foreign policy is made), and because others (including Dan Drezner) have addressed some of the broader issues already.
Here are two things I think are true about the current Iran nuclear negotiations:
1) These talks give the West the best, and least bloody, opportunity possible to keep the Iranian regime far from the nuclear threshold;
2) There is still a decent chance that Ayatollah Khamenei will ultimately balk at the conditions set by the U.S. and its allies, and wind up subverting the talks. Remember, as weak as this still-theoretical deal seems to some people (I'm in the camp of the moderately worried on this front), the conditions laid down by the West may be seen by the viciously anti-American ayatollah as too humiliating to accept. For instance, the deal might break apart over the issue of sanctions relief. The Iranians want to see most sanctions removed immediately upon completion of the deal; the West, of course, wants to phase out sanctions gradually, in order to ensure Iranian compliance with the terms of the deal.
The deal could also come apart for any number of other reasons. At which point—here's the important part—it's vitally important for President Obama to be able to argue to America's sanctions partners in Europe and Asia that the U.S. did everything possible to strike a deal, and to keep Iran at the table. If the talks collapse, President Obama will have to maintain, and strengthen, the broad-based sanctions coalition he built earlier in his term, with help from Congress and his erstwhile sidekick, bad-cop Bibi Netanyahu. But if America's partners—particularly those in Asia—come to believe that it was the U.S., rather than the Iranian leadership, that subverted the talks, the cause of invigorated sanctions will be damaged, possibly grievously.
It is not in the best interest of the United States to provide Iran any excuses to walk away from the table, and to provide Russia, China, and America's various European and Asian allies with arguments against strengthened sanctions. The smug, stomach-churning statement from the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in response to the Republican letter can be understood as a preemptive attempt to blame a future negotiations collapse on the U.S.
Republicans in the Senate may believe they were doing the U.S. a favor by issuing their warning to Ayatollah Khamenei, but advocates of crushing sanctions against Iran might just have undermined their own cause.
The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, wants Jews to know that he, and the country he represents, are their friends. In an interview with Ann Curry, he accused the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, of intentionally misreading Jewish scripture in order to make the case that Iran is malevolently predisposed toward Jews: “If you read the Book of Esther, you will see that it was the Iranian king who saved the Jews," Zarif said. "If you read the Old Testament, you will see that it was an Iranian king who saved the Jews from Babylon. Esther has a town in Iran where our Jewish population, which is the largest in the Middle East, visits on a regular basis.”
It is true that, at different times, and in different ways, Persia has been a friend of the Jews. Cyrus the Great (the Iranian king mentioned by Zarif in the interview) restored the Jews to their homeland in the Land of Israel after their Babylonian exile. President Harry Truman, who recognized the state of Israel in 1948, 11 minutes after it was reborn, later proclaimed proudly, "I am Cyrus."
There is dark humor (or a lack of self-awareness) in Zarif's citation of Cyrus as proof of Iranian philo-Semitism, because today's Iranian leadership does not recognize Jewish sovereignty in Israel, as Cyrus once did, but instead seeks the annihilation of the Jewish state.
I am in favor of a negotiated agreement that will keep Iran at least a year away from a nuclear weapon in part because, in the post-Holocaust era, it is crucially important to keep such weapons out of the hands of those who promise to do Jews real harm. As I've written, it is not likely that Iran would launch a preemptive nuclear attack on Israel, but it would almost certainly redouble, under the protection of a nuclear umbrella, its work toward Israel's eradication, with disastrous consequences. (We'll have the argument over whether the agreement now taking shape is the best possible deal in another post. Suffice it to say that the parameters of the current, still-unfinished deal are cause for some worry.)
Netanyahu's deployment of the Holocaust to make his case against Iran (and against the current deal) is controversial. There are many aspects of Netanyahu's approach I find disagreeable and counterproductive (most, actually), but an Israeli prime minister who does not recognize that extinction-level threats directed at Jews have sometimes been more than aspirational is not fulfilling his responsibilities.
