With Ariel Sharon out of the picture, Benjamin
Netanyahu has a better chance to become prime minister of Israel.
He's media savvy. He knows how to spin on American television. And
he's very dangerous.
Netanyahu spent a lot of his early years in the United States. Later,
during the 1980s, he worked at the Israeli Embassy in Washington and
then became Israel's ambassador to the United Nations. By the time he
moved up to deputy foreign minister in 1988, he was a star on U.S.
The guy is smooth – fluent in American idioms, telegenic to many
eyes – and good at lying on camera. So, when Israeli police killed
17 Palestinians at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque in October 1990,
Netanyahu led a disinformation blitz asserting that the Palestinians
were killed after they'd rioted and pelted Jewish worshipers from
above the Wailing Wall with huge stones. At the time, his fable
dominated much of the U.S. media. Later even the official Israeli
inquiry debunked Netanyahu's account and blamed police for starting
Now, with Netanyahu campaigning to win the Israeli election for prime
minister in late March, he's cranking up rhetoric against Iran. His
outlook seems to be 180 degrees from the world view of Iran's
president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Yet in tangible political ways,
they're well-positioned to feed off each other's fanaticism.
The election that gave the presidency of Iran to Ahmadinejad last
summer was a victory for repressive fundamentalism. Results have
included a negative trend for human rights in the country and a more
bellicose foreign policy.
When Ahmadinejad declared in late October that "Israel must be wiped
off the map," he did a big favor to the most militaristic of Israel's
major politicians – Benjamin Netanyahu – who demanded that Prime
Minster Sharon take forceful action against Iran. Otherwise,
Netanyahu said in December, "when I form the new Israeli government,
we'll do what we did in the past against Saddam's reactor, which gave
us 20 years of tranquillity."
Netanyahu was referring to Israel's air attack on the Osirak reactor
in June 1981 to prevent Iraq from developing nuclear weapons. But now
the idea of bombing Iran is nonsensical even to many analysts who are
enthusiastic about Israel's large nuclear arsenal, estimated at 200
"Preemptive military attack is not a strategy for stopping the spread
of nuclear weapons anymore; the changes in technology have made it obsolete."
That's the current assessment from Larry Derfner, who often writes about Israeli
politics for the Jerusalem Post. "Concealing a nuclear start-up
is so much easier now than it was in 1981 and it's only going to get easier
yet. Throwing fighter jets, commandos and whatnot at Iran is more than risky;
it's almost certainly futile if not altogether impossible. Better for Israel
and Israelis to forget about it and instead meet the Iranian threat by making
this country's deterrent power even more intimidating than it already is."
Derfner added: "A nuclear Iran isn't a cause for indifference but
neither is it a cause for dread and certainly not for recklessness. A
nuclear Iran is actually acceptable. We can live with it. The truth
is we've been living here with threats very much like it all along."
But Netanyahu has repeatedly emphasized that he wants to launch a
military strike on Iran. "This is the Israeli government's primary
obligation," he said. "If it is not done by the current government,
plan to lead the next government to stop the Iranians."
The specter of Netanyahu and Ahmadinejad fueling each other's madness
as heads of state is frightening. In such a circumstance, the primary
danger of conflagration would come from nuclear-armed Israel, not
Candidate Netanyahu is a standard bearer for nuclear insanity. He's
also an implacable enemy of basic Palestinian human rights. Many
Israelis understand that Netanyahu is an extremist, and polls
published on Jan. 6 indicate that the post-Sharon era may not be as
hospitable to Netanyahu as initially assumed.
For that matter, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may not serve out his full
four-year term as Iran's president. Evidently the hardline clerics
who dominate the Iranian government got more than they bargained for
when they threw their weight behind the Ahmadinejad campaign last
June. In recent months, Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has
shifted more power to the governmental Expediency Council headed by
the shady magnate Hashemi Rafsanjani, a relatively moderate political
hack who lost in the presidential runoff last year.
Ahmadinejad is good at making statements that cause international uproars,
but he's having a difficult time exercising presidential leverage. "Even
in Iran's mostly conservative parliament, the hard-line president has found
himself unable to get traction," the Los Angeles Times noted on
Jan. 2. "In a first for the Islamic Republic, lawmakers turned down four
of the ministers Ahmadinejad asked them to approve. It took him three months
and four candidates to seat an oil minister. Some reformist legislators even
agitated for hearings on the president's 'lack of political competence.'"
Using religious claims to bolster their quests for power, Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad and Benjamin Netanyahu each stand to gain by pointing to
the menacing fanaticism of the other. Yet many Iranians and Israelis
recognize the grave dangers of such posturing.
As tensions mount and pressures intensify, the White House might end
up acceding to an Israeli air attack on Iran. Or the Bush
administration may prefer to launch its own air strike against Iran.
Iran. Israel. The United States. Each country has the very real
potential to move in a better direction – away from lethal
righteousness. But in every society, that will require more effective
grassroots efforts for peace and justice.