Open Zion

09.14.12

Is Bibi Playing U.S. Or Israeli Politics?

David Frum points to Ottomans and Zionists—which Frum rightly calls "indispensable"—and Michael Koplow's post there on how Bibi Netanyahu's tirade is not, as Sen. Barbara Boxer and David Remnick posited, about the U.S. elections. Koplow:

Netanyahu’s outburst is not about the presidential campaign or presidential politics, but about what he views as an Israeli national security imperative that is being stymied by an array of forces. The fact that this is campaign season in the U.S. is only incidental, since Netanyahu would have issued a similar statement at the beginning or middle of a presidential term. His prism is an Israeli one, not an American one, and his focus is on Iran rather than on U.S. politics. Believe it or not, Israel has other concerns aside from the Obama-Romney contest. Yes, what is going on in the U.S. obviously impacts this entire issue, but the notion that what Bibi said yesterday is about the presidential campaign here is just the latest data point for the case that knowledge of Israeli politics on this side of the ocean remains poor.

Well, he's probably right that a lot of people here don't get Israeli politics—but then many of my Israeli friends find Israeli politics inscrutable, too. Nonetheless, I also harbor doubts about the overarching point.

Most obviously, Koplow mentions Boxer and Remnick without ever saying that the former alluded to and the latter directly quoted Shaul Mofaz accusing Netanyahu of interfering in American elections. I'm sure Koplow would reply that this, in itself, is Israeli politics at work—the health of the U.S.-Israel alliance can be used as a political football in Israel, too.

But there's another objection to be had: Koplow says Netanyahu's outbursts are born of "his deep and maddening frustration that he cannot force an Israeli strike on Iran." Instead, Bibi's comments were directed at Ehud Barak, Koplow says, noting that the Defense Minister reportedly backed down from a pro-attack position (though I, like Barak, am not entirely convinced).

The problem with that analysis is that Ehud Barak reportedly worries about attacking Iran not because of the consequences of a strike—which he's been busy playing down—but precisely, as Koplow put it, "because he has come to realize what it will mean for U.S.-Israel relations." What it will mean is a bummer, a real bad scene, man. But it doesn't have to be that way.

As I've written before, the whole Netanyahu tirade about declaring "red lines" on Iran is not actually about Obama declaring them—Obama's done that—but, rather, about Netanyahu demanding Obama shift his "red lines." But you know who's already adopted Netanyahu's position on "red lines"? That's right: the Romney campaign. Netanyahu surely knows all this. After all, Romney adviser Dan Senor—who keeps in close contact with top Bibi aide Ron Dermer—explicitly declared when the campaign swung through Israel that President Romney would set the "red line" at nuclear "capabilities" (where Netanyahu wants them) rather than actually producing weapons (where Obama has them). Read the Senor quote; it's unmistakably moving the goalposts a lot closer. For good measure, Senor even said that if Israel attacked, Romney "would respect that decision."

In other words, a President Romney means no U.S. government hang-ups about shifting the "red lines" on Iran right to where Netanyahu wants them, which means no tension with the U.S. over the shift. That, in turn, means that Barak could well be back on board and, as they say in parts of London, Bob's your uncle.

Koplow's certainly laid out a plausible alternative to the widely circulating notion that Netanyahu's inserting himself into American politics, but he hasn't rendered implausible the notion that Bibi is. When you look closely at what's actually being argued between the U.S. and Israel, giving Romney fodder for partisans to attack Obama as weak on Iran or, more commonly, alleging that he "threw Israel under the bus," could serve the same purpose as internal political machinations. If Romney's campaign positions are any indication, getting him elected will give Netanyahu everything he wants: approval from the American administration and, therefore, Ehud Barak too.