(For a recent example of an argument about the putative dangers of casting the Holocaust in political, cautionary terms, please see this post from my colleague James Fallows, who quotes an unnamed history professor at at a university in the Southwest arguing, in essence, that the Holocaust was so terrible and enormous that we should resist the urge to learn from it: "The constant reiteration of this particular event achieves little more than dumbing down the discourse: it's the historical equivalent of hollering." The professor goes on to write, "To paraphrase Levi-Strauss, the Holocaust is not particularly good to think with. Its extremity serves as a bludgeon." This argument is unwise and unfair; just imagine the same argument in a specifically American historical context: Slavery was so terrible, and so extreme, that we shouldn't talk about it in the context of politics, because someone is bound to use it as a bludgeon. An absurd argument, of course.)
I think it is possible to strike an appropriate balance in this debate, somewhere between, "The Jews should stop talking about the Holocaust so much," which is the subtext of this professor's complaint, and "The Nazis are coming" line of argument used periodically by Netanyahu and his allies.
The Iranian regime is not populated by Nazis, but it is led by people who do, in fact, seek the physical elimination of the Jewish state and its replacement by a Muslim state. It works toward this end, by sponsoring terrorist groups that regularly kill Jews, both in Israel and elsewhere.
So, as a reminder to those who argue that Jews should stop worrying so much about people who threaten to kill them, here is some (just some) of what Iran's leaders, and leaders of its proxy militia, Hezbollah, in Lebanon, have said about Israel:
Mohammad Khatami, the former president of Iran: “If we abide by real legal laws, we should mobilize the whole Islamic world for a sharp confrontation with the Zionist regime … if we abide by the Koran, all of us should mobilize to kill.” (2000)
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: “It is the mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to erase Israel from the map of the region.” (2001)
Hassan Nasrallah, a leader of Hezbollah: “If they [Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.” (2002)
Nasrallah: “Israel is our enemy. This is an aggressive, illegal, and illegitimate entity, which has no future in our land. Its destiny is manifested in our motto: ‘Death to Israel.’” (2005)
Yahya Rahim Safavi, the former commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps: “With God’s help the time has come for the Zionist regime’s death sentence.” (2008)
Mohammad Hassan Rahimian, Khamenei’s representative to the Moustazafan Foundation: “We have manufactured missiles that allow us, when necessary to replace [sic] Israel in its entirety with a big holocaust.” (2010)
Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the commander of the Basij paramilitary force: “We recommend them [the Zionists] to pack their furniture and return to their countries. And if they insist on staying, they should know that a time while arrive when they will not even have time to pack their suitcases.” (2011)
Ahmad Alamolhoda, a member of the Assembly of Experts: “The destruction of Israel is the idea of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and is one of the pillars of the Iranian Islamic regime. We cannot claim that we have no intention of going to war with Israel.” (2013)
Nasrallah: “The elimination of Israel is not only a Palestinian interest. It is the interest of the entire Muslim world and the entire Arab world.” (2013)
Hojateleslam Alireza Panahian, the advisor to Office of the Supreme Leader in Universities: “The day will come when the Islamic people in the region will destroy Israel and save the world from this Zionist base.” (2013)
Hojatoleslam Ali Shirazi, Khamenei’s representative in the Revolutionary Guard: “The Zionist regime will soon be destroyed, and this generation will be witness to its destruction." (2013)
Khamenei: “This barbaric, wolflike & infanticidal regime of Israel which spares no crime has no cure but to be annihilated.” (2014)
Hossein Salami, the deputy head of the Revolutionary Guard: "We will chase you [Israelis] house to house and will take revenge for every drop of blood of our martyrs in Palestine, and this is the beginning point of Islamic nations awakening for your defeat." (2014)
Salami: "Today we are aware of how the Zionist regime is slowly being erased from the world, and indeed, soon, there will be no such thing as the Zionist regime on Planet Earth." (2014)
Hossein Sheikholeslam, the secretary-general of the Committee for Support for the Palestinian Intifada: "The issue of Israel's destruction is important, no matter the method. We will obviously implement the strategy of the Imam Khomeini and the Leader [Khamenei] on the issue of destroying the Zionists. The region will not be quiet so long as Israel exists in it ..." (2014)
Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guard: "The Revolutionary Guards will fight to the end of the Zionist regime ... We will not rest easy until this epitome of vice is totally deleted from the region's geopolitics." (2015)
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, one of the President Obama’s closest aides, appeared on the Charlie Rose Show last night (Goldblog was guest-hosting), in order to address Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s criticisms of Obama's Iran approach. The transcript of our conversation is below, but there are a couple of things worth noting. When I asked Rhodes why Obama believes that a nuclear agreement may encourage Iran—a well-known regional bully—to behave in a more responsible manner, he more or less rejected the notion that this is Obama’s belief, saying, “The purpose of the agreement is not to bet on the notion that Iran will moderate. The purpose of the agreement is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon throughout the duration of the agreement.”
