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.
Well, Benjamin Netanyahu certainly knows how to give a speech. But we already knew that.
Netanyahu is eloquent in outlining the terrible crimes of the Iranian regime. But we already knew that.
Netanyahu is committed to the survival of the Jewish people, and the Jewish state. But we already knew that.
Netanyahu loves America. But we already knew that.
Netanyahu believes that Iran is playing the American administration for suckers. But we already knew that.
Netanyahu doesn't have a plausible, realistic plan to keep Iran from gaining possession of a nuclear weapon. But we already knew that.
A number of quick observations about a surreal day in Washington:
1. The speech had two targets, and neither one was Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader. The first set of targets consisted of President Obama, his secretary of state, John Kerry, and Kerry's chief Iran negotiator, Wendy Sherman. Netanyahu called them all out, though not by name, for being hopelessly, haplessly naive in the face of evil. "I don’t believe that Iran’s radical regime will change for the better after this deal," Netanyahu said. "Would Iran be less aggressive when sanctions are removed and its economy is stronger? If Iran is gobbling up four countries right now while it’s under sanctions, how many more countries will Iran devour when sanctions are lifted? Would Iran fund less terrorism when it has mountains of cash with which to fund more terrorism?" President Obama has argued that a nuclear deal may help turn Iran into a more responsible international actor. Netanyahu thinks otherwise.
The second target was the conservative portion of the Israeli electorate, which has, like much of the rest of Israel, grown tired of Netanyahu. He will be returned to power on March 17 if he can convince a large enough number of Likud-oriented voters to stick with his party. If they move to other right-wing parties, Israel's president, Ruvi Rivlin, who loathes Netanyahu, will be presented with an opportunity to call for the formation of a national-unity government, or even a government led outright by the center-left Zionist Camp party. Right-wing voters in Israel aren't upset by Netanyahu's thumb-in-the-eye approach to President Obama. Many of them actually like it, and they will like to see that Netanyahu is more-or-less correct when he argues that Congress has Israel's back.
2. Congress has Israel's back. Nancy Pelosi was very upset after the speech—she thought it condescending—but the reaction to the speech from the floor of the House would certainly convince Israeli voters that Netanyahu has maintained good relations with the legislative branch. The boycott advocated by some left-leaning groups largely failed. About 90 percent of Congress showed up for the speech. The notable exceptions: a meaningful number of Jewish members, and a large number of African-American members. It is unprecedented for Jewish members of Congress to boycott a speech by an Israeli prime minister, and it is a bad omen. It is also unprecedented for so many members of the Congressional Black Caucus (which is quite pro-Israel) to stay away. This is on the Israeli government, and, specifically, its ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer (the architect of this speech) to fix.
3. Netanyahu doesn't profess to understand how negotiations work. In order for negotiations to succeed, all parties have to agree to terms. Netanyahu believes that terms can be imposed on Iran, as terms were imposed on Japan after World War II. But those terms were imposed after a total military defeat. Short of a total military defeat of Iran, the West will not get from Iran all that Netanyahu wants. Asking Congress to link sanctions relief to broader issues, such as Iran's sponsorship of terrorism, and its various regional aggressions, is a way to blow up these negotiations for good. Iran will not agree to these terms, and will walk away. And then it will be free—or freer, at least—to move to nuclear breakout.
4. Netanyahu may—may—have succeeded in putting Obama on the back foot. Obama has a very hard job here. He has to convince American legislators that reaching an agreement with a terror-sponsoring regime that is known to cheat on nuclear matters (and, by the way, also calls for the annihilation of Israel, a country the majority of Americans support) will make the world a safer place. That's a difficult thing to do, especially when one way to actually reach a deal, American negotiators believe, is to "preserve the dignity" of the Iranian side. There's a reasonable chance that this speech will be forgotten in a month. There's also a reasonable chance that Netanyahu just made Obama's mission harder.
In March of 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu, then in his final days as leader of the Israeli opposition, met with me in his Knesset office to discuss an issue that was at the forefront of his mind. He had just won election (for a second time) as prime minister, and he was busy packing, but his thoughts were on Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—and on the new American president, Barack Obama.
"The Obama presidency has two great missions: fixing the economy, and preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons," Netanyahu told me. He described the Iranian nuclear threat as a "hinge of history" and said that the future of "Western civilization" itself depended on stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
He used memorable language—language he would later deploy constantly as prime minister—to describe the threat Iran posed to Israel, to its Arab adversaries, and to the West: "You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran."
Netanyahu has come to Washington as part of his re-election campaign, but his main challenge is not to convince voters on the Israeli right to stick with him on March 17th, when they go to the polls. Nor is his main challenge to give an eloquent speech—he knows how to do this. His main challenge is to provide an alternative vision to President Obama's plan for Iran. Yesterday, Susan Rice, President Obama's national security adviser, went before 16,000 people at the annual AIPAC convention and said, "We cannot let an unachievable ideal stand in the way of a good deal."
The question for Netanyahu is: Is there anything short of carpet-bombing Iran's nuclear facilities that would constitute, for you, a good deal?
I mentioned Netanyahu's characterization of Iran's leadership as a "messianic apocalyptic cult" at the top of this post for a reason. The prime minister's position is that Iran should be allowed no uranium enrichment capability whatsoever, and that relentless sanctions—even more crippling than those currently in place—should be applied until Iran's leaders see the light. But the question is, why would a group of apocalyptic messianists ever fully succumb to sanctions pressure?
This question struck me in 2009 as well. From my post about our interview:
Netanyahu said he would support President Obama’s decision to engage Iran, so long as negotiations brought about a quick end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “How you achieve this goal is less important than achieving it,” he said, but he added that he was skeptical that Iran would respond positively to Obama’s appeals...
“I think the Iranian economy is very weak, which makes Iran susceptible to sanctions that can be ratcheted up by a variety of means.” When I suggested that this statement contradicted his assertion that Iran, by its fanatic nature, is immune to pressure, Netanyahu smiled thinly and said, “Iran is a composite leadership, but in that composite leadership there are elements of wide-eyed fanaticism that do not exist right now in any other would-be nuclear power in the world. That’s what makes them so dangerous.”
He went on, “Since the dawn of the nuclear age, we have not had a fanatic regime that might put its zealotry above its self-interest. People say that they’ll behave like any other nuclear power. Can you take the risk? Can you assume that?"
Many of Netanyahu's arguments about the deal currently taking shape, and about the desires of the Iranian regime, are credible—even President Obama doesn't appear to be convinced that Iran's leaders are on the cusp of a breakthrough—and I'm sure we'll hear those arguments today. I'm also reasonably sure Netanyahu will talk about the need for ever-more crippling sanctions, sanctions that would further concentrate the attention of the regime in Tehran. But I've spoken with Netanyahu several times since the 2009 interview, and I'm convinced he believes, more than ever, that sanctions will not force the Iranians to agree to the sort of deal he could support, or do anything at all to break their will.
What we are left with, then, is military action. If Netanyahu believes that the only solution to this problem is airstrikes, he should say so plainly. He won't, of course, because he understands that the U.S. is not interested in opening up another Middle Eastern front, and also—I'd like to think—because he knows, intellectually, if not viscerally, that airstrikes present no permanent fix to this problem. It is true that airstrikes could set back the Iranian nuclear program by a number of years. It is also true, however, that airstrikes would give Iran the justification to race ahead toward nuclear breakout, as well as providing it with the means to do so, because airstrikes would lead to, among other things, the almost total collapse of international sanctions. And airstrikes cannot eradicate nuclear knowledge, and Iran possesses that in abundance.
Based on the details that have leaked out of the nuclear talks, the deal that is taking shape has some very apparent weaknesses. Netanyahu's challenge is not to point out those weaknesses. His challenge is to present a better alternative to this deal, an alternative that the U.S., Israel, the Arabs—and Iran—must be willing to live with.
Netanyahu's concern about Iran is correct: I don't want a gang of anti-American anti-Semites gaining control of nuclear weapons, either. But he must present a plan that has a realistic chance of succeeding.
Hillary Clinton has stayed silent on the controversy surrounding Benjamin Netanyahu's appearance before Congress, but she has not always been silent on the key issues facing the Obama Administration's Iran nuclear negotiators. Last August, when I interviewed her on various foreign policy matters, she took a hard line on Iran and its ambitions. When I asked her, for instance, whether the Israeli (and Arab) desire to see Iran denied any uranium enrichment capability was unrealistic, she answered, "It’s not an unrealistic position. I think it’s important that they stake out that position." She argued that she herself believes that Iran possesses no "right" to enrich.
So when Benjamin Netanyahu stakes out this exact position in his speech today to Congress, keep in mind that that a Democrat who might be the next president doesn't, in fact, see eye-to-eye with President Obama on this crucial issue.
