Column

05.02.12

Bibi, Let Go

In the last few months, Israel’s security and strategic options have changed dramatically. Against the backdrop of the Arab uprisings, Netanyahu’s campaign to force Obama’s hand on Iran has failed. Obama made it clear in March that he would not go to war with Iran over uranium enrichment, as Bibi had requested.

Instead, he would reinvest in diplomacy and opt for a solution based on limiting and inspecting—not eliminating—Iran’s enrichment program. And if diplomacy succeeds, Obama won’t go to war with Iran at all. Rather, a reduction of US-Iran tensions will follow, which may have significant repercussions throughout the region.

As a stalwart opponent of US-Iran diplomacy, Netanyahu is putting Israel on the opposite side of the US. Israel must now make a choice: Either continue to obstruct Obama’s diplomatic strategy and risk greater tensions with Israel’s most important ally, or shift gears and opt to influence the talks instead.

(I have for years argued that this situation was all but inevitable and that Israel would benefit from making this shift sooner rather than later).

Israel faced a similar situation in 1992. The Cold War had ended, and the US had ejected Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. It was the height of the unipolar moment—but Israel’s role in this new world was unclear. Washington had gravitated towards the Arab side after the Persian Gulf War and pressured Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. The Yitzhak Shamir government had a series of clashes with the George Bush Sr. White House; over the Kuwait war, the Madrid conference and the Palestinians, as well as over US arm sales to Saudi Arabia. America was at the height of its power—but US-Israeli relations were at an all time low.

It was clear Israel needed to shift. The opportunity came with the 1992 elections and the Labor party’s landslide victory. For the first time, Labor could govern without having the Likud in its collation government. With this new political maneuverability, the Labor party could make radical changes to Israel’s strategic orientation—such as opting for a peace process with the Palestinians based on a land for peace formula.

Today, however, the Israeli government under Netanyahu neither enjoys the political nor the ideological flexibility to muster a shift.

While the current Israeli narrative on Iran—the idea that Tehran is an existential threat due to its irrational and suicidal religious leadership—was initiated by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in the early 1990s, and while Netanyahu actually resisted this narrative for a several months when he first came to power in 1996, no other Israeli leader has championed it quite as he has. Today, he personifies the argument that “it’s 1938 and Iran is Germany.” Consequently, he can’t walk back that argument.

Bibi has painted himself in a corner. And as long as Bibi is prime minister, Israel will be stuck there with him.

To save Israel and pave the way for the necessary strategic shifts, Bibi must be let go. Or at least so the elders of Israel’s security establishment seem to think. So they will keep gunning for him.

But what could Israel gain if it shifted?

Any attempt in the short run to link the nuclear issue to the broader Israeli-Iranian rivalry will likely be rejected by the US and Iran. On the eve of a potential breakthrough in the nuclear impasse, such a move would be viewed as a sabotage attempt.

Once the diplomatic track grows more robust, however, the agenda will likely grow. Other issues may be included, whether in the P5+1 setting or in the prospective US-Iran bilateral channel. These can range from regional security issues such as Afghanistan and Syria, to human rights and drug control.

At this stage, there may be receptivity to address the Israeli-Iranian rivalry, with the aim of taming and controlling it, rather than resolving it. The immediate variables range from lowering the rhetoric to reducing tensions on the Israeli-Lebanese border to establishing de-escalatory mechanisms.

There are historical precedents for this. During the reign of President Mohammad Khatami, Iran shifted its position on Israel from rejecting the Jewish state to accepting whatever solution the Palestinians would agree to. Iran’s rhetorical posture towards Israel changed in both volume and substance. Rather than questioning Israel’s right to exist, Tehran’s criticism focused on the situation of the Palestinians.

And when Ehud Barak began the Camp David II talks, Tehran remained silent. This was in sharp contrast top its posture in 1994-96, where it positioned itself as the key opponent to Oslo and actively instigated violence and terror.

For Israel, this will likely not suffice. Israel will likely seek de facto Iranian acceptance of the Jewish state. The Iranians will push back and demand disarmament of Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

Neither objective is achievable in the short run. But starting a process in which the two sides will have to address each other is in and of itself a significant step forward. It’s a path that carries many risks, but also benefits for Israel—particularly mindful of the likely alternative.