by Charles Lemos, Tue Mar 31, 2009 at 06:17:09 PM EDT
On his first day in office, Benjamin Netanyahu sure does have his rant on. Today in an interview (with no transcript provided) with Jeffery Goldberg of The Atlantic, Israel's new Prime Minister laid down the gauntlet. According to the rather gung-ho Mr. Goldberg, the message from Israel's newly sworn in Prime Minister is "stark". If the Obama administration doesn't prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, Israel may be forced to attack. The stupidity of that sentence should be self-evident. This is tantamount to an ultimatum and one delivered via the media. If Netanyahu wants to play games, he'll find himself talking to no one.
Benjamin Netanyahu laid down a challenge for Barack Obama. The American president, he said, must stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons--and quickly--or an imperiled Israel may be forced to attack Iran's nuclear facilities itself.
"The Obama presidency has two great missions: fixing the economy, and preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons," Netanyahu told me. He said the Iranian nuclear challenge represents a "hinge of history" and added that "Western civilization" will have failed if Iran is allowed to develop nuclear weapons.
In unusually blunt language, Netanyahu said of the Iranian leadership, "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."
As if Netanyahu can dictate to Barack Obama by throwing a tantrum. Israel voted for its own irrelevance on the international state back in February. The elections proved indecisive and Israelis will come to regret their decision if they haven't done so already. Netanyahu may lead a government, he doesn't lead the country. Netanyahu and his 30 member cabinet, the largest in Israeli history, came into power with a stunning 54% disapproval rate according to Haaretz.
According to a survey for Haaretz, the public is not giving the new government a grace period, perhaps because it has so many ministers and deputy ministers, or because so many of them have dubious portfolios.
The problem could also be the friction that accompanied the government's formation; two key cabinet members are suffering embarrassingly low support ratings. Netanyahu, who dreamed for a decade about returning to the Prime Minister's Bureau, will have to work hard and fast to show he is productive.
The most striking result of the Haaretz-Dialog poll, conducted under Prof. Camil Fuchs of the statistics department at Tel Aviv University, is the extent of the public's dissatisfaction with the new government. Less than a third of those surveyed said they are satisfied with Netanyahu's government. More than half, 54 percent, are dissatisfied with the new government.
It's unlikely that politically Netanyahu could pull off an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities but even more that this, Israel lacks the military capacity to take out all of Iran's nuclear facilities which are not just spread out across the country but also buried deep underground in protective bunkers. Furthermore, Israeli warplanes would have to fly over US controlled airspace. Netanyahu's rant is a bluff.
Nor is the timing of Netanyahu's petulant outburst surprising given that the US representatives and Iranian were both in attendance at a regional conference on Afghanistan that opened today in The Hague. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in fact confirmed that Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, met with Iran's deputy foreign minister, Mohammad Mehdi Akhondzadeh, on the sidelines of the Afghanistan conference. From the New York Times:
"It was cordial, unplanned, and they agreed to stay in touch," Mrs. Clinton said to reporters at the end of the conference. "I myself did not have any direct contact with the Iranian delegation."
Mrs. Clinton also said the United States handed the Iranian delegation a letter asking for its help in the cases of two American citizens who are being held in Iran and another who is missing.
The two American contacts with Iran, however modest, mark a step forward in the Obama administration's policy of reaching out to the Iranian regime. Mrs. Clinton also spoke positively of remarks delivered by Mr. Akhondzadeh about what Iran would do to help stabilize Afghanistan and to cooperate in regional efforts to crack down on the booming Afghan drug trade, which has spilled over its border.
"The fact that they came today, that they intervened today, is a promising sign that there will be future cooperation," she said.
"The questions of border security, and in particular the transit of narcotics across the border from Afghanistan to Iran is a worry that the Iranians have, which we share."
Bibi might as well get used to it. He's powerless to effect diplomacy until he actually has something of substance to deliver. The American approach on Iran is clearly of engagement on multiple fronts. Beyond the passing of notes at international conferences, the US has moved to open lines of dialogue with Tehran via Moscow, Berlin, Ankara and Damascus. Bibi can rant and rave but that's all he can do. Odd and sad that suddenly the more rational players are in Tehran and not in Tel Aviv.
Let's also not kid us ourselves. Mr. Goldberg is little more than an Israeli propagandist. The lack of a transcript for starters makes it hard to fully tell the context of Prime Minister Netanyahu's remarks. Mr. Goldberg does a disservice to the national interest by resorting to such alarming rhetoric. Then again, Mr. Goldberg's idea of the national interest seems to be that what is good for Tel Aviv is good for Washington. It's not.