Here are the relevant excerpts from that August interview:
Jeffrey Goldberg: It seems that you’ve shifted your position on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. By [chief U.S. negotiator]Wendy Sherman’s definition of maximalism, you’ve taken a fairly maximalist position—little or no enrichment for Iran. Are you taking a harder line than your former colleagues in the Obama administration are taking on this matter?
Hillary Rodham Clinton: It’s a consistent line. I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment. Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran. The preference would be no enrichment. The potential fallback position would be such little enrichment that they could not break out. So, little or no enrichment has always been my position.
Goldberg: Am I wrong in saying that the Obama administration’s negotiators have a more flexible understanding of this issue at the moment?
Clinton: I don’t want to speak for them, but I would argue that Iran, through the voice of the supreme leader, has taken a very maximalist position—he wants 190,000centrifuges and the right to enrich. And some in our Congress, and some of our best friends, have taken the opposite position—absolutely no enrichment. I think in a negotiation you need to be very clear about what it is going to take to move the other side. I think at the moment there is a big debate going on in Tehran about what they can or should do in order to get relief from the sanctions. It’s my understanding that we still have a united P5+1 position, which is intensive inspections, very clear limits on what they can do in their facilities that they would permitted to operate, and then how they handle this question of enrichment, whether it’s done from the outside, or whether it can truly be constrained to meet what I think our standard should be of little-to-no enrichment. That’s what this negotiation is about.
Goldberg: But there is no sign that the Iranians are willing to pull back—freezing in place is the farthest they seem to be willing to go. Am I wrong?
Clinton: We don’t know. I think there’s a political debate. I think you had the position staked out by the supreme leader that they’re going to get to do what they want to do, and that they don’t have any intention of having a nuclear weapon but they nevertheless want 190,000 centrifuges (laughs). I think the political, non-clerical side of the equation is basically saying, “Look, you know, getting relief from these sanctions is economically and politically important to us. We have our hands full in Syria and Iraq, just to name two places, maybe increasingly in Lebanon, and who knows what’s going to happen with us and Hamas. So what harm does it do to have a very strict regime that we can live under until we determine that maybe we won’t have to any longer?” That, I think, is the other side of the argument.
Goldberg: Would you be content with an Iran that is perpetually a year away from being able to reach nuclear-breakout capability?
Clinton: I would like it to be more than a year. I think it should be more than a year. No enrichment at all would make everyone breathe easier. If, however, they want a little bit for the Tehran research reactor, or a little bit for this scientific researcher, but they’ll never go above 5 percent enrichment—
Goldberg: So, a few thousand centrifuges?
Clinton: We know what “no” means. If we’re talking a little, we’re talking about a discrete, constantly inspected number of centrifuges. “No” is my preference.
Goldberg: Would you define what “a little” means?
Goldberg: So what the Gulf states want, and what the Israelis want, which is to say no enrichment at all, is not a militant, unrealistic position?
Clinton: It’s not an unrealistic position. I think it’s important that they stake out that position.
I had time at the AIPAC conference on Sunday to ask myself some questions, so I did. I originally did this as an exercise in head-clearing—which is a hard thing to do at AIPAC—but then thought that I might as well post it. I hope this gets at some of the complexity of the moment:
Question: Three days ago, you wrote that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was so desperate to stage a campaign rally on Capitol Hill that he was willing to risk the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship. On Sunday, you wrote that Netanyahu is making credible arguments against the looming Iran nuclear deal. What changed?
Answer: Nothing. There’s no contradiction here. The prime minister of Israel is the steward of the U.S.-Israel relationship. He can’t risk it recklessly. And he needs the president to understand Israel’s strategic dilemmas. John Boehner, Netanyahu’s new best friend in Washington, doesn’t have an air force. The maintenance of the relationship is a direct national-security interest of Israel's. And if Netanyahu understood that his relationship with Obama is of paramount importance, he wouldn’t have let it deteriorate the way it has. But here’s the important thing: None of this is to suggest that the looming Iran deal is a particularly good one.
Q: Isn’t the collapse of the relationship also on Obama?
A: Yes, at times the White House hasn’t managed the Netanyahu account well either, and on occasion it has made unrealistic demands on him. But: This is an unequal relationship. The U.S. is indispensable to Israel. Israel is not indispensable to the U.S. Most Israeli prime ministers have understood this formula and have made policy accordingly.
Q: What do you want Netanyahu to do, then? Sit at home and quietly wait for the world to collapse around him?
A: I don’t want him to treat Congress as a campaign stop, which is what he’s doing. I don’t want him to be played for a sucker by allowing one American political party to turn Israel into a weapon against the other American political party. And I don’t want him to turn the president of the United States into an open adversary.
Q: But if the president is going to strike a weak deal, one that sets Iran on the road to nuclear-weapons status, why shouldn’t he speak up?
A: He should absolutely speak up. He doesn’t have to speak up in an address before Congress. If he wants to lobby against the president, he could do so in ways that don’t alienate much of the American polity. Netanyahu has a prejudice against subtlety. This is one of his problems.
Q: It seems obvious that he’s giving the speech, no matter what. So what should he say?
A: It won’t be difficult for Netanyahu to make the case that the incipient nuclear deal—at least as we understand it from leaks—might be a weak one. I don’t like some of its features as well. The harder task for Netanyahu is to present a better alternative. He hasn’t done that yet.
Q: Is no deal better than this deal?
A: Perhaps. Again, we don’t know the exact parameters of this deal. But let’s imagine the following scenario: Netanyahu gives his speech and, two hours later, Obama calls him up:
Obama: “You know what, Bibi? You’re right. The only deal the Iranians are ready to accept is a terrible deal for us. So I’m pulling out of negotiations and I’m going to ask my friends in Congress to strengthen sanctions.”
Netanyahu: “I knew you’d come around to my view. And I accept your apology.”
Obama: “Well, you are a man of vast experience and perspicacity. I should have listened to you all along.”
The next day, the Iranian regime, realizing it has nothing left to lose, moves toward nuclear breakout. It fires up all of its centrifuges, and puts itself on a pathway to have a bomb within a year.
On the other hand, an agreement—even a weak agreement—may allow the West to buy itself 10 or 15 years, at least.
Q: Okay, but if Iran actually goes to breakout, wouldn’t someone bomb their facilities? Netanyahu has threatened to do so for a long time.
A: Yes, quite possibly. Netanyahu, American officials believe, has come quite close, only to be shut down by Obama, and also by some of his own generals. (This is one of the reasons he feels like a sucker and doesn't want to be suckered again.)
I still suspect, by the way, that there are two scenarios in which Obama himself might use force to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear finish line. (I might be the only person left who believes this, but I’m comfortable, for now, in my heresy.) The first is an overt move toward breakout by the Iranians. The second is the discovery of an attempt by Iran to “sneak-out” (to borrow Gary Samore’s phrase). Iran has already engaged in various deceptive practices over the years (its two main enrichment facilities, at Natanz and Fordow, both were kept hidden for years). If a huge underground facility is discovered—one that gives definitive lie to Iranian claims to be negotiating in good faith—then I think Obama might feel compelled to act.
Q: So if you’re Netanyahu, wouldn’t you want to subvert the deal, thereby setting the U.S. and Iran on a path toward armed confrontation?
A: Well, that’s sort of a Masada option. I mean, if I were interested in ruining the U.S.-Israel relationship, and starting a war with Hezbollah, the wholly owned Iranian subsidiary in Lebanon that has 100,000 rockets pointed at my country, and if I believed that the carpet-bombing of Iran’s many nuclear facilities would permanently fix my problem, then I would hope to defeat Obama in Congress.
Q: Wait, why wouldn’t the carpet-bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities permanently fix the problem?
A: Well, for one thing, you can’t destroy knowledge. Iran’s scientists have mastered the fuel cycle, they’ve developed ballistic-missile technology, and they’re probably got a pretty decent warhead design. It would take them time to rebuild their facilities after an attack (unless, of course, the U.S. bombs them over and over and over again, which doesn’t seem likely). And they would be able to rebuild their nuclear program without suffering under sanctions because the sanctions regime would almost completely collapse following a preventative attack by the U.S. or Israel.
Q: So the best option here would be for the United States to negotiate the toughest deal possible?
A: Yes, which is why I wish that the Iranian negotiators were actually negotiating on behalf of the U.S.
A: I think the Iranians are doing an excellent job of playing a weak hand. It seems as if the American side wants this deal too much. It’s always a bad idea to walk into a car dealership and announce, “I’m going to buy this car no matter what.” I fear this is what Obama’s negotiators may have done.