This brings us, conveniently, to a second controversial topic: the sunset clause, the provision of this still-theoretical deal that would see it fade away in 10 or 15 years. The White House has been adamant that the sunset provision is not simply an invitation for Iran to wait 10 years, and then build a bomb. This issue will turn into one of the thorniest for the administration when it confronts congressional critics of the deal. I asked Rhodes why the agreement would simply be allowed to expire in a set period of time, whether or not Iran proves to be a good actor. He said that the theoretical deal “should not be read as some type of preemptive permission slip for Iran to pursue a nuclear weapon on the back end of this agreement. The fact of the matter is the same type of options that we have in place today to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon will be available to the president of the United States in 10, 15 years—whenever the conclusion of the duration of the deal is.”
Another issue I raised is Netanyahu’s idea that the nuclear talks be expanded to include discussions about Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, and of the Assad regime in Syria. I asked Rhodes why Obama seemed to be paying attention solely to the nuclear file. “Well, first of all, that’s not our sole focus. We’re a superpower—we do more than one thing at a time. We’re negotiating a nuclear deal. But every day we’re working to counter Iranian influence in different ways. We do a lot to restrict the proliferation of ballistic missile technologies to Iran, for instance. We cooperate in terms of Israel’s efforts to counter Hezbollah in many ways.”
I also asked Rhodes if he thought Netanyahu was trying to drive the United States toward a military confrontation with Iran. His (careful) answer: "Look, I don’t think that that’s his preferred course of action. What I do think, however, is there’s a logic to the alternatives here, in the sense that if you get an agreement that is verifiable that goes into the double digits of years, that gives us a pathway to ensure that Iran is not getting a nuclear weapon diplomatically. If Iran does not reach that type of agreement with us and maybe we pivot to sanctions, then the options start to shrink for the United States and the international community, and you’re either betting on the notion that Iran is going to completely capitulate under the pressure of economic sanctions—which by the way does not seem likely given the very nature of the Iranian regime that the prime minister laid out today—or you’re left with the decision to take military action.”
Our full conversation follows.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Is this speech going to damage the President’s cause?
Ben Rhodes: No, I don’t think so. I mean, the fact of the matter is the president said there’s nothing new because we have been hearing these arguments from Prime Minister Netanyahu privately and publicly for some time now. He’s made very clear his opposition to the type of deal that we’re pursuing.
What we heard today was a lot of different arguments we’ve heard from different places from the prime minister pulled together in one space. As the president said, he made similar arguments before the Joint Plan of Action [which froze parts of Iran's nuclear program in exchange for some sanctions relief] was agreed over a year ago, and that has actually borne out as a successful effort to halt the progress of Iran’s program and roll it back in certain elements.
So again, the prime minister has been clear about his view, but we don’t think he’s putting forward an alternative that can deal with the issue of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon as effectively as the type of deal that we’re negotiating.
Goldberg: I was surprised at the emotional effectiveness of the speech. Did you, as a speechwriter, find it at all convincing? Did you find anything in it that made you worried as, essentially, the adversary here?
Rhodes: Well, first of all—look, we’re not adversaries. Israel is one of the closest friends that we have in the world. A lot of what the prime minister said are things that we absolutely share—views that we absolutely share. What he said about the nature of the Iranian regime, what he said about the need to defend the Jewish state—those are things that we fully agree with.
