Let's all pity Netanyahu and the GOP: Israel, Iran, irrational thinking -- and Thomas Friedman's usual muddled nonsense

A reactionary leader addressing a reactionary legislature will expose the creeping irrelevance of them both

Published March 6, 2015 12:00AM (EST)

  (Reuters/Lucas Jackson/AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Michel Euler/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Lucas Jackson/AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Michel Euler/Photo montage by Salon)

Many readers will have seen Benjamin Netanyahu’s sentimentally charged but otherwise empty speech to Congress on Tuesday. If you missed it, you can watch it here or read the transcript here.

There is a lot to consider in this presentation, even if—or partly because—it was a celebration of the nothing-new. To me, the key to the occasion lies in one especially revealing trick the Israeli leader tried. This was the staged presence of Elie Wiesel in the gallery. The novelist, Nobel-winner and concentration camp survivor was strategically placed in the speaker’s box next to Netanyahu’s wife, Sara.

After a reference to “a nuclear-armed Iran whose unbridled aggression will inevitably lead to war,” Netanyahu played his card. “My friend, standing up to Iran is not easy,” he began this passage. “Standing up to dark and murderous regimes never is. [Pause for effect.] With us today is Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel.” Applause.

Then, gesturing to the balcony, this: “Elie, your life and work inspires to give meaning to the words, ‘never again.’ [More applause.] And I wish I could promise you, Elie, that the lessons of history have been learned. I can only urge the leaders of the world not to repeat the mistakes of the past.” More applause.

Then the punch line. “But I can guarantee you this, the days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over.”

It is Wiesel’s business that he made himself available for this occasion as he did. It is ours to understand what Netanyahu is up to—how, that is, he proposes the world judge any agreement with Tehran the Obama administration may strike in coming weeks over Iran’s nuclear programs.

OK, the Israeli leader made an appeal to the emotions all of us must feel when the Holocaust is invoked. But do not conclude that the Wiesel passage was mere rhetorical device. It expressed the intent of the speech altogether. More than anything else, Netanyahu invites us to keep critical thought out of the Iran question. This is pitiful, as the Israeli was for the duration of his appearance.

It is the eclipse of reason, to borrow a phrase made famous by Max Horkheimer in a 1947 book so named. As the German thinker persuasively argued, an assault on our capacity to think with detachment—rationally and critically—is one consequence, if not the intent, of the massification of culture. As I read it, this is Netanyahu’s resort: to play upon the prejudices and intellectual slovenliness that has been bred into the Western democracies for decades.

Consider in this context the phrases Netanyahu licensed himself to deploy: “unbridled aggression,” “dark and murderous regime,” “genocidal enemies.” The speech is salted through with this stuff. Of what use any of it, other than to whip Congress and paying-attention Americans into a proper state of total irrationality?

For the final irony, consider the date of Horkheimer’s book. He wrote after the war in defense of reason and objective thought so as to understand the rise of Nazism.

We come, then, to Netanyahu’s mention of “the lessons of history” and whether we have learned any. (No times 10, of course, but let us stay with the matter at hand.) What is the true lesson at issue here? Simple: that arguments based on notions of national, ethnic or religious character, essentialist arguments, are a dehumanizing disgrace, ever a source of hatred.

Has Bibi learned this from the history he shares with Horkheimer? I leave readers to their answers. Mine: His case against Iran is now as it always has been, top to bottom a national character argument. Inexcusable, especially in the larger context.

Shame on Congress for all those standing ovations. I could hardly sit still as I watched them. Then again, Netanyahu chose his venue well, for if there is any place in this nation where thinking is more or less proscribed, Congress has to be a leading contender.

For once, Secretary of State Kerry acted with something close to brilliance. What better way to comment on Netanyahu’s appeal to unreason than pointedly to ignore it? Kerry could not have done better than to put himself in Switzerland with Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s gifted foreign minister, hard at work reasoning through to a resolution of the outstanding aspects of the nuclear question?