Q: So what should Israel do?
A: Lobby hard for a stronger deal rather than lobby against any deal at all, and try to fix relations with the Obama administration, understanding that the loss of bipartisan support for Israel in the U.S. is a direct national-security threat to Israel.
Q: Do you think the two sides will even get to a deal?
A: I’ve always been skeptical. Ayatollah Khamenei may make Netanyahu’s job easier by rejecting even a generous deal, because he’s Ayatollah Khamenei.
Q: And if not?
A: The most important thing remains the same: To keep an anti-Semitic, anti-American regime from gaining possession of nuclear weapons. Let’s see the actual parameters of the deal, and see if Iran accepts the general framework, and then make a judgment.
The perverse genius of Benjamin Netanyahu and his aides (and their Republican handmaidens) is that they have managed to turn a moment in which President Obama should have been busy defending his pursuit of a nuclear agreement with a dangerous adversary into a stress test of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
But on Wednesday, the day after Netanyahu delivers his reelection speech to Congress to 23, or 19, or 31 standing ovations (advice to viewers: study the Democrats as they arrange their facial expressions in complicated and interesting ways), the focus will return to the president, his plans for the Middle East, and the many promises he has made about Iran and its nuclear program.
I’m fairly sure Netanyahu will deliver a powerful speech, in part because he is eloquent in English and forceful in presentation. But there is another reason this speech may be strong: Netanyahu has a credible case to make. Any nuclear agreement that allows Iran to maintain a native uranium-enrichment capability is a dicey proposition; in fact, any agreement at all with an empire-building, Assad-sponsoring, Yemen-conquering, Israel-loathing, theocratic terror regime is a dicey proposition.
The deal that seems to be taking shape right now does not fill me—or many others who support a diplomatic solution to this crisis—with confidence. Reports suggest that the prospective agreement will legitimate Iran’s right to enrich uranium (a “right” that doesn’t actually exist in international law); it will allow Iran to maintain many thousands of operating centrifuges; and it will lapse after 10 or 15 years, at which point Iran would theoretically be free to go nuclear. (The matter of the sunset clause worries me, but I’m more worried that the Iranians will find a way to cheat their way out of the agreement even before the sun is scheduled to set.)
Obama’s greatest argument against Netanyahu is simple and dispositive: The Israelis have not offered a better solution to the Iranian challenge. But the fact that Netanyahu has no actual ideas—other than strategies that lead to endless sanctions of diminishing effectiveness and bombing runs of similarly dubious long-term effectiveness—does not absolve the Obama administration of its responsibility to secure the toughest deal possible.
This is a very dangerous moment for Obama and for the world. He has made many promises, and if he fails to keep them—if he inadvertently (or, God forbid, advertently) sets Iran on the path to the nuclear threshold, he will be forever remembered as the president who sparked a nuclear-arms race in the world’s most volatile region, and for breaking a decades-old promise to Israel that the United States would defend its existence and viability as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
In an interview with me three years ago, President Obama said he was motivated to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon in part because he worried that a nuclear Iran would cause its many Middle East rivals to pursue their own nuclear programs.
“It will not be tolerable to a number of states in that region for Iran to have a nuclear weapon and them not to have a nuclear weapon,” he said. “Iran is known to sponsor terrorist organizations, so the threat of proliferation becomes that much more severe.” He went on, “The only analogous situation is North Korea. We have applied a lot of pressure on North Korea as well and, in fact, today found them willing to suspend some of their nuclear activities and missile testing and come back to the table. But North Korea is even more isolated, and certainly less capable of shaping the environment (around it) than Iran is. And so the dangers of an Iran getting nuclear weapons that then leads to a free-for-all in the Middle East is something that I think would be very dangerous for the world.”
If Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey respond to an Iran nuclear agreement by ramping up their own nuclear programs, we may be able to judge the deal a provisional failure.
On Israel, here’s the promise Obama made that stays with me the most: “I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don’t bluff,” he said. “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 government recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.” He went on to say four words that have since become famous: “We’ve got Israel’s back.”
Netanyahu obviously believes that Obama doesn't have his, or Israel's, back. There will be no convincing Netanyahu that Obama is anything but a dangerous adversary. But if a consensus forms in high-level Israeli security circles (where there is a minimum of Obama-related hysterics) that the president has agreed to a weak deal, one that provides a glide path for Iran toward the nuclear threshold, then we will be able to say, fairly, that Obama's promises to Israel were not kept. One of Netanyahu’s most strident critics, Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad intelligence agency, said recently, “A nuclear Iran is a reality that Israel won't be able to come to terms with.”
He went on to say, “Two issues in particular concern me with respect to the talks between the world powers and Iran: What happens if and when the Iranians violate the agreement, and what happens when the period of the agreement comes to an end and they decide to pursue nuclear weapons?”
In the coming weeks, President Obama must provide compelling answers to these questions.
It would be reassuring—sort of—to believe that Benjamin Netanyahu decided to set the U.S.-Israel relationship on fire mainly because he fears that President Obama is selling out Israel. But Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on March 3—a speech arranged without Obama’s knowledge by Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and by Obama’s chief Republican rival, House Speaker John Boehner—is motivated by another powerful fear: the fear of unemployment. The message Bibi is preparing to deliver on Tuesday (a “statesmanlike message,” according to an official close to him) has as its actual target not Congress but, instead, Israeli voters who need reminding, in Netanyahu’s view, that he is the only leader strong enough to face down both the genocidal regime in Tehran and the Israel-loathing regime in Washington. (Make no mistake: Netanyahu sees Obama as an actual adversary. If only all of Israel's adversaries would veto U.N. Security Council resolutions hostile to Israel...)
Bibi is facing an existential threat to his career, and Boehner is staging for him the ultimate campaign rally, 6,000 miles away from home. People I’ve spoken with in Israel who have a sophisticated understanding of current campaign dynamics—the Israeli election is set for March 17—say that a well-delivered, well-received speech (standing ovations in Congress seem very impressive unless you know better) could gain Netanyahu two or three extra seats in the Knesset, which might be what he needs to retain his job. Polls are showing the centrist Zionist Camp party led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni competing strongly against Netanyahu's Likud party, and there are also hints that traditional Netanyahu voters who have grown tired of him or who are concerned about issues that don’t seem to concern him—Israel’s affordable housing crisis, for one—might move to other right-wing parties, making his task more difficult.
All of this is not to say that Netanyahu isn’t worried about Iran, and isn’t worried about a set of (for now, theoretical) concessions by the West that could put Iran on a slow but steady path to the nuclear threshold. But there is no reason—none, zero, efes—to believe that his putative goal, to stiffen the spine of Congress in advance of a framework agreement, could not have been achieved a) immediately after the election; b) in intensive one-on-one, or one-on-two, or five, lobbying meetings with senators; or c) in a way that didn’t so obviously disrespect the president of the United States, or place Democratic supporters of Israel in an atrocious bind. “If this didn’t have an electoral quality to it, why not just say to Boehner, ‘Invite me after the election’?” Dennis Ross, the former Middle East peace negotiator, asked me.
Netanyahu is engaging in behavior that is without precedent: He is apparently so desperate to stay in office that he has let the Republicans weaponize his country in their struggle against a Democratic president they despise. Boehner seeks to do damage to Obama, and he has turned Netanyahu into an ally in this cause. It's not entirely clear here who is being played.
For decades, it has been a cardinal principle of Israeli security and foreign-policy doctrine that its leaders must cultivate bipartisan support in the United States, and therefore avoid even the appearance of favoritism. This is the official position of the leading pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, AIPAC, as well, which is why its leaders are privately fuming about Netanyahu’s end-run around the White House. Even though AIPAC’s leadership leans right, the organization knows that support for Israel in America must be bipartisan in order for it to be stable. “Dermer and Netanyahu don’t believe that Democrats are capable of being pro-Israel, which is crazy for a lot of reasons, but one of the main reasons is that most Jews are Democrats,” one veteran AIPAC leader told me.
In Israel, cynicism about Netanyahu’s intentions is spreading. “Netanyahu, who purports to be the big expert on everything American, subordinated Israel’s most crucial strategic interests to election considerations, and the repercussions will endure for some time,” Chuck Freilich, a former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council, wrote last week. Another Netanyahu critic, Martin Indyk, the former Obama administration peace envoy, told me that he believes the Israeli prime minister is motivated by a combination of factors, including a belief that he is best equipped to defend the Jewish people against eliminationist threats, and a “genuine concern about the nature of the deal,” which Indyk said he shares.