What we have a difference on is how do you go about doing that? So yes, there’s tremendous emotional resonance and a need to stand up to the Iranian regime. The question is, how do we accomplish the goal that we share, preventing them from getting a nuclear weapon?
Goldberg: You said that you share [Netanyahu's] basic view of the Iranian regime. One of the points he made is that he believes that these negotiations should be expanded or enlarged to include Iran’s support for terrorism, Iran’s support for Assad, Iran’s various aggressive moves in the Middle East. The administration has been adamant that you don’t want to do that. Why don’t you want to do that?
Rhodes: Well, first of all, Jeff, we think that the nuclear challenge is distinct, and the prime minister himself said today that the challenge is a combination of nuclear weapons with this type of regime. We need to deal with the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. And that’s what we’re trying to do. They would be much more emboldened with a nuclear weapon—a nuclear weapons capability than they are even today.
But the day after a deal is reached, if we get an agreement, our concerns about other Iranian activities in the region will be exactly the same as they are today. We’ll be just as concerned about their support for terrorism, their support for Hezbollah, their destabilizing actions in the region as we are today. But the fact is if you can verifiably ensure that they’re not able to get a nuclear weapon, we will be more secure and the region will be more secure.
Goldberg: Why are you so confident that you will be able to verifiably ensure that they won’t have a nuclear weapon? I mean this is a country that had two nuclear facilities that have been hidden from view for years—eventually discovered through intelligence means. But why do you believe that it’s possible to know what the Iranians are doing underground?
Rhodes: Well, Jeff, the type of inspections that we’re contemplating in the agreement do not just cover the nuclear sites—the facilities in Natanz and Fordow, the reactor at Arak—it also covers the uranium supply chain. So their uranium mines and their mills, their production facilities where they’re producing centrifuges. We’re looking across the entirety of the Iranian nuclear program.
That is your best hedge against a covert path, because you’re able to detect Iranian activity and make sure that not only do they not potentially have the facility that’s of concern, but they’d have to construct an entirely separate covert supply chain to feed into that.
Goldberg: But you know as well as I do that intelligence is not perfect. It’s not a perfect art, and we’ve seen multiple occasions in recent American history of intelligence failure. Is there something different about this that I’m not understanding?
Rhodes: What’s different about this is Iran would be accepting inspections and transparency that go beyond any other country in the world. You’ll have more eyes into the Iranian nuclear program than you have into any other similar program around the world.
Without a deal, you don’t have those inspections. You don’t have that transparency. You have a much greater risk of a covert path. With the deal you get inspections, you get the ability to verify. You get the ability to challenge and seek out sites that are of concern to us. And again we’re not going on trust here. The whole point of the inspection regime is we can verify for well over a decade what the Iranians are doing in their nuclear program.
Goldberg: Why do you think the Israeli government is so worried?
Rhodes: I think the prime minister has a longstanding view on Iran that takes a particular line that opposes this type of diplomatic agreement. But the fact is the type of deal that he laid out today is one that is simply unattainable. That involves Iran dismantling its entire nuclear structure. It involves Iran changing the nature of its behavior in the region. That’s a recipe for no deal. Not only will the Iranians not agree to that. No other country in the world would support us in taking that position in the negotiations.
Goldberg: Why is it a recipe for no deal? I mean the United States should be the party in the driver’s seat. We’re the superpower. They’re a country—a weak country relatively speaking, under sanctions. There’s a perception out there among some people that the U.S. wants the deal more than Iran wants the deal, which is not logical.
Rhodes: That’s simply not the case. The Iranians don’t want to make the types of concessions that they’ve already made and were contemplating. They already, under the pressure of sanctions, have agreed to get rid of and have gotten rid of their stockpile of highly enriched uranium, for instance. That was the cartoon bomb that Prime Minister Netanyahu had before the United Nations.
They have submitted to inspections. They’ve capped their low-enriched stockpile. They have not installed advanced centrifuges. So they’ve already adjusted their behavior in their nuclear program because of the interim agreement we have.
