This column was filed October 2nd, 2013, shortly after Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the U.N. General Assembly on the subject of Iran. For one reason or another, it was never run.—P.L.
We have heard the Israeli leader speak. We anticipated little to nothing as Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the new Iranian diplomacy before the U. N. General Assembly Tuesday afternoon. And we got yet less than we expected.
Read the transcript of Netanyahu’s remarks in Haaretz, the Israeli daily. This is an argument in deep, fatal deficit—bankruptcy is not too strong a term. It is for continued threat, tension, suffering, iniquity, nuclear-era fear, hatred, and prejudice—all this posed as the alternative to reconciliation in the Middle East, or the deserving chance of it. It has just become quite simple for all of us to choose (with the exception of President Obama).
Netanyahu is now the third corner in the triangle connecting Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The separation this thought implies is among the things now new. It represents the outcome of the Israeli prime minister’s encounter with Obama in the Oval Office the day before his UN moment. Bibi will not get on the bus if Obama, as promised, begins to explore Rouhani’s ideas for a reinvented Middle East. So we could well be witnessing the start of an historic departure in American relations with Israel. The size of the moment is why Bibi and Obama sat before the hacks after their talk and managed not to mention Iran even once. Neither was up to it. So the naked emperor goes on as if clothed.
Any rift in ties will be Netanyahu’s choice. “If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone,” Bibi asserted on the podium in New York. I count two bold-faced lies in these 11 words alone, and we will look at these in a moment. But the remark is perhaps right at the core: Maybe it is time for Israel, having grown grotesquely belligerent, to find its own way and pay the fare for it. As I wrote in this space last week, I think it would be magnitudes more right than regrettable for all concerned.
At the core of Netanyahu’s position on Middle East renovation is a thesis truly disgraceful—there can be no other word. Scholars call it a “national character” argument, and it is best to understand this because we already hear it and more is coming. Over the years I have once or twice wept upon finding this rubbish deployed in defense of Israel.
The Germans did what they did because they are German, and that is what Germans do. This is the national character argument: No history, no political economy, no context, only the ineradicable nature of a people. The Japanese have lived with this for decades. It is even now Beijing’s fallback when it wants to stir the great broad masses: The Japanese will always be cruel to us because they are Japanese. Trash their shops and burn their cars for a few days while we negotiate for the maximum in grants, aid, and credits.
It is not thought, this line of discourse. It is emotion, it is id, it is what the French call ressentiment—a profound, group-shared fear of one’s vulnerability. And often enough it is calculation and lying, as in China’s case—and Netanyahu’s. The abominations of the Nazis are “the central lesson of the 20th century, and we cannot forget it,” Netanyahu told the assembled heads of state. Certainly we cannot. But are we supposed to bring this to bear as we listen to an Iranian proposing civility? Do you get that? Please use the comment box below if you do.
Here comes the wave, in any case. Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush’s secretary of state, appeared on “CBS This Morning” Thursday with one of her hopelessly balled-up outpourings of half-formed assertions. “I negotiated with the P5 + 1, the international negotiating team for the Iranians,” she boasted. Actually, P5 + 1 designates the Security Council plus Germany, and Condy was in the group as it negotiated with the Iranians, not for them. But never mind. Her conclusion: “You absolutely cannot trust them,” meaning the Iranians.
This is the national character argument, version 2013. Any fair reading of the case against Rouhani—Bibi’s, Condy’s, anyone else’s—will show that it is rooted in the cynical thought that no people can change because they are ever as they are, which is to say it is rooted in race. No, thanks.
“Lying” is a big word, and I had better defend using it.
It is not so hard in Bibi’s case. There are the usual odds and ends. “The regime Rouhani represents executes political dissidents by the hundreds and jails them by the thousands,” we are advised. I do not have the numbers, and Evin prison, having seen it, is not a good place to land. One is astonished, nonetheless, that an Israeli pol would dare even raise the topic. This is the “lying of leaving out,” as I call it.
Much more. “Iran is not building a peaceful nuclear program; Iran is developing nuclear weapons.” The implication of certainty here is false. Evidence, please. Iran has oil and no need for nuclear power, we hear. The U.S., having given the shah Iran’s research reactor under Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” sales job, knew well enough that resource substitution is ordinary development strategy: Sell the oil and fund growth. Netanyahu understands this well enough.
Iran is a nuclear threat comparable to “50 North Koreas,” Bibi says. He outdid my most extravagant expectations on this point by a multiple of 50. With a couple of hundred warheads, we think, Israel is—what?—a hundred or so times more dangerous than North Korea. No mention of the Non–Proliferation Treaty, Bibi? Iran has signed, but there’s no Israeli signature. It amounts to crafted lying.
You have to turn the glass upside down to understand this guy. It is all other than stated. The best one can say is that he is digging his own trench and cannot figure as a serious voice in substantive negotiations. “He was so anxious to make everything look as negative as possible he actually pushed the limits of credibility,” Gary Sick, a consistently good Iran watcher at Columbia University, said in Thursday’s New York Times. “He did himself harm by his exaggerations.”
Two other exaggerations need noting. One, nobody is “forcing Israel to stand alone.” This is Israel’s decision (or Netanyahu’s, anyway). Two, Netanyahu, by my reckoning, would not dare stand alone before time comes to an end. People who talk tough are generally this way. Bibi is a frightening man, but he is frightening because he is so profoundly frightened. Maybe it is the scar of history that never grows new tissue.
In my estimation, standing alone is not the plan. The plan is to keep asserting the four demands Netanyahu noted yet again at the U.N.: export all enriched uranium, cease further enrichment, dismantle the nuclear program infrastructure, and stop heavy-water work on plutonium production. These are diplomatic torpedoes, not less or more. Iran could never accept such intrusions on its rights. Bibi wants to force Obama to choose between bravely making the best kind of history and the lowly fear of the incoming from the Israel lobby and its creatures on Capitol Hill.
I am on the record expecting the president to choose the latter path. And I dearly hope I come out wrong.
We may have some strange choreography ahead. The nation that once could have represented some quality of retrieved greatness in the human project presents itself as a candidate for isolation for the sake of the rest of us. The nation so long demonized—under no circumstance an accurate rendering of anybody—could in the best outcome help to do all of us some good.