Indyk went on to say, however, that “in the process, Bibi has generated a suspicion that there’s another motivation, which is that he’s in a neck-and-neck race for prime minister, and this appearance before Congress looks like an attempt to show the Israeli voter two weeks before the election that Congress has his back even though he’s in a confrontation with the president of the United States. And because of that suspicion, he has managed to achieve the opposite of his intention.”
People with knowledge of Netanyahu’s thinking say he believes he will be able, after the election (and assuming he forms the next government), to cauterize the wounds he has opened with the Obama administration. But as Michael Oren, who served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States until 2013, has noted, the U.S.-Israel relationship is now in “uncharted waters.” No one knows how this disaster will unfold.
Ross, the former negotiator, believes that the near-term relationship between the United States and Israel depends almost entirely on the nature of the next Israeli government. “If we see a solely right-wing government, then we have a situation in which even if Bibi seeks to improve things, it will be difficult,” he said. “On traditional defense issues, the relations will be okay, but the impulse won’t be there on the part of the Obama administration to protect Israel on matters related to the delegitimization campaign”—the movement that calls into question Israel’s right to exist—“and on the internationalization of the conflict.” In other words, do not expect to see the Obama administration go out of its way to protect Israel at the United Nations.
Despite the invitation from Boehner, it has become clear that much of the rest of the world has stopped listening to Netanyahu. This is not solely his fault—the world is stacked against Israel on most matters—but it is Netanyahu’s job to work within this straitened reality.
“Because Netanyahu was not forthcoming on the Palestinian issue and because he eroded Israel’s international legitimacy, the world is no longer listening to his truthful message on the Iranian issue,” Ari Shavit, the Israeli columnist, wrote this week. “Because Netanyahu has worked against rather than with the American administration, the American administration has tilted toward Tehran and against Jerusalem. Israel, rather than Iran, has been isolated. The reason Netanyahu is about to give a brilliant and desperate speech to the U.S. Congress is that he knows he lost the game.”
On this last point, I am not entirely sure: One of the reasons Obama administration officials have reacted with such pique to the Netanyahu speech is that they know he is an effective speaker, and they understand that they may, in any case, have a hard time selling a nuclear deal to Congress, and to an American public, predisposed to dislike and distrust Iran.
But let's look at what would happen if Netanyahu "wins" this battle. Indyk lays out a depressing scenario:
"What happens if the president succeeds in doing a deal despite the speech of the prime minister?" he asks. "Instead of the United States and Israel talking about ways to provide strategic reassurance to Israel, there’s going to be an ongoing fight over this deal. And what if the prime minister then succeeds in killing the deal? How will the president relate to the destruction of one of his signature policy initiatives? And if the sanctions then collapse, as seems likely, and Iran continues moving towards a nuclear weapon, how does the prime minister propose to stop Iran? He will certainly manage in the process to create the impression that he wants the United States to go to war with Iran. I don’t think the American people, in their war-weary state, will appreciate that."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is refusing to meet with a group of ardently pro-Israel Democratic senators next week in Washington, but he very much wants to see the faces of Arab ambassadors in the audience during his controversial address to Congress.
Netanyahu's ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, has tried, without success, to recruit Arab ambassadors to come to his boss’s speech, e-mailing them personally to plead for their attendance. Dermer, who is not a trained diplomat, is the man who helped engineer the invitation to Netanyahu to speak to Congress in opposition to President Obama’s (so far theoretical) Iran nuclear deal.
Israeli sources tell me that Dermer in recent days has e-mailed at least two Arab ambassadors, those of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. He made the case in these e-mails that Sunni-majority Arab states and Israel have a common interest in thwarting a nuclear agreement with Shiite Iran—and that presenting a united and public front on Capitol Hill will help convince Congress to stop the Iran deal before it’s too late.
It is true that Israel and such countries as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait see Iran as an enemy, and believe that the Obama administration might be inadvertently (or, for the more conspiratorially minded, advertently) setting Iran on the path to nuclearization. It is also true that no Arab ambassador would allow himself to be used as a prop in Netanyahu’s controversial address, and I'm told that neither ambassador will be in attendance. (A related, subsidiary question is this: Just who from the diplomatic corps will actually attend the speech? Will any ambassador show up?)
The Netanyahu camp is worried about the political impact of its preemptive strike on Capitol Hill, I’m told. Netanyahu understands that he will be burning his remaining bridges to the White House by going up to the Hill next week. Israelis close to Netanyahu have been warning him that his decision to openly align with the Republican Party against a Democratic president is both unprecedented and deeply risky. In fact, Netanyahu’s own national security advisor, Yossi Cohen, told at least two people during his visit to Washington last week that he wished the speech were not taking place. According to people who have spoken with him, Cohen said that he is troubled by the timing of the speech —two weeks before the Israeli elections—and by the appearance that it is an attempt by Israel to insert itself directly into American partisan politics. Like most Israeli national security officials, he understands that the United States is Israel's second-line of defense, and can't quite believe that Netanyahu has so dramatically written off a president with almost two years left in office. (The Israeli embassy spokesman has sent me a statement from Cohen denying that he is opposed to Netanyahu's speech.*)
Netanyahu’s allies believe that the prime minister is correct to argue against the not-yet-finished deal (as its details are currently understood), because it could, over time, legitimize Iran's nuclear ambitions. But they are upset by the manner in which the speech was arranged. The White House had no idea that Dermer and the office of House Speaker John Boehner were negotiating the appearance until it was virtually a fait accompli. (Sources also told me that Cohen, a former official of the Mossad intelligence agency, did not know that Dermer and Netanyahu were planning such a speech until hours before it was publicly announced, which, if nothing else, speaks to the quality of Dermer’s and Netanyahu’s tradecraft.)
It would have been quite a powerful image: the ambassadors of Gulf Arab states providing, by their presence in Congress, tacit endorsement of Netanyahu’s anti-Iran (and anti-Obama) message. But the Arab states are not about to publicly stipulate what they privately say—that they agree with Netanyahu's understanding of Iran's intentions, and of the potential pitfalls of a nuclear agreement, and disagree with Obama's. And they are too smart to involve themselves in the partisan mess that this Netanyahu speech has become. I doubt, for instance, that they would turn down the offer of meetings with their friends in the Democratic Party Senate caucus.
* The Israeli embassy spokesman has sent along the following statement: "National security advisor Yossi Cohen stresses that 'In total contrast to what was published I am not opposed to PM Netanyahu's congressional speech. In my opinion, the speech is imperative at this time in order to explain why the emerging deal between Iran and the P5+1 is dangerous for Israel and the world.'"
Earlier this week, shortly after I published a lengthy post critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, Dermer expressed his general dissatisfaction with the piece to me. But he also agreed to a request to answer several questions about the recent controversy, which centers on an invitation to Netanyahu from House Speaker John Boehner to address Congress on Iran, and other subjects. The White House has expressed anger about being blindsided by the invitation. Here are the e-mailed questions, and his e-mailed answers:
Jeffrey Goldberg: It is widely believed (by, among others, me) that you and your government were making an end-run around the White House. Is this not the case?
Ambassador Ron Dermer: Before I answer your question, let me be clear that the prime minister’s visit to Washington is intended for one purpose—to speak about Iran, that openly threatens the survival of the Jewish state. The survival of Israel is not a partisan issue. It is an issue for all Americans because those who seek Israel’s destruction also threaten America.
America and Israel have to face this threat together. The prime minister is looking forward to the opportunity to speak to the American Congress and through them to the American people about what he believes is the greatest challenge of our time—preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.
Now let me tell you the facts. The speaker’s office initially reached out to me regarding the idea of the prime minister giving a speech less than two weeks before an official invitation was sent. We said that we were open to making such an address and went back and forth with the speaker’s office to see if there were potential dates that could work for the prime minister’s schedule and the congressional calendar. The final decision to invite the prime minister was made by the speaker’s office the day before he was invited—and I was informed of it that afternoon.
It was also made clear to me that it was the speaker’s responsibility and normal protocol for the Speaker’s office to notify the administration of the invitation. That is why I felt it would be inappropriate for me to raise the issue with the administration, including in my meeting with the secretary of state, until the speaker notified them.
The speaker’s office apparently informed the administration about it the morning of the announcement, around two hours before it was publicized. After it was publicized, we were in contact with administration officials, both here and in Jerusalem. We informed them that we wanted to move the date to March 3 so that it could be combined with a visit to AIPAC that the prime minister was also considering. Once that date was cleared with the speaker’s office, the prime minister officially announced that he would accept the invitation to come and speak.
Goldberg: Why does your prime minister seem so confident that President Obama is ready to strike a weak deal with Iran?
Dermer: We have an excellent and ongoing dialogue with the administration regarding the talks with Iran. That dialogue has been honest, open, and constructive. Israel does not know whether there will be a deal with Iran but we are very concerned about where things are headed. The prime minister has expressed those concerns privately to the president and there have been many discussions on this issue at all levels of our two governments.