When you talk about the limitations that we’re going to impose on their program, [they're] significant limitations: no ability to produce weapons-grade plutonium; not using Fordow as an enrichment facility; having at least a one-year breakout timeline associated with its enrichment program—that’s up from two or three months now—... strict limitations on their stockpile and their centrifuges and the types of centrifuges that they’re using.
Those are all changes in Iranian behavior as it relates to their program. It would set the program back in terms of their capacity to break out and pursue a nuclear weapon. So we are using the leverage that we have to bring to bear here, but at the same time we’re dealing with different alternatives. What is the best alternative course? A long-term deal that verifies into the double digits of years that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon—is at least a year away in terms of its breakout timeline—and that involves these types of transparency measures is better than the alternatives, of military action—that would only set the program back by a fraction of that period of time—or simply pivoting the sanctions. One thing we know is every time we’ve moved the sanctions away from the negotiating table, the Iranians continue to advance their program.
Goldberg: The so-called sunset clause that says after 10 years or 15 years—again this is not fully negotiated yet—that this agreement would expire. Why is this being talked about as an issue of time rather than actual behavior on the ground? In other words, why don’t you set this up so that the United Nations Security Council, for instance, can look at Iranian behavior over the next period of years and say, OK, you know what, they’re being responsible actors, we’re going to remove some of these conditions, rather than just saying, if you guys wait 10 years you’re going to be, relatively speaking, free and clear of these onerous burdens?
Rhodes: Well, so, a couple of things, Jeff. First of all, we’re negotiating an agreement that has a specific duration on it. We’re not negotiating a permanent treaty and we never have been. So there was always going to be a fixed duration to the type of agreement that we’re pursuing.
On the other hand, that should not be read as some type of preemptive permission slip for Iran to pursue a nuclear weapon on the back end of this agreement. The fact of the matter is, the same type of options that we have in place today to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon will be available to the president of the United States in 10, 15 years—whenever the conclusion of the duration of the deal is.
Secondly, the transparency measures are going to be extensive beyond the duration on the limitations on the program. So you will be able to know what the Iranians are doing with their nuclear program and make a judgment at that time. I think the question is, why would you not want to have a decade or more of verifiable limitations on the Iranian nuclear program that prevents them from getting a weapon? And then, again, the Israeli prime minister, the president of the United States, and the international community can make a judgment on the back end of that deal about how to move forward.
Goldberg: President Obama has said repeatedly that one of the reasons he’s so concerned about the Iranian nuclear program is that he wants to prevent a nuclear arms race in the world’s most volatile region. From what I hear and other people hear from Arab allies of the United States, they are just as nervous about this program as Israel. Is that something that concerns you or should concern you?
Rhodes: Look, we take very seriously the security of our partners in the region. That includes Israel and it also includes our Arab partners. What I’d say is, first of all, we’re talking about an Iranian program that is set back from where it is today under this agreement. So we have been living in a world where Iran has a nuclear program for 10 or 20 years now. And our partners have not felt the need to pursue their own nuclear weapons capability.
The fact of the matter is, Iran is going to have less facilities, less centrifuges, longer breakout time during the duration of this agreement. So what we would say to them is we are actually preventing Iran from getting the nuclear weapon that you’re concerned about.
At the same time—
Goldberg: But you’re not guaranteeing permanent non-nuclearization.
Rhodes: We will continue as a matter of policy to oppose Iran getting a nuclear weapon. So, again, on the back end of this deal, there is no permission slip for Iran to simply then wait until the end of the agreement and get a nuclear weapon then. Again, there are limitations that will be imposed for the duration of the agreement. There are transparency measures that have more permanence to them. And we can make a judgment on the back end of the agreement about where things stand.
