The Atlantic, the PresCon and Kremlinology — Did Bibi really say that?


In our little self-obsessed community of Jews watching the Middle East, reading the "Daily Alert," published by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, is what passes for Kremlinology.

It purports to be a roundup of news and opinion in the Middle East, but it misses the point often enough, that you have to wonder what the thinking is; the opinions it selected strongly backed the Bush administration’s Iraq adventure, yet it never, as far as I can recall, linked to any of the the flurry of stories in early 2004 that once and for all buried the notion of Saddam holding weapons of mass destruction. Kremlinology: In PresCon world, the weapons are still there.

More recently, in December, it took days (and pressure from constituent groups) before it referred at all to the settler riots in Hebron after the Israeli government evacuated a building. Kremlinology: Nasty Israelis don’t make good PresCon copy.

And today, a day after the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg’s story about his hour-long chat with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Daily Alert highlights … Bret Stephens’ Wall Street Journal interview with Netanyahu from Jan. 24, and adds Goldberg’s as an afterthought.

This especially stands out on a day that Goldberg’s purported scoop — Netanyahu is warning the world that if the United States does not act on Iran, Israel will — is sweeping the web.

For the first time, I sympathize with the PresCon, and I think I can figure out it’s decision. (Hey, I could always ask, but this is more fun).

Goldberg’s headline  — "Netanyahu to Obama: Stop Iran — or I will" — as well as his lede just don’t stand up. I come out of a wire service tradition and I need to see the quote backing up the lede, pronto, and not only does it not appear high-up, it just never appears.

Netanyahu and his deputies repeat the litany of Israeli warnings about how a nuclear Iran would be a game-changer, but this is not at all new. Let me be clear: It wouldn’t even be new for an Israeli official to warn that Israel will take on Iran once it goes nuclear if no one else does. Ephraim Sneh pretty much said as much at the last AIPAC policy conference.

It’s true that Goldberg’s scoop — if only it could be substantiated — would be news. Sneh was a backbencher on his way out of the Knesset; this would be a new prime minister delivering the ultimatum just as the new American President launched an outreach to Iran.

It would also beg a whole bunch of questions: How would Israel go about it without U.S. backing? How would it breach U.S. and Turkish air defenses to get to Iran? What would it do to brace for the political repercussions of defying the United States, and of endangering tens of thousands of American troops stationed in the region?

That hasn’t stopped the echo chamber from, well, echoing: Andrew Sullivan and MJ Rosenberg are horrified, Michael Goldfarb thinks that if Bibi is serious about the consequences of a nuclear Iran, he has no choice but to act….

But based on what? Is this a nod and a wink thing? Netanyahu made the ultimatum, but asked Goldberg to allude to it rather than quote him straight up? We need the quote if we’re going to buy the conclusion.

We asked Goldberg, and he was kind enough to reply:

You’re probably right; the hed may overstate the case. On the other hand, what Bibi left implied several of his people made fairly explicit on background, which I think I convey. The clear impression he gave me, and his people gave me, is that they believe Israel faces an existential threat, and if America, which also has interests in this situation, doesn’t confront the threat, then he may have to.  And for what it’s worth, I didn’t get the impression he thought the world would join together on a sanctions regime that might work. Most of his comments to me concerned the irrationality and fanaticism of the Iranian regime.

That makes it a lot clearer, and no reporter in this town (including me) is innocent of emphasizing what an interviewee implies he plans to do (especially when those plans include war) as opposed to what he outright says he will not do.

Still, as Ami points out, Bibi actually sounds conciliatory and ready to play nice:

Netanyahu said he would support President Obama’s decision to engage Iran, so long as negotiations brought about a quick end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “How you achieve this goal is less important than achieving it,” he said, but he added that he was skeptical that Iran would respond positively to Obama’s appeals. In an hour-long conversation, held in the Knesset, Netanyahu tempered his aggressive rhetoric with an acknowledgement that nonmilitary pressure could yet work. “I think the Iranian economy is very weak, which makes Iran susceptible to sanctions that can be ratcheted up by a variety of means.”.

Which might explain PresCon’s decision to go with Stephens’ piece from two months ago, which makes the same point, without the incendiary inferences of an ultimatum:

Mr. Netanyahu mentions that he has met with Barack Obama both in Israel and Washington, and that the question of Iran "loomed large in both conversations." I ask: Did Mr. Obama seem to him appropriately sober-minded about the subject? "Very much so, very much so," Mr. Netanyahu stresses. "He [Mr. Obama] spoke of his plans to engage Iran in order to impress upon them that they have to stop the nuclear program. What I said to him was, what counts is not the method but the goal."

Even in its afterthought link to Goldberg’s piece, the PresCon ignores the ultimatum, and focuses on Netanyahu’s Iran analysis: "Netanyahu: ‘You Don’t Want a Messianic Apocalyptic Cult Controlling Atomic Bombs’"

It’s a good, solid point about why a nuclear Iran so unsettles Israelis — and would have made a strong enough story.

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