The basic problem is that our policies regarding Iran are not fully aligned. That is a product of many things, including that Israel is closer and more vulnerable to this threat, and has no margin of error.
Israel’s policy is not merely to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon today; it is also to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon in the future. And Israel is very concerned that a deal will be forged that will not dismantle Iran’s nuclear-weapons capability. We are concerned that it would leave Iran with an advanced nuclear infrastructure today—relying on intelligence and inspectors to prevent Iran from breaking out or sneaking out to the bomb—and in the foreseeable future enable Iran to have an industrial-sized nuclear program, as the timeframe for this agreement runs out and all sanctions are removed. That is an outcome that is unacceptable to Israel.
Israel appreciates that relations with Iran are an important foreign-policy priority for the Obama administration. But equally, I would hope that everyone would appreciate what it means to us to see that the deal that is emerging would pose a threat to the survival of Israel.
Goldberg: Democrats (including, and maybe especially, Jewish Democrats) believe that the prime minister is sometimes disrespectful to the president, and they worry that your government privileges its relations with the Republicans at their expense. Assuming you believe this is wrong, why is this wrong?
Dermer: The prime minister and the president have disagreed on issues, but the prime minister has never intentionally treated the president disrespectfully—and if that is what some people felt, it certainly was not the prime minister’s intention.
In fact, I can tell you, as someone very close to the prime minister, that he has a great deal of respect for the president. He also deeply appreciates the many things that President Obama has done for Israel—from upgraded security cooperation and enhanced intelligence sharing to military assistance and Iron Dome funding to opposing anti-Israel initiatives at the UN.
In an era of intense partisanship here, Israel feels very fortunate that we have tremendous friends on both sides of the aisle. Democrats and Republicans alike are committed to strengthening Israel and to strengthening the U.S.-Israel alliance, and we deeply, deeply appreciate this bipartisan support.
Goldberg: How does an address to Congress, one arranged by the Republican speaker, not convey the appearance that you're lobbying against the president?
Dermer: I know that people are trying to turn this into a personal or a partisan issue, but for Israel, it is neither. It is about an issue that affects the fate of the country.
In the last couple of weeks, people have heard from Prime Minister Cameron [of Great Britain] and other European leaders about the Iran issue. One would hope that people would feel that the opinion of the prime minister of Israel, a staunch ally of the United States threatened by Iran with annihilation, would also be worth hearing.
Ultimately, everyone will make their own decisions, but we think it is important that Israel’s voice be heard clearly in this debate at this critical time.
Goldberg: Do you believe that an address by the prime minister to Congress will serve the purpose of toughening up the deal?
Dermer: Of course, no one can know for sure what effect any speech can and will have. But I do think the prime minister has a moral obligation, as the leader of Israel and in living memory of an attempt to annihilate the Jewish people, to speak up about a deal that could endanger the survival of the one and only Jewish state.
The Jewish people are blessed that today, unlike 70 years ago, we have the power to defend ourselves. And Israel will never cede the right to defend itself under any circumstances.
But the Jewish people today have something else we did not have 70 years ago—a voice—a sovereign voice that gives us the ability to make our case.
There may be some people who believe that the prime minister of Israel should have declined this invitation to speak before the most powerful parliament in the world on an issue that concerns our survival and our future. But we have learned from our history that the world becomes a more dangerous place for the Jewish people when the Jewish people are silent.
That is why the prime minister feels the deepest moral obligation to appear and speak before the Congress while there is still time for him to make a difference.
Whether his words will change anything, I don’t know. But he must speak up while there is still time to speak up.
Goldberg: Does your government seek an armed confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program?
Dermer: Of course not. Resolving this issue peacefully is by far the best outcome for Israel.
But to resolve it, you have to actually resolve it. That means effectively dismantling Iran’s nuclear-weapons capability. That is not what the deal on the table will do, and therein lies the problem. The agreement that is being discussed today is not an agreement that would dismantle Iran’s nuclear-weapons capability. Rather it is one that would leave Iran as a nuclear-threshold state today and after the timeframe for the deal expires, Iran would face few restrictions and no sanctions on what would quickly become a vast nuclear program.
Iran’s regime is not only committed to Israel’s destruction, it is working towards Israel’s destruction. It has used Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other proxies to fire thousands of rockets and threaten Israel from Lebanon, Gaza, the Sinai, and the Golan Heights. Just yesterday, Hezbollah took responsibility for an attack that killed two soldiers and injured seven more.
The international community stands at the precipice of forging an agreement with Iran that could leave this dangerous regime as a threshold nuclear state. That is not a good deal. We hope that the P5+1 will only sign a deal that truly resolves the problem and dismantles Iran’s nuclear-weapons capability. If that were the deal, Israel would be the first country to support it.
Benjamin Netanyahu believes he has just one job, and that is to stop Iran from getting hold of nuclear weapons. He might argue that this description of his mission as Israel’s prime minister is too limiting, though such an argument would not be particularly credible. Israel’s very existence, he has argued, consistently, and at times convincingly, is predicated on stopping Iran, a country ruled by a regime that seeks both Israel’s annihilation and the means to carry it out.
Netanyahu’s options are limited. A country possessing scientific knowledge, material resources, and the will to cross the nuclear threshold is very difficult to stop. One way for Netanyahu to stop Iran, or to slow down its progress toward a bomb, would be to launch a preventative attack on its nuclear facilities. He has threatened to do so (credibly, according to officials of the Obama administration) but he has not yet done it, perhaps because American warnings against such a strike have been dire; perhaps because he understands that such an attack might not work; or perhaps because he is by nature cautious, despite his rhetoric.
Whatever the case, the only other way for Netanyahu to stop Iran would be to convince the president of the United States, the leader of the nation that is Israel’s closest ally and most crucial benefactor, to confront Iran decisively. An Israeli strike could theoretically set back Iran’s nuclear program, but only the U.S. has the military capabilities to set back the program in anything approaching a semi-permanent way. And only the United States has the throw-weight to organize sanctions regimes of lasting consequence.
For several years, Netanyahu and President Obama, despite their mutual loathing, worked more or less in tandem on this issue. Netanyahu traveled the world arguing for stringent sanctions, and Obama did much the same. In fact, Obama used Netanyahu’s tough posture to America’s advantage: On several occasions, Obama and officials in his administration played good cop/bad cop, telling other world leaders that toughening sanctions on Iran would be the only way to forestall an Israeli attack, and this line of argument often proved effective.
Obama, who has argued that a nuclear Iran poses a “profound” national-security threat to the U.S., believed that pressure was a means to an end—the end, of course, being negotiations. A negotiated neutralization of the Iranian nuclear threat would be in the best interests of the U.S. and its Middle East allies, he argued, and he has worked assiduously to keep Netanyahu from taking precipitous action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, even as he used the threat to his advantage.
Netanyahu does not appear to believe that negotiations will bring about an end to the Iranian threat. He believes that any settlement agreed to by Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader, would necessarily be, from the Israeli perspective, hopelessly weak. There is good reason to be sympathetic to this argument. Doubts about Iranian intentions are warranted, as is skepticism about the zeal with which the West is seeking such an agreement. But there is good reason to sympathize with Obama and his negotiators as well. They believe that a negotiated settlement that promises to keep Iran perpetually a year or more from the nuclear threshold, and provides for intrusive inspections of Iranian facilities, is far from perfect, but better than the alternative, which is eventual confrontation.
Thus, a conundrum, one with greater consequences for Netanyahu and his country than for Obama and his, because of Israel’s small size, relative lack of power, and close physical proximity to Iran.
Faced with this conundrum—an American president who he believes is willing to strike a flawed deal with Iran—Netanyahu has made the second-worst choice he could make. He has not attacked Iran, which is good—an Israeli attack holds the promise of disaster—but he has decided to ruin his relations with Obama.
To be sure, the Obama administration does not make it particularly easy on Netanyahu. For instance, early in Obama's first term, senior officials in his administration were quasi-openly rooting for Tzipi Livni to replace him as prime minister.
But, unfortunately for Netanyahu, it is incumbent upon the junior partner in the Israel-U.S. relationship to maintain an even keel in the relationship. Netanyahu, grappling with a fear that Obama will go wobbly on Iran, could have tried a long time ago to create a discreet, continuous, and respectful dialogue in advance of the conclusion of negotiations, in order to try to shape the president’s thinking, and—this is important—to work with Obama on issues that interest the United States (advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, for instance, by taking the initiative once in a blue moon) in order to make the American side understand that his government is interested in giving, not merely in taking.