In the meantime, I think what we do have to do with respect to our partners is reassure them that this in no way lessens our concern about everything else Iran is doing in the region; that this is not a broader rapprochement between the United States and Iran; that we are more aligned frankly with our Arab partners when we look at issues like Syria, when we look at issues like Yemen than—
Goldberg: But your Arab partners would say, you know, in fact that you have let the Assad regime maintain its control over much of Syria; that you haven’t intervened in a more muscular way and a more robust way. And that their critique is that you have been so focused on the nuclear file that you’ve allowed Yemen to fall to the Iran-oriented, Iran-aligned rebels, that Hezbollah is more powerful than ever, and so on.
You’ve heard all these arguments, and this comes back to that original question of why the sole focus on this behavior, and not other bad behaviors that are actually affecting American national security today?
Rhodes: Well, first of all, that’s not our sole focus. We’re a superpower—we do more than one thing at a time. We’re negotiating a nuclear deal. But every day we’re working to counter Iranian influence in different ways. We do a lot to restrict the proliferation of ballistic missile technologies to Iran, for instance. We cooperate in terms of Israel’s efforts to counter Hezbollah in many ways. We share information and intelligence in that regard.
And with respect to the Gulf, we have tens of thousands of military personnel stationed in the Gulf. We have extraordinarily deep defense relationships and joint military exercises that we conduct with our Gulf partners. That is aimed at reassuring them that we have a commitment to their security.
And the president of the United States stood up at the UN General Assembly last year and he laid out really our core interests in the region. He put up top the security and sovereignty of our partners, and that certainly includes allies like Saudi Arabia, like the United Arab Emirates, again who we manifest our commitment [to] with tangible military presence in the Gulf region.
Goldberg: You and I both know that there have been difficult moments over the last six years between the prime minister and the president. Do you think there’s a chance that the White House reacted too strongly to this speech, to the idea of being invited by the Republican speaker?
Rhodes: No. First of all, Jeff, this—
Goldberg: I mean, Susan Rice did call this a destructive moment.
Rhodes: Look—the point is that this is not a dynamic that we sought out. We have had a very clear policy of coordinating and briefing our Israeli friends about the status of these negotiations for some period of time. When there have been differences we address them privately, we address them publicly. This specific speech is something that was planned between the prime minister’s office and the Speaker of the House. That’s what created the current dynamic that we’re in.
What we were articulating and Susan was articulating is that this relationship should not become partisan. You know, the president himself said the U.S.-Israel relationship, part of what makes it different and special is it’s not between the Labor Party, the Democratic Party, the Likud Party and the Republican Party. It has to endure under different parties and it should be bipartisan. And that’s what we believe, and that’s what we’re going to continue to stand for.
At the same time, on a core foreign-policy priority of the president, the prime minister is making a case that is against that deal, that we believe is the right policy for the United States of America. We’re going to make our case as well and we’re going to do it respectfully.
Goldberg: What would happen to this relationship if the prime minister were to win this argument, which is to say, let’s say that this was a very effective speech and he convinced some wavering Democrats to join in with, let’s say, a Republican-sponsored sanctions program that the Iranians say will drive them from the table?
Rhodes: I’d say two things, Jeff. First of all, the deal doesn’t exist yet. And our simple message to Congress has been, give us the space to get a deal and then take a look at it. And people will have an opportunity to weigh in. They’ll have an opportunity to be heard. So one thing is, let’s see the deal, lay it out on the merits. We’ll make our case, people can make their case against it.
But the second point that’s important is, let’s say we don’t get a deal. Let’s say we’re not able to get to the finish line. That’s a very real possibility because the Iranians may just not move far enough to reach our bottom lines. In that case it’s very important that the perception internationally be that the Iranians are responsible for the failure of negotiations. That’s how we have been able to get buy-into the sanctions regime.
Time and again, we have been able to say Iran are the ones who are not serious about these negotiations, therefore we need to tighten the sanctions and apply pressure on them. If the appearance is that before we’re able to reach an agreement, the United States took an action through—for instance the passing of new sanctions that derailed the negotiation—that puts us in a weaker position to build the very sanctions that the Israeli prime minister has advocated.
So in other words, it’s important to let the negotiations reach their end point. If there’s a deal, look at the deal. If there’s not, let it be the Iranians’ fault.
