With all of the public sniping back-and-forth between American President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Netanyahu’s circumvention of standard protocol for a visiting head of state to speak before Congress, watching or listening to the American media, one would think that the U.S.-Israeli relationship was about to break apart. Of course, at the end of the day, all of this Sturm and Drang about a speech probably isn’t going to result in much U.S. policy change toward Israel. What may cause such a split is an agreement between the United States and Iran, Israel’s arch-nemesis, to control its civilian atomic program so that it will be constrained from getting a nuclear bomb.
Although Netanyahu’s speech is mainly intended to bolster his standing for what may be a close upcoming election in Israel, it has ostensibly been presented as a plea to convince the Congress and the American public that any agreement with Iran is weak-kneed and that a harder US line toward that country is needed.
Yet Israel needs to be told in no uncertain terms that at this point, no viable option exists except negotiating to control and inspect Iran’s nuclear program so that it will stay short of producing a bomb. After Israel’s air strikes on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor (under construction) in 1981 and Syria’s suspected reactor in 2007, Iran has deeply buried key nuclear facilities in reinforced underground bunkers. It is doubtful that Israel’s limited bunker-busting weapons could take out all such facilities from the air. It is even doubtful if better US weapons could do the job. Only a ground invasion of Iran would most assuredly take out all of the facilities. After the long US ground quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq, such an invasion of Iran is unlikely. And any such invasion would violate international law and likely would make these prior two invasions and occupations look like a picnic. Anything less would simply make Iran move faster to reconstruct the damaged part of its nuclear facilities and race to get a bomb – a decision which so far the Iranians have apparently not made.
Unfortunately, Americans and Israeli policies have already shown the Iranians that they probably are not going to get any respect unless they get a nuclear weapon. George W. Bush invaded Iraq, which no one thought had nuclear weapons, yet treated the likely already nuclear North Korea with kid gloves. Similarly, the United States and its allies used military force to overthrow Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi after he had made nice with the West and had given up his nuclear program. As noted, Israel has constantly bombed or invaded neighboring countries, usually winning militarily but losing politically. All such actions have given the Iranians reason to think they need a nuclear weapon. In addition, not only is Israel hostile to Shi’i Iran, but the Gulf Sunni Arab states are as well, with Saudi Arabia possibly having nuclear ambitions. Although Iran has brutal domestic policies, it does have legitimate security concerns.
Make no mistake, a nuclear Iran would not be a good thing. However, it is not the end of the world either. Israel already likely has 200 to 400 nuclear weapons to deter Iran from any nuclear attack. If Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia and some other Sunni Arab states may feel they need one for deterrence purposes. However, some academics actually argue that more nuclear weapons might make the Middle East region more stable, because the shadow of nuclear destruction would hang over most disputes between nations.
At any rate, even an imperfect agreement between the United States and Iran to limit its nuclear program is pretty much the only game in town, and Netanyahu and his allies in the US Congress need to get used to it. And while the United States is dispensing tough love to an ally, perhaps it should consider whether Israeli intransigence in settling the Israeli-Palestinian territorial dispute is not being encouraged by providing more than $3 billion dollars in annual aid to an already wealthy country. Although Israel is the only genuine (but imperfect) mature democracy in the Middle East, it is still violating international law by settling areas acquired during war using military power. Israel does have legitimate security needs but seems intent on stalling Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, while encouraging its settlers to occupy most of the good land in the West Bank – leaving any future Palestinian state with the least desirable, noncontiguous areas. Continuing to give Israel such large amounts of aid only enables such Israeli filibustering.
By the same token, the United States should also end aid to the Palestinian Authority and disengage from trying to bring the two reluctant parties together for a solution. Any such solution probably will cause the American taxpayers tens of billions, as did the Camp David peace accords. When the two parties are finally ready to settle the territorial dispute – likely no time soon – the United States could mediate negotiations without paying the parties to make a peace they should want on their own.
Such American disengagement would be unlikely to compromise Israeli security, because although much tumult is occurring in the Arab world, such has always been the case, and Israel has dealt with it in the past. Moreover, Israel’s security has been much worse in the past when it faced stronger enemies than Hezbollah and Hamas – that is Syria and Egypt. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, Israel’s most formidable potential foe, has overthrown the Muslim Brotherhood and remains committed to the Camp David peace accords. The government of Syria, still hostile to Israel, is preoccupied with a bloody civil war and is little threat to Israel.
Because the threats to Israel are not existential, and are unlikely to be if Iran’s nuclear program can be limited, the United States needs to administer some tough love to Netanyahu. Obama should threaten privately to veto future US aid to Israel if Netanyahu continues to try to sabotage Obama’s increasingly likely nuclear agreement with Iran. Unfortunately, even though Obama doesn’t need to be re-elected and hates Netanyahu, he is sometimes a cautious man who is reluctant to take needed bold strokes.