The Magazine

Bibi's Choice

Israel approaches a moment of decision on Iran's nuclear threat.

Jul 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 40 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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Tel Aviv

Don't be misled by how little was said about Iran in the major speeches recently delivered by President Barack Obama at Cairo University and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Bar-Ilan University. And don't suppose, either, that the popular upheaval precipitated by Iran's rigged presidential election, assuming it falls short of ending the mullahs' 30-year tyranny, will fundamentally alter regional politics. The central question for Middle East politics is still what to do about Iran's illegal pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Nor is this a regional matter only. Iran's determination to acquire nuclear weapons, the better to spread Islamic revolution, affects the vital national security interests not only of Israel, Arab states in and beyond the Gulf, and Turkey, but also of the United States, Europe, Russia, and indeed countries around the world that depend on stability in the international political and economic order, which is to say virtually all.

In his address to the Muslim world, President Obama identified six sources of tension between the United States and Islam. Number three was "our shared interest in the rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons." On the campaign trail and in the presidential debates, Obama unequivocally opposed Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons. But in Cairo in late May, on his carefully constructed global stage, Obama hedged.

On the one hand, he maintained that it was crucial to begin talks with Iran without preconditions because of the importance of "preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path." He "strongly reaffirmed America's commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons." And he expressed the hope that nations that were pursuing their "right to access to peaceful nuclear power" would not abuse it by violating their "responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty." On the other hand, and watering down candidate Obama's promise to "keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel," he opined that "no single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons." And he offered no reason to believe that the United States had any levers at its disposal other than talk to influence Iran's decision. All in all, it would have been hard to project to a rapt world greater equivocation concerning Iran's quest for nuclear weapons if the president had deliberately concentrated his vaunted rhetorical gifts on the task.

To be sure, in his own speech in mid-June, Prime Minister Netanyahu also trod lightly on the subject of Iran. But that was because he needed to respond to Obama's flawed Cairo statement that Israel's legitimacy flows from the suffering of the Jewish people in the Holocaust and the president's erroneous suggestion that the key to peace in the Middle East is Israel's cessation of building in existing Israeli communities beyond the Green Line. Without mentioning the president or his speech, Netanyahu stressed that the Jewish people's historic connection to the land of Israel extends back 3,500 years. And by affirming that Palestinians should have a state of their own, Netanyahu took another step on the path he himself blazed in 1998 by signing the Wye Accords and turning over Hebron to the Palestinians, a path on which he was subsequently joined by Prime Ministers Sharon and Olmert and which has led significant segments of the Israeli right away from the commitment to ruling over the West Bank forever. The settlements certainly are an issue. But from Netanyahu's point of view--and that of a majority of Israelis--the chief obstacles to peace are Hamas's Iran-sponsored terrorism, Palestinian Authority political dysfunction, and the refusal of Arab rulers around the region to provide the Palestinians financial support and political leadership.

Though devoting only one paragraph to it at Bar-Ilan, Netanyahu declared that "the Iranian threat still is before us in full force." And he proclaimed that "the greatest danger to Israel, to the Middle East, and to all of humanity, is the encounter between extremist Islam and nuclear weapons." Although he did not elaborate Israel's plan of action, he said nothing to retreat from his well-known position that Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, stated that he had discussed Iran with Obama, would take it up the following week with Europeans, and had been "working tirelessly for many years to form an international front against Iran arming itself with nuclear armaments."