Instead, Netanyahu chose to make a desperate-seeming end-run around the president and attempted to appeal directly to Congress to oppose a decision Obama has not yet made. In a plan concocted by Ron Dermer, who serves as Netanyahu’s ambassador to the U.S., the speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, invited Netanyahu to address Congress on the dangers of a nuclear deal and the need for tougher sanctions, without first informing the White House.
The flaws in this approach are many. Obama administration officials have already felt disrespected by Netanyahu (recall his condescending, and public, Oval Office lecture to the president), and so this latest violation of protocol set their teeth on edge. Another flaw: The Obama administration is trying to create conditions so that if the negotiations do collapse, it will be the Iranians who get the blame, not the Americans. Legislating new sanctions—even delayed, triggered sanctions—would give the Iranians the excuse to quit negotiations and blame the U.S. Such a situation would not help Obama maintain the strong international sanctions regime that has stayed in place through the past year of talks. (Actually passing legislation now also seems superfluous; only the most obtuse Iranian leader would fail to realize that a failure in the negotiations process would lead to more sanctions.)
An even more obvious flaw: John Boehner is not the commander-in-chief, and does not make U.S. foreign policy. Netanyahu might find Boehner’s approach to Iran more politically and emotionally satisfying than Obama’s, but this is irrelevant. Yes, Congress can pass new sanctions against Iran, but it is the executive branch that drives U.S. Iran policy. Barack Obama will be president for two more years, and it makes absolutely no sense for an Israeli leader to side so ostentatiously with a sitting American president’s domestic political opposition.
Netanyahu appears to believe that his mission is singular, but Israeli prime ministers, in fact, have two main tasks. The first is to protect their country from existential threats. The second: To work very hard to stay on the good side of the president and people of the United States. Success in accomplishing this first task is sometimes predicated on achieving this second task.
Israel has been, for several decades, a bipartisan cause in Washington. Bipartisan support accounts for the ease with which Israeli prime ministers have historically been heard in Washington; it accounts for the generous aid packages Israel receives; and it also explains America’s commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge.
Netanyahu’s management of his relationship with Obama threatens the bipartisan nature of Israel’s American support. His Dermer-inspired, Boehner-enabled end-run has alienated three crucially important constituencies. First, the administration itself: Netanyahu's estrangement from the Obama White House now appears to be permanent. It will be very difficult for Netanyahu to make the White House hear his criticisms of whatever deal may one day be reached with Iran.
Netanyahu has also alienated many elected Democrats, including Jewish Democrats on Capitol Hill. One Jewish member of Congress told me that he felt humiliated and angered by Netanyahu’s ploy to address Congress “behind the president’s back.” A non-Jewish Democratic elected official texted me over the weekend to say that the damage Netanyahu is doing to Israel’s relationship with the U.S. may be “irreparable.”
A larger group that Netanyahu risks alienating is American Jewry, or at least the strong majority of American Jews that has voted for Obama twice. Netanyahu’s decision to pit U.S. political party against U.S. political party—because that is what his end-run does—puts American Jewish supporters of Israel in a messy, uncomfortable spot, and it is not in Israel's interest to place American Jews in a position in which they have to choose between their president and the leader of a Jewish state whose behavior is making them queasy.
Why doesn’t Netanyahu understand that alienating Democrats is not in the best interest of his country? From what I can tell, he doubts that Democrats are—or will be shortly—a natural constituency for Israel, and he clearly believes that Obama is a genuine adversary. As I reported last year, in an article that got more attention for a poultry-related epithet an administration official directed at Netanyahu than anything else, Netanyahu has told people he has “written off” Obama.
I should have, at the time, explored the slightly unreal notion that an Israeli prime minister would even contemplate “writing off” an American president (though I did predict that Netanyahu would take his case directly to Congress). I still don’t understand Netanyahu’s thinking. It is immaterial whether an Israeli prime minister finds an American president agreeable or not. A sitting president cannot be written off by a small, dependent ally, without terrible consequences.
As Ron Dermer's predecessor in Washington, Michael Oren, said in reaction to this latest Netanyahu blow-up: "It's advisable to cancel the speech to Congress so as not to cause a rift with the American government. Much responsibility and reasoned political behavior are needed to guard interests in the White House."
Oren, though appointed ambassador by Netanyahu, is now running for Knesset on another party's line. When he was in Washington, he worried more about the state of Israel's bipartisan support than almost any other issue. He recently criticized Netanyahu, albeit indirectly, for risking Israel's relations with the U.S.: "Today, more than ever, it is clear that Israel-U.S. relations are the foundation of any economic, security, and diplomatic approach. It is our responsibility to strengthen those ties immediately."
There is hypocrisy in the discussion of the Netanyahu-Boehner end-run. It is not unprecedented for foreign leaders to lobby Congress directly; the Arab states opposed to Iran do it all the time, and the British prime minister, David Cameron, lobbied Congress earlier this month on behalf of Obama’s Iran policy, and against the arguments of the Republicans.
But the manner and execution and overall tone-deafness of Netanyahu’s recent ploy suggest that he—and his current ambassador—don’t understand how to manage Israel’s relationships in Washington. Netanyahu wants a role in shaping the Iranian nuclear agreement, should one materialize. His recent actions suggest that he doesn't quite know what he's doing.
Buried in an Agence France Presse article about the failure of international donors to pay the $5.4 billion they've pledged to help rebuild Gaza is an absolute gem of a quote:
A Hamas official warned recently that the territory could become a breeding ground for extremism unless promised reconstruction is accelerated.
"Our message to the world, which is scared of terrorism and extremism, is that the delay in rebuilding Gaza and the continuing blockade against it will make it a ripe environment for the spread of extremism and terrorism," Khalil al-Haya told a Gaza City meeting of the movement's representatives in the Palestinian parliament.
I'm struck more by the credulity of the reporting in this article than by the actual statement from Mr. al-Haya. Of course it is in the nature of Hamas to believe itself to be non-extremist, and of course it is in its nature to threaten violence if it doesn't get paid. (To understand Hamas and its extremist views, read its charter, and to survey a catalogue of its violence against civilians over the years, simply Google "Hamas bus bombings.")
Just because Hamas, which murders children because they're Jewish (I've seen this with my own eyes), argues that it is a bulwark against terrorist extremism doesn't mean that the AFP must take such an argument at face value.
On the larger matter—the unwillingness of donors to release the funds they've promised to Gaza—there are two possible explanations. The first is that donors, particularly Arab states, have seldom made good on their pledges to help the Palestinians. This is a recurring theme in recent Middle East history. The second explanation: Donors understand that Hamas will use their money to rebuild its tunnel network, and to revitalize its rocket industry, and then to use those rockets against Israeli civilian targets. Israel, in turn, will fire back at Gaza, destroying new and repaired buildings. In other words, international donors understand that money they deploy in a territory controlled by Hamas will not be used wisely.
It bears repeating: When Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005, per a longstanding Palestinian demand, Gazans had the opportunity—an imperfect opportunity, but there are no perfect opportunities—to build their territory into the nucleus of a functioning, vibrant Palestinian state, with plenty of donated funds and international goodwill. But Gaza went in another direction.
The prime minister of France, Manuel Valls, has emerged over the past tumultuous week as one of the West’s most vocal foes of Islamism, though he’s actually been talking about the threat it poses for a long while. During the course of an interview conducted before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, he told me—he went out of his way to tell me, in fact—that he refuses to use the term 'Islamophobia' to describe the phenomenon of anti-Muslim prejudice, because, he says, the accusation of Islamophobia is often used as a weapon by Islamism's apologists to silence their critics.
Most of my conversation with Valls was focused on the fragile state of French Jewry—here is my post on his comments, which included the now-widely circulated statement that, “if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France”—and I didn’t realize the importance of his comment about Islamophobia until I re-read the transcript of our interview.
“It is very important to make clear to people that Islam has nothing to do with ISIS,” Valls told me. “There is a prejudice in society about this, but on the other hand, I refuse to use this term 'Islamophobia,' because those who use this word are trying to invalidate any criticism at all of Islamist ideology. The charge of 'Islamophobia' is used to silence people. ”
Valls was not denying the existence of anti-Muslim sentiment, which is strong across much of France. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, miscreants have shot at Muslim community buildings, and various repulsive threats against individual Muslims have been cataloged. President Francois Hollande, who said Thursday that Muslims are the “first victims of fanaticism, fundamentalism, intolerance,” might be overstating the primacy of anti-Muslim prejudice in the current hierarchy of French bigotries—after all, Hollande just found it necessary to deploy his army to defend Jewish schools from Muslim terrorists, not Muslim schools from Jewish terrorists—but anti-Muslim bigotry is a salient and seemingly permanent feature of life in France. Or to contextualize it differently: Anti-Muslim feeling appears to be more widespread than anti-Jewish feeling across much of France, but anti-Jewish feeling has been expressed recently (and not-so-recently) with far more lethality, and mainly by Muslims.