Predictably enough, the media now treats us to nonstop hand-wringing over the impact of Netanyahu’s presentation. The gathering consensus seems to be that at the very least he has made a bargain between Washington and Tehran more difficult.

I do not see this. We have to wait and see, but in my view it is just as likely that a reactionary leader addressing a legislature with a reactionary majority will turn out to expose the creeping irrelevance of both. While there is a piece of history on the table in Geneva, neither Netanyahu nor Congress offers anything one can take seriously as an alternative. Get a deal done, and those against it for no logical reason whatsoever will look very small standing next to it.

We are a quick couple of weeks away from a denouement in a diplomatic engagement that began, very dramatically, with the appearance of Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s just-elected reformist president, at the General Assembly in September 2013. The two sides will succeed or fail now on the merits of their respective cases, not on a paranoically anti-Islamic prime minister drawing cartoons, Charlie Hebdo-style, over on the side.

I credit both sides in these talks. The Iranians have given up a lot already. Their nuclear program has been frozen since the Joint Plan of Action was initiated in November 2013. In negotiations they have accepted limits on their centrifuge count and their stockpiles of enriched uranium, some of which is to be shipped to Russia and doled back as needed to run a nuclear-power program. They will submit to an inspections regime more rigorous than any imposed on any other nation. They are a serious people in pursuit of a serious deal, having long back repudiated the excesses of the Ahmadinejad years.

In return, Iran’s program, whatever shape it assumes, is now on the record as legitimate. Washington has also climbed off its insistence that the agreement extend out several decades. This is now down to 10 years, and it is right. Leave it there. Even at a decade the provision has little meaning.

Who can predict what government will be in place in Tehran in 2025, to say nothing of 2035 or 2045? When in history did a sitting leadership determine the choices of some future leadership? Equally, is the alternative the presumption that Iran will never in eternity have a nuclear program as autonomous as, say, Japan’s or India’s? Silly on the face of it.

In my view the pact we know only in outline is more than good enough. Among its merits, Kerry (a little to my surprise) appears to have pressed the American case without alienating the Iranians by insisting on provisions that offend their very strong sense of national sovereignty. I was long skeptical on this point. I reckon now the other members of the negotiating group—Germany, France, Britain, Russia, China—joined to civilize America’s demands.

We must also try to discern now what Iran truly wants. We have as background the perfect timing of the Al Jazeera Investigative Unit, which reported days before Netanyahu’s speech on secret cable traffic from Mossad confirming that Iran was “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons” and that there was no evidence Iran intended to.

The traffic dates to 2012, when Bibi got up at the General Assembly with, literally, a cartoon of a bomb to assert with certainty that Iran was mere months away from a bomb. No, you have heard nothing of the Mossad cables from Netanyhau. No, just as important, you have read nothing of them in the American media.

I have argued for years that Iran does not want a bomb but wants the capacity to build one should it see the need. It is just as it should be, and I see numerous reasons to stay with this thesis.

One, the logic of a civilian nuclear power program is perfectly plain—as it was as far back as the shah’s time. Iran is better off consuming less of its oil and exporting more of it. Resource substitution is Development Economics 101. Two, the Iranians have said for a decade they do not want to weaponize and there is little hard evidence to the contrary.

Three, no conversation on the subject can sensibly avoid the reality that Israel has a nuclear arsenal. This is almost always left out of the media reports, but it explains well enough what comes over as a do-they, don’t-they ambiguity on the Iranians part.

Four, what possible purpose would a weaponized program serve? I cannot think of one. In this connection, I have to note the single most objectionable comment made since Netanyahu spoke. This belongs to none other than Tom Friedman, the very frequently objectionable New York Times columnist.

“There are actors in the Middle East for whom ‘mutual assured destruction’ is an invitation to a party—not a system of mutual deterrence,” Friedman observed on Wednesday’s opinion page. He said the same thing, if anything more bluntly, on the Charlie Rose show Tuesday evening.

