By Roger Cohen
LONDON â€” Shaul Mofaz, the leader of Israelâ€™s centrist Kadima party, posed three questions this month to Benjamin Netanyahu. Speaking in the Knesset, he said: â€œPrime minister, tell me, who is our biggest enemy, the U.S. or Iran? Who do you want replaced, Ahmadinejad or Obama? How low are you prepared to drag relations with our closest ally?â€
Netanyahu has talked himself into a corner on Iran. He has set so many â€œred linesâ€ on the Iranian nuclear program nobody can remember them. He has taken to fuming publicly over President Obamaâ€™s refusal to do the same. Of late he has juggled metaphors: Iran is now â€œ20 yardsâ€ from â€œtouchdown.â€ His cry-wolf dilemma comes right out of a childrenâ€™s book. It was in 1992 that he said Iran was three to five years from nuclear capacity.
(One achievement of Netanyahuâ€™s Iran obsession has been to relegate the critical question before Israel â€” the millions of Palestinian people on its doorstep â€” to somewhere between the back burner and oblivion. The best primer for Netanyahuâ€™s thinking is these words from his coached buddy Mitt Romney: â€œI look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say, â€˜Thereâ€™s just no way.â€â€™)
The mistake Netanyahu has made is to believe he can go over the head of President Obama. He has tried through Congress, where his speech last year earned 29 standing ovations. He has greeted Romney in Israel as if he were on a state visit. He has said those â€œwho refuse to put red lines before Iran donâ€™t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.â€ He has given critical interviews on U.S. TV networks in the midst of a presidential campaign. And he hath protested far too much that he has no intention â€” none â€” of swaying the outcome.
Some adjectives that come to mind are: brazen, reckless and irrational. Another is disingenuous: Obama has set a clear red line on Iran â€” he will not permit Iran to become a nuclear-armed state.
The president is angry. Not surprising that he has no time to meet with Netanyahu during his post-Yom Kippur visit to the United States this week for the United Nations General Assembly.
No Israeli prime minister should seek to circumvent the president, bet on his losing an election, and attack him publicly when the most strategically damaging course for a state as powerful as Israel is to alienate its unwavering ally, generous funder and military supplier â€” the United States.
Barbara Boxer, a senator and California Democrat, was outraged. In a recent letter to the Israeli leader, she said she was â€œstunnedâ€ and disappointed by his questioning of American support for Israel.
â€œAre you suggesting that the United States is not Israelâ€™s closest ally and does not stand by Israel?â€ Boxer wrote. â€œAre you saying that Israel, under President Obama, has not received more in annual security assistance from the United States than at any time in its history?â€
When Congressional support for Israel shows cracks, that is a seismic event.
The best reading ahead of Netanyahuâ€™s U.S. visit is â€œWeighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action against Iran,â€ an excellent bipartisan paper [pdf] (and lesson in sobriety) from The Iran Project signed by two former national security advisers, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and former Senator Chuck Hagel, retired military leaders including Gen. Anthony Zinni and Adm. William Fallon, and a host of other experts.
Among its findings: â€œIt would take Iran a year or more to build a military grade weapon, once the decision was made to do so. At least two years or more would be required to create a nuclear warhead that is reliably deliverable by a missile.â€ The United States does not believe that decision has been made by Iranâ€™s supreme leader.
And this: Any Israeli military strike is â€œunlikely to succeed in destroying or even seriously damagingâ€ the underground Fordow enrichment facility with its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium. It could set back Iranâ€™s ability to make a bomb â€œfor up to two years.â€ Only an extended U.S. military campaign â€œcarried out to near perfectionâ€ could delay it â€œby up to four years.â€
And this: Iran is likely to retaliate and â€œwe believe there are at least the preconditions for a major escalation and a bloody conflict in the Levant.â€ In addition, â€œWe believe that a U.S. attack on Iran would significantly increase Iranâ€™s motivation to build a bomb.â€ It might â€œend all cooperationâ€ with the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors are in Iran. An attack would also â€œenhance the recruiting ability of radical Islamist groups, including Al Qaeda, to recruitâ