The far right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have a choice between expanding settlements in the West Bank or achieving a global consensus on the need to sanction and coerce Iran into giving up its nuclear enrichment program. Netanyahu is so dedicated to the settler project that he cannot see the ways in which it forestalls other, broader Israeli objectives.
The serious policy differences between Netanyahu and the Obama administration are helping Iran, and reducing pressure on that country.
The Times of London reports that Netanyahu was put firmly in his place by President Obama during his visit to Washington earlier this week. At one point Obama is said to have left Netanyahu for dinner with Michelle and the girls after urging the prime minister to contact him if anything changed.
Obama is said to have still been bristling at the slight of Vice President Joe Biden when the latter was in Israel. (In the form of an announcement of the building of more homes on occupied Palestinian land.) The Palestinian Authority leadership, including President Mahmoud Abbas, refuses to restart peace negotiations as long as Netanyahu refuses to commit to a freeze of Israeli colonization efforts. Abbas had been about to set aside his objections and begin proximity talks when Netanyahu’s government announced a substantial settlement expansion. And they made the announcement on the very day of Biden’s arrival to kick off the talks with the Palestinians. Predictably, the Palestinians pulled out of the talks.
There may have been more to the policy differences than just the lack of a state dinner. A report at the Herald Scotland site that the U.S. was moving bunker busting bombs to the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia set off a flurry of speculation that the U.S. was getting ready to move against Iran.
But in reality, the U.S. may well have been sequestering the bunker busters and denying them to Israel. Netanyahu came to Washington in part to ask for jets and other materiel, including the bunker busters.
Netanyahu has called for “crippling” sanctions to be applied to Iran if it does not dismantle its civilian nuclear enrichment program. Among the sanctions Netanyahu sought was probably a gasoline embargo. The call was immediately rejected by the Russian Federation (and probably by China behind the scenes).
The sanctions resolution being prepared by the U.S. on behalf of the United Nations was abruptly watered down to meet Russian and Chinese objections. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded to the news, saying sanctions had no ability to harm or influence Iran. (He might have added, “especially watered down ones!”)
That China and Russia know how tense U.S.-Israeli ties are at the moment may also incline them to avoid the sanctions route.
Netanyahu is convinced that Iran is committed to acquiring a nuclear weapon, and is further convinced that such a development would pose an existential threat to Israel. It is unclear why he reaches that conclusion, since Mutually Assured Destruction would operate to deter Iran from attacking Israel (which has 200 nuclear warheads), lest it be devastated itself. It is a ludicrous idea that the shrewd and pragmatic leadership in Tehran, which has launched no wars since coming to power and has dealt cannily with a multitude of challenges, consists of erratic madmen who would risk seeing their capital annihilated. Not to mention that there is no good evidence that they have a weapons program, and every reason to think that they are a decade or more away from a nuclear warhead even if they did. Some of the more hysterical pronouncements attributed to Netanyahu and to his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, if true, would also raise questions about the safety of the nukes in Israel’s arsenal.
The long and the short of it is that Israel and the U.S. have poor relations for the moment, and that the rest of the world is aware of it, making it harder for the two of them to pressure the UN Security Council.