No wonder Friedman gets along well enough with Israel’s war-mongering right wing. This is a variant of Netanyahu’s essentialist caricatures, Orientalist to the core. I have not heard anything this stupid since I bumped into an American tourist in Delhi once who observed with passionate conviction, “Life really is cheap in the East.”

Never forget, Friedman is among the people shaping American perspective. Here he is saying the deterrence argument, gospel during the Cold War, does not apply to Muslim nations. Rubbish. If Israel insists on nuclearizing the Middle East, let there be deterrence as a right other nations have.

For the sake of argument (and this is where my money is now), let us assume an agreement is achieved by the March 24 deadline negotiators have self-imposed. What will Israel do then?

It is hard to entertain any illusions. Netanyahu, assuming he is reelected in two weeks’ time, appears to be fully committed to sinking any pact that may get signed. In this respect, the week’s events signal a shift in strategy that we should not miss. Here is the Wall Street Journal reporting on Monday:

“Pro-Israel advocates made clear at a conference of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee that they are relying on Congress to upend any international Iran deal not to their liking.”

Translation: Netanyahu remains committed to Israel’s inappropriate intrusions into the American political process but has given up on coercing a Democratic executive directly. With this in mind, consider the prime minister’s protests that there was nothing political about his visit. Realigning Israel’s path into American politics was precisely the point of the speech to Congress on the Republican leadership’s invitation.

Netanyahu could manage some serious disruption by way of the Congress, but, again, I question how successful this strategy will prove in any kind of longish run. The danger for him is marginalization. In my view, by hitching his wagon to demonstrably incompetent legislators from yesterday’s political party he has just increased this danger.

The General Assembly in 2013, with Obama, Rouhani and Netanyahu all in attendance, was not much short of sensational, I recall. At the time I predicted that an agreement between Washington and Iran stood to set in motion a fundamental recalibration of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

I approved. One, it would get Israel out of American politics—a profoundly corrupted state of affairs—and free Washington to renovate its relations across the Middle East, something it desperately needs to do. Two, a little ways out it would be of benefit to Israel, too. There would be less room to accommodate the destructive excesses of its religious far right. Israel, too, would have to reimagine its ties as a matter of survival. Muscles, in this case diplomatic, grow strong with use, and Israel’s have long been weak due to America’s endless indulgences.

Now, very possibly on the eve of a historic settlement between Washington and Tehran, where do we stand? Short answer: The forecast looks right and wrong all at once.

We see before us all the fault lines I had anticipated. Strains between the U.S. and Israel are nothing if not evident now. And they are not, in my view, either so partisan or so personal as the media likes to suggest. In time, indeed, we could see that variety of failure that opens the door to success in a new key.

This said, it is also clear now that both sides are alert to the danger of a disrupted status quo. Lacking imagination, both now scramble to paste the diplomatic equivalent of a butterfly bandage over the lesion.

It will hold for now and for some time to come, in all likelihood. If you like what is going on between Israel and its neighbors and between Israel and the Palestinians, you will think this a good thing. My view should be plain enough.

Even the opening to Iran now appears to shrink to a very narrow gauge. Already the administration is at pains to assert that a nuclear deal will leave intact almost all the old animosities. “The nuclear challenge is distinct,” Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said on Charlie Rose Tuesday. “It’s not a broader rapprochement with Iran.”

This is too bad. The administration may judge this kind of talk necessary to sell a pact with Tehran to Israel and Arab nations, but Obama’s people are effectively destroying the village to save it. A broader rapprochement, relieving Americans, Iranians and everyone else (including Israelis) of three and a half decades’ worth of tension and enmity is what gave the initiative its magnitude.

Good enough we get a technocratic deal defining Iran’s nuclear activities. I wanted more, precisely in proportion to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s fight for less, far less, even than that.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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