It appears as if Valls came to his view on the illegitimacy of 'Islamophobia' after being influenced by a number of people, including and especially the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner and the writer (and fatwa target) Salman Rushdie. Rushdie, along with a group of mainly Muslim writers, attacked the use of the term 'Islamophobia' several years ago in an open letter: “We refuse to renounce our critical spirit out of fear of being accused of ‘Islamophobia’, a wretched concept that confuses criticism of Islam as a religion and stigmatization of those who believe in it.”
Bruckner argued that use of the word 'Islamophobia' was designed to deflect attention away from the goals of Islamists: “[I]t denies the reality of an Islamic offensive in Europe all the better to justify it; it attacks secularism by equating it with fundamentalism. Above all, however, it wants to silence all those Muslims who question the Koran, who demand equality of the sexes, who claim the right to renounce religion, and who want to practice their faith freely and without submitting to the dictates of the bearded and doctrinaire.”
It is difficult to construct a single term that captures the variegated expressions of a broad prejudice. 'Anti-Semitism,' of course, is a terribly flawed term to describe anti-Jewish thought or behavior, and not only because it was invented by an actual hater of Jews, Wilhelm Marr, to prettify the base hatred to which he subscribed.
The origins of the term 'Islamophobia' are somewhat murky. According to Bruckner, the term was first used in its current manner to excoriate the writer Kate Millett, who had called upon Iranian women living under a theocratic yoke to take off their chadors. The term seems to have come into widespread use after the U.K.-based Runnymede Trust issued a report in 1997 entitled “Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All,” and by 2001, the United Nations had recognized Islamophobia as a form of prejudice at its Durban conference on racism (this is the same conference from which the official U.S. delegation walked out, to protest the widespread trafficking in anti-Israel and anti-Jewish tropes). The Runnymede Trust defined Islamophobia as “unfounded hostility towards Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims.” This corresponds, in some ways, to my colleague Conor Friedersdorf’s definition of Islamophobia as the “irrational fear of mainstream Muslims.”
I don’t think that Valls would disagree with the notion that the fear of “mainstream Muslims” is grounded in anything but prejudice. But the question he is asking (and answering) is this: Can hostility to the various related ideologies of Islamism—ideologies rooted in a particular reading of Muslim texts, theology, and history—be properly defined as Islamophobic?
I live with a generalized fear of every form of religious militancy. I am afraid of Hindutva zealots in India, of messianic Zionists in Israel, and of rampaging Buddhist monks in Myanmar. But I admit that I am most afraid of Islamist zealots because the Islamic world at this moment in time (not always, not forever) is especially feverish and fervent. Indeed, the politically engaged Islamist zealots can best be understood as today’s crusaders.
Is this an anti-Muslim position, not a fear but a phobia—and a phobia that grows out of prejudice and hostility? Consider a rough analogy (all analogies are rough): if I say that Christianity in the eleventh century was a crusading religion and that it was dangerous to Jews and Muslims, who were rightly fearful (and some of them phobic)—would that make me anti-Christian? I know that crusading fervor isn’t essential to the Christian religion; it is historically contingent, and the crusading moment in Christian history came and, after two hundred years or so, went. Saladin helped bring it to an end, but it would have ended on its own. I know that many Christians opposed the Crusades; today we would call them Christian “moderates.” And, of course, most eleventh-century Christians weren’t interested in crusading warfare; they listened to sermons urging them to march to Jerusalem and they went home. Still, it is true without a doubt that in the eleventh century, much of the physical, material, and intellectual resources of Christendom were focused on the Crusades.
Walzer doesn’t understand how opposition to a misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-free-speech theocratic strain of totalitarianism could make a person a “racist” (a particularly inapt term for prejudice against Muslims, who are found among all races) or “Islamophobic,” or anything but a secular-minded progressive who is interested in defending the rights of women and minorities.
“I frequently come across leftists who are more concerned with avoiding accusations of Islamophobia than they are with condemning Islamist zealotry,” Walzer wrote. “There are perfectly legitimate criticisms that can be made not only of Islamist zealots but also of Islam itself—as of any other religion.”
Hussein Ibish, writing in The National, offered a definition of Islamophobia that makes sense to me, and I would imagine, makes sense to Valls.
The key to a practicable definition of Islamophobia that can help identify truly objectionable speech, must be that it refers to living human beings and their fundamental rights. It cannot be about protecting people from being offended, or having their feelings hurt. Still less can it be about protecting abstract ideas, religious dogmas, or cultural norms from being questioned, critiqued or even lampooned.
The proper metric to identify genuinely bigoted speech is whether or not the expression in question is intended or likely to have the effect of promoting fear and hatred against broad categories of people based on their identity. Would such speech make it more difficult for communities to function effectively in their own society? In other words, does the speech attack the legitimate rights and interests of identity-based communities? Does it prevent them being seen as, and treated as equal by, and with regard to, other communities?
Ibish argues that Charlie Hebdo, against which accusations of Islamophobia continue to be leveled, does not meet his standard: While many of the images it printed over the years were offensive to Muslims and many others, and were intended to be so, did its track record really suggest that its presence on the French scene in any way compromised, challenged, or complicated the ability of the Arab and Muslim migrant communities in France to function properly in that society? Clearly, the answer is no.
Prejudice against Muslims is repulsive. Criticism of Islamist doctrine, and the lampooning of religious beliefs, is not.
The massacre at a kosher supermarket in Paris on Friday reinforced a fear, expressed openly and with distressing frequency by many in France’s half-million-strong Jewish community, that Islamist violence is compelling large numbers of Jews to flee. Already, several thousand have left over the past few years. But it is not merely the physical safety of France’s Jews that is imperiled by anti-Semitic violence, the country’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, argues, but the very idea of the French Republic itself. In an interview conducted before the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket massacres, Valls told me that if French Jews were to flee in large numbers, the soul of the French Republic would be at risk.
“The choice was made by the French Revolution in 1789 to recognize Jews as full citizens,” Valls told me. “To understand what the idea of the republic is about, you have to understand the central role played by the emancipation of the Jews. It is a founding principle.”
Valls, a Socialist who is the son of Spanish immigrants, describes the threat of a Jewish exodus from France this way: “If 100,000 French people of Spanish origin were to leave, I would never say that France is not France anymore. But if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.”
I met Valls at the Hotel Matignon, the prime minister’s residence, in the 7th arrondissement. (We spoke for a while, and I’ll be incorporating the full interview with Valls into a longer article for the magazine about this set of issues. But, given the suddenly intensifying crisis, it seemed worthwhile to highlight some of the things he said.)
Valls made it a point, early in our meeting, to show me the desk used by one of his predecessors, the Jewish prime minister (and Dreyfusard) Leon Blum. “Jews were sometimes marginalized in France, but this was not Spain or other countries—they were never expelled, and they play a role in the life of France that is central,” he said.
Valls, who on Saturday declared that France was now at war with radical Islam, has become a hero to his country’s besieged Jews for speaking bluntly about the threat of Islamist anti-Semitism, a subject often discussed in euphemistic terms by the country’s political and intellectual elite. His fight, as interior minister, to ban performances of the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonne (the innovator of the inverted Nazi salute known as the quenelle) endeared him to the country’s Jewish leadership, and he is almost alone on the European left in calling anti-Zionism a form of anti-Semitism.
“There is a new anti-Semitism in France,” he told me. “We have the old anti-Semitism, and I’m obviously not downplaying it, that comes from the extreme right, but this new anti-Semitism comes from the difficult neighborhoods, from immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, who have turned anger about Gaza into something very dangerous. Israel and Palestine are just a pretext. There is something far more profound taking place now.”
In discussing the attacks on French synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses this summer, during the Gaza war, he said, “It is legitimate to criticize the politics of Israel. This criticism exists in Israel itself. But this is not what we are talking about in France. This is radical criticism of the very existence of Israel, which is anti-Semitic. There is an incontestable link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Behind anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”
Though he worries about fear-driven emigration, Valls told me he believes that the government can work with the Jewish community to make it more secure. “The Jews of France are profoundly attached to France but they need reassurance that they are welcome here, that they are secure here.”
