Bibi’s plum


An age ago, the summer of 1990 to be exact, my pal Bill Hutman got in trouble in his then-capacity as Jerusalem Post reporter because he had accurately reported Benjamin Netanyahu’s racist gibe at the Arabs.

A little context: I was also at the Post, and this took place just after Saddam Hussein had ordered the Iraqi army into Kuwait, August or September of the year. The first Bush administration was already pressing Israel not to gear up for action; President Bush had launched his effort to build the international coalition that would force Saddam out of Kuwait.

Sometimes two opposing views can be right. Bush could not have pulled off one of the signature U.S. military victories of the postwar period if Israel got itself into the mix; Israel deferred to its closest ally, but at a cost to its deterrent capability. Israel’s passivity fueled the first intifada and spurred forward Hezbollah, Hamas and Iranian militancy, and we see where that has led

Anyway, Bibi, then a deputy foreign minister, was meeting with a U.S. Jewish group and didn’t realize a reporter was in the room. At the time, the official U.S. line was that the Saudis were holding Saddam back for the time being (although it was clear where Bush was headed). The Saudi army was seen as professional but no match for Saddam’s massive Iran-war weathered force. (That turned out to be an overstatement as well.)

So one could — if one were to twist oneself into a pretzel — make the case that the Bush administration expected Israel to stay put while Saudi Arabia kept Saddam at bay. Bibi decided to make that point to the Jewish group, and with a joke about the Israel’s reluctance to rely on a nation that hadn’t yet learned how to build houses.

As in Arabs, tents, hahaha. Ha.

Bill published the story — I was at the Post then too. We hadn’t realized then (a year or so after the Histadrut had sold the paper) how beholden the new leadership at the Post — David Radler, its owner, and the late David Bar Illan, its editorial page editor — were to Netanyahu. (Bar-Illan eventually went on to become Prime Minister Netanyahu’s chief of staff. And Netanyahu — in a Post story bylined by Radler’s daughter — confessed his love for Radler. )

I sat in on the meeting where the then-editors told Bill that the paper was going to retract the story, even though his notes clearly backed up the quote. (Not long after this I was sacked for, basically, yelling at the editors at meetings like the one I sat in on with Bill.)

All this to say that I never, ever expected Benjamin Netanyahu tp begin a presentation to the U.S. President, "Look, I’d rather not bring this up, but the Saudis insisted I make this point."

That seems to be the thrust of analysis of how Bibi plans to argue for a tough posture vis-a-vis Iran today in his first meeting with President Obama since both men’s election. (They met over a year ago, when Obama was a candidate and Bibi led the opposition.)

Here’s Roger Cohen in yesterday’s New York Times online edition:

But recent developments have envenomed things to the point that Arab diplomats troop daily into the State Department to warn that the U.S. quest for détente with Tehran is dangerous.

That point will be made with vigor by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he meets with President Obama Monday. After all, when Israelis and Arabs make common cause, surely the danger is real.

Here’s Jeffrey Goldberg in Saturday’s Times:

Talk of containing Iran after it acquires a nuclear capacity, however, does not make the Israelis (or Iran’s Arab adversaries, for that matter) happy and, in fact, might push them closer to executing a military strike.

I mention Cohen and Goldberg because they’ve come to the same conclusion, and there’s not a whole lot of love lost between them, as we have seen. But the truth is, this talk is permeating DC: "Israel backs engagement for now, but it wants a strict timetable for action — and so, by the way, do the Arabs."

Myself, I’m not so sure.

Netanyahu is profoundly political, which means he operates in the short term. I’m not discounting his strategic thinking, which can be brilliant when he approaches it as an academic. As a politican, however, I’ve seen him, in GPS terms, focus more on how best to get to the next Interstate ramp than on the most efficient way of getting home. Off the top of my head, there’s the pressing ahead with the Western Wall tunnel in 1996 (political gold in the short term, undermined Israel’s claim to be a benevolnet arbiter of the holy sites in the long term); Bringing up Jonathan Pollard with President Clinton at the last minute at the 1997 Wye River talks (make hay with the right in the short term, blow a hole in his reputation as a reliable interlocutor in the long term.) Etc. Etc.

So what’s he looking for? He’s in political trouble already, barely a month in office, as Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now lays out here. He needs a plum.

What plum has the Obama administration been holding back? The outlines of Dennis Ross’ sticks-then-carrot approach to Iran. In other words, the sanctions program.

That’s been obstructed in part by European reluctance to sign on to punitive third party sanctions, targeting companies that deal with Iran’s enertgy sector. But I hear the Europeans like the idea of expanding sanctions on Iran’s banking sector — which in of themselves could seriously cripple the Islamic Republic’s economy.

A taste of that — a solid pledge to target, say, Iran’s central bank should the outreach fail – would help propel Bibi past these rocky days back home.

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