By Kevin Flower
Not long before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s three–day visit to the United States earlier this month, a senior government official in Jerusalem said the Israeli leader had issued strict orders to members of his cabinet “not to mention the I-word”.
There had been, said the official, too much talk and rampant media speculation about the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program. He suggested that Netanyahu, before his important visit to the White House, wanted to lower the temperature after weeks of heated war talk in Israel and the United States.
It was a sentiment echoed in the White House as well. As Netanyahu was making his way to Washington, U.S.President Barack Obama issued a pointed warning at the annual gathering of the pro-Israel lobbying group Aipac.
“Already, there is too much loose talk of war,” he told the meeting. “Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend on to fund their nuclear program.”
“For the sake of Israel's security, America's security and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster. “
But it seems that message of restraint has been reconsidered by the Israeli prime minister. In the last week Netanyahu has gone to great lengths to use the “I-word” as frequently as possible.
Monday, following a marked escalation in hostilities between Gaza based militant groups and the Israeli military Netanyahu chose to focus his public condemnation not on the Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, but rather on the smaller and lesser known radical group Islamic Jihad.
“The focus of attention is on the terrorist attacks being perpetrated by elements which are backed and financed by Iran.” Netanyahu said in a meeting with the Italian defense minister
“Dozens of rockets are hitting Israel. These terrorist attacks by Islamic Jihad for example, underscore the magnitude of the danger that would be created if – heaven forbid – a nuclear Iran would stand behind them. The world must be united in the face of the Iranian threat,” he said.
Two days later in a speech before the Israeli parliament or Knesset, Netanyahu chose to utter the “I-word “ some 30 times. He used the occasion to outline the dangers a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to Israel, arguing that the Islamic Republic had already created a beachhead in Gaza.
“Gaza equals Iran.” Netanyahu intoned.
“Where do the missiles come from? From Iran. Where does the money come from? From Iran.” he asked rhetorically.
But more striking than the frequent mentions of Iran was Netanyahu’s prepared lesson on the history of American and Israeli relations. In it he offered steep praise for previous Israeli leaders who, in his view, acted contrary to the wishes of the United States government at crucial times in Israel’s 64-year history.
Among the examples, Menachem Begin’s decision to bomb Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility in 1981
“He was well aware of the international criticism that would come, including, by the way, from our friend, the United States and President Reagan. He knew there would be such criticism if we acted to destroy the Iraqi reactor. However, he did his duty and acted.”
That decision, Netanyahu argued was the right one for Israel and the United States
“With time it became clear that our relations with the United States not only were not harmed, they grew even stronger.”
It’s an interpretation of history that not all agree with – but the broader Netanyahu’s message is clear: despite frequent security assurances to Israel from the Obama administration, the U.S.government cannot necessarily be relied upon to have Israel’s back.
“This alliance between Israel and the US is prominent” Netanyahu told Knesset members. “However, there is something even more prominent and that is our right, our duty, to be the masters of our own fate. Israel has never left its fate in the hands of others, not even in the hands of our best friends.”
So what was the strategy behind Netanyahu’s very public comments?
One senior Israeli government official said the Knesset speech was given, in part, to establish that any differences of opinion between Netanyahu and Obama on how to best confront Iran’s nuclear program, were based solely on differing views of each country’s national interests and had nothing to do with the strained personal relations between the two.
Nahum Barnea, a respected and widely read columnist for Israel’s largest circulation daily newspaper Yedioth Aronoth offered another interpretation.
“What is being conducted before our eyes is a poker game that requires patience, sophistication and self-restraint. Obama proposed, both in the meeting with Netanyahu in the White House and in his speech at the AIPAC conference, to lower the level of rhetoric. Netanyahu chose the opposite path. The Holocaust speeches that he gives once a week are intended for one address—US public opinion. He is speaking to the Americans over their president’s head.”
Over at the rival and more liberal Haaretz newspaper editor-in-chief Aluff Benn wrote the Israeli prime minister was not so much focused on American public opinion as he was on changing minds at home where recent polls show a majority of Israeli oppose a unilateral military strike on Iran.
“Netanyahu is attempting to convince the Israeli public that the Iranian threat is a tangible and existential one, and that there is only one effective way to stop it and prevent a "second Holocaust": An Israeli military attack on Iran's nuclear infrastructure, which is buried deep underground.”
It was a view reinforced for some on Thursday when the editor of the government friendly Israel Hayom newspaper (owned by the American casino magnate Shedlon Adelson, known for his staunch support of Netanyahu and Newt Gingrich) authored a front-page editorial entitled “Difficult. Daring. Doable.” The 2500 word piece, reads like a call to action on Iran, suggesting the Obama administration cannot be counted on.
“The problem is not going anywhere and is only getting worse each day. That is why we must solve it. And we can solve it. Some people say an attack on Iran will “set the Middle East ablaze.” Others say an attack on Iran would shock the Middle East, but after an initial spike in oil prices, will not trigger a dramatic change. It would simply solve the problem, they say, just as the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear plant destroyed Iraq’s nuclear program once and for all. If it took Iran 20 years to get to where they are today in their nuclear program, who is to say that they will recover from a military strike in a year or two?”
Of course it is impossible to know all factors the Israeli Prime Minister is weighing when he speaks publicly about Iran, but it did not stop Yedioth’s Barnea from offering Netanyahu this advice:
“It is almost natural to remind him of the classic sentence said by Eli Wallach, the ‘ugly’ from [the movie] ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.’ ‘When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk.’
Then Barnea noted: "He said this after he shot."