Netanyahu's Latest Affront to Obama

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

Let me set the background for this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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