Goldberg: Do you think that the prime minister of Israel is trying to drive the United States toward a military confrontation with Iran?
Rhodes: Look, I don’t think that that’s his preferred course of action. What I do think, however, is there’s a logic to the alternatives here, in the sense that if you get an agreement that is verifiable that goes into the double digits of years, that gives us a pathway to ensure that Iran is not getting a nuclear weapon diplomatically.
If Iran does not reach that type of agreement with us and maybe we pivot to sanctions, then the options start to shrink for the United States and the international community, and you’re either betting on the notion that Iran is going to completely capitulate under the pressure of economic sanctions, which by the way does not seem likely given the very nature of the Iranian regime that the prime minister laid out [Tuesday], or you’re left with the decision to take military action.
And look, the president has said all options are on the table and he means it. The point is the military option is not as effective as the diplomatic option in ensuring that Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon for the longest period of time.
Goldberg: Has the White House studied this in some deep way and said, you know what—we’re not going to be able to buy much time if we destroy the 10 or 15 Iranian nuclear facilities?
Rhodes: Yes. I think if you look at any—even independent assessments here, Jeff, if you’re talking about an agreement that is well beyond a decade or even a decade itself—let’s say it’s just 10 years. That is a longer period of time than you could set back the program by just bombing a certain number of facilities. The fact is they do know the nuclear fuel cycle. They do have expertise, and what is most likely to happen in a scenario where there’s a military option is that they do break out and that the program goes underground.
Goldberg: What makes the president believe that an Iran that is essentially empowered, that has been granted through this alleged deal or theoretical deal, the right to enrich uranium that puts it on a pathway toward an end of sanctions, what makes the president think that this kind of empowering moment would lead to better behavior on the part of a country that he himself describes as a bully and as a sponsor of terror and as a sponsor of the Assad regime?
Rhodes: So a couple of things, Jeff. First of all, we would make this deal even on the basis that the Iranian regime is not going to change. So, in other words, this is a nuclear deal, the type we are pursuing that we would make on the merits. And frankly, because we distrust this regime, we would make this deal because it includes the verification measures that allow us the unprecedented access to their nuclear program.
However, if making the deal does help lead to a dynamic where the Iranian regime is moderated, that would obviously be with a preferable course of action. But we’re not banking on that. The purpose of the agreement is not to bet on the notion that Iran will moderate. The purpose of the agreement is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon throughout the duration of the agreement.
I would say what we’ve seen in recent years as Iran has been isolated is that they prioritized their funding on the nuclear program, they prioritized their funding on the RGC, that the hard-liners are very comfortable—
Goldberg: The Revolutionary Guard.
Rhodes: Yes. They’re very comfortable in the current dynamic where Iran is in the penalty box. They can still operate. They still get their accounts. There is, I think, a possibility that if you have this type of agreement, that there is a different faction of Iranian society that does not feel comfortable with the more hard-line direction of the country that could be empowered, and that could lead to a more moderated policy that would be good for the United States, for Israel, and the whole region. But again, we’re not banking on that.
I do think it’s more likely that that dynamic takes place if there’s a nuclear agreement than if there is not. But again, we’re not going to take any chances on that, and that’s why the deal calls for the verification measures that it does because, ultimately, that’s our best hedge against Iran taking nefarious actions.
Goldberg: How do you feel about these negotiations right now? Do you feel like they’re moving toward a successful conclusion?
Rhodes: Well, I feel like they have come a long way, but there is no guarantee. The reason I think we still put this as a 50/50 proposition is it’s going to come down to a question of political will on the Iranian side. Can they make the final compromises on the key areas that can get this across the goal line?
Ultimately, that decision is going to lie with the Iranian leadership, and until that’s done we don’t know that the deal is going to get done. But again, what’s different about now from November or even July, when there were extensions, is that we’re in the ballpark in terms of the gaps narrowing. We can see what this could look like, but we’re not there yet because the Iranians saw further to move on some issues that we really care about, and we’re not going to make a bad deal, as the president said. We have had plenty of opportunity to accept the bad deal and we haven’t done it.