The French government, under President Francois Hollande and Valls, provides substantial funding each year to help physically secure French Jewish institutions, but Jewish leaders say that the government alone cannot make French Jews feel at ease. “The prime minister has led some courageous battles,” Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Paris office, who is close to the prime minister and other senior officials, told me this weekend. “He’s the first one who has spoken out so clearly, without any ambiguity, about the reality we are facing.” She also praised Hollande for quickly labeling the kosher supermarket attack anti-Semitic. “The issue is that the government cannot protect every Jewish person and Jewish institution. There’s always more to do, but they can’t do everything. Even if they did all that needs to be done—counter-radicalization, education, making sure that imprisoned people don’t become radicalized, and so on—there’s always more to do. We have a very, very profound problem.”
The police are evacuating the Gare du Nord station in Paris as my train from Brussels arrives; a suspicious package, I learned later. The rain is coming down quite hard. I resist the urge to interview my taxi driver about the current mood.
We see a blue “Je Suis Charlie” sign on a lamppost. Very nice. But the sentiment is partially a conceit. We are not all Charlie. Much of Europe, which, as a political entity, is not fully grappling with the totalitarian madness of Islamism, is not Charlie. Certainly much of journalism is not Charlie. Any outlet that censors Charlie Hebdo cartoons out of fear of Islamist reprisal is not Charlie. To publish the cartoons now is a necessary, but only moderately brave, act. Please remember: Even after Charlie Hebdo was firebombed in 2011, it continued to publish rude and funny satires mocking the essential ridiculousness of the Islamist worldview. That represented a genuine display of bravery. CNN, the Associated Press, and the many other media organizations that are cowering before the threat of totalitarian violence represent something other than bravery.
Here is someone who is not Charlie: Tony Barber, of the Financial Times, who wroteyesterday: “Charlie Hebdo has a long record of mocking, baiting and needling French Muslims. If the magazine stops just short of outright insults, it is nevertheless not the most convincing champion of the principle of freedom of speech. France is the land of Voltaire, but too often editorial foolishness has prevailed at Charlie Hebdo.”
He went on: “This is not in the slightest to condone the murderers, who must be caught and punished, or to suggest that freedom of expression should not extend to satirical portrayals of religion. It is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.” (Some of these lines have since been edited out of Barber's "expanded and updated" FT column without explanation.)
Stupid is in the eye of the beholder. To me, it seems stupid and self-destructive to let men with guns tell us what we can or cannot write, or read.
The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied.
I wish President Obama had not said this, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the Holocaust is an historical fact, and church desecrations are physical crimes against property; neither vandalism nor the denial of historical reality compare to the mocking of unprovable religious beliefs. (And yes, I find attacks on the principles of my faith painful, but I would defend the right of people to make such attacks; I'm opposed, for instance, to the criminalization of Holocaust denial.)
Mainly, Obama’s statement is troubling because it should be the role of the president of the United States, who swears an oath to defend the Constitution, to explain to the world the principle that free speech is sacred—painful, sometimes, but sacred. If the future does not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam—in other words, to people who speak freely and offensively—then it belongs to those who would suppress by force any criticism of religion. This is not an American idea, and it certainly isn’t Charlie.
The European Parliament complex in Brussels, where I happen to be sitting at the moment, is meant to be a monument to post-World War II continental ideals of peaceable integration, tolerance, free speech, and openness. All of these notions seem to be under attack at once, and what is striking to me, as a relatively frequent visitor to Europe over the past year, is that not many people—until a few hours ago, at least—seem to believe that their union, and their basic freedoms, are under threat.
The massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo falls into the category of events that are shocking in their intensity and brutality, but not at all surprising. This attack, which killed at least 12 people, including journalists and two police officers, was utterly, completely predictable. The brittle, peevish, and often-violent campaign to defend the honor of Allah and his prophet (both of whom, one might think, are capable of defending themselves with lightning bolts and cataclysmic floods and such, should they choose to be offended by cartoons) has been pursued in earnest since the 1989 Iranian-led crusade (I use the word advisedly) to have Salman Rushdie murdered for writing a book. In 2011, of course, the offices of Charlie Hebdo were firebombed—the equivalent of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, an attack that should have told us more about long-term jihadist intentions than it unfortunately did.
And Europe has had specific, sometimes fatal, warnings about the capabilities and desires of jihadists in recent months—the car attacks in France, conducted by men shouting “Allahu Akbar,” and, most obviously, the assault on the Jewish Museum in Brussels last May, in which four people were murdered, allegedly by Mehdi Nemmouche, a French citizen of Algerian origin who apparently spent time in the Middle East in the employ of ISIS.
I visited the Brussels Jewish Museum on Tuesday and got a glimpse of Europe’s future: Entering the museum is a bit like breaking into a prison. Barricades and unfriendly police outside; suspicious looks and CCTV surveillance; wanding and bag checks. All necessary, and, to be sure, Europe’s Jews, and its Jewish institutions, have been living in a semi-besieged manner for some time. But these measures will spread, by necessity.
The Brussels attack presaged the Charlie Hebdo attack in certain ways: They were both executed by trained gunmen (though today's attackers seemed more skilled, in the al Qaeda manner, than what we've seen so far from ISIS-inspired jihadists) who chose as their targets institutions that could not have even semi-plausibly sparked rage in Muslims who claim to be angered solely by U.S. drone policy, or by the participation of European governments in the war in Afghanistan. In other words, both attacks seem to have been motivated more by a hatred of deeply held Western beliefs, rather than by specific actions of Western governments.
We in the West believe that blasphemy is a right and not a crime. And we in the West believe that Jews (and everyone else, for that matter) should be allowed to remain alive and have museums. (I would note, for those who believe that recent anti-Semitic attacks in Europe were caused by specific actions of the Israeli government, that a) anti-Semites cause anti-Semitism, not Israel; and, b) the Brussels attack occurred in May, well before the summer war in Gaza.)
The Charlie Hebdo massacre seems to be the most direct attack on Western ideals by jihadists yet. I’ve seen arguments advancing the idea that 9/11 represents the purest expression of Islamist rage at a specific Western idea— capitalism, in that case—but satire and the right to blaspheme are directly responsible for modernity. In the words of Simon Schama, “Irreverence is the lifeblood of freedom.”
The French president, Francois Hollande, said earlier today that, “No barbaric act will ever extinguish freedom of the press.” This statement is, as Claire Berlinski has pointed out, self-falsifying. This barbaric act, she notes, literally extinguished the press. The most recent iteration of the Islamist terror campaign in Europe has focused on Jews and cartoonists, but it will not end with Jews and cartoonists, unless it is comprehensively defeated.
A final note for now: I’ve seen on Twitter and elsewhere the observation that this is the wrong day to warn against overreactions directed against the broader Muslim community in France, and elsewhere. Today, it is said, should be reserved for mourning, and for anger at those who sparked this mourning. I understand the sentiment behind this observation, but I disagree with it. The goal of Western leaders should be to separate and isolate the extremist Islamist minority from the more moderate Muslim majority. One way to do this is to make sure Muslims understand that the West is not looking for a fight with the entire civilization of Islam. Europe can live up to the ideals represented by its supranational parliament by defending its citizens, and its principles, from Islamist terror, with great force when necessary, but also by protecting ordinary Muslims from revanchism, which represents another sort of threat to European ideals.
There is very little in international air travel quite so unpleasant as the moment you realize that a) you don't carry an EU passport; and b) the bureaucrats at EU airports don't particularly care about people who don't carry EU passports. (Fact check: There are things that actually are far more unpleasant in international air travel, including crashing, and Dulles International Airport, in that order.)
I just landed in Brussels after an overnight flight from the aforementioned Dulles and found myself, along with hundreds of others—mainly Americans—on the non-EU passport line. It was one of those tightly coiled lines that provides the appearance, though not the reality, of movement. Out of boredom, and recreational graphomania, I started writing down (in the margins of Jim Fallows's latest Atlantic cover story, actually) things people around me were saying. Most of the line was comprised of silent shufflers, of course, and I only heard bits of several telephone conversations. But I was surprised by the number of chatty people, and I thought I would share some of what I heard on the hour-long hijra to the other side of passport control.
Just so we're clear, I don't fully grasp the context of any of the following comments:
"It doesn't work if it doesn't roll."
"We're on a tri-semester system. Not trimester, tri-semester."
"I'm very nervous."
"Call Judy and tell her we made it."
"What is Wallonia?"
"Did he just say 'fucker'? He was like, 'Blah, blah, fucker, blah, blah.' That's just weird."
"It's all about managing your expectations."
"How did she get him to sit still with a Santa hat on? Was he asleep?"
"I love Denzel Washington."
"Did you call Judy?"
"Anywhere north of here the water is safe."
"Look at this passport. Seriously, look at it. It's, like, crazy."
"You can stop memory loss with mental exercises."
"I guess at a certain point you just have to give in and eat breakfast."
"It's actually a sweater-vest."
I never did find out if they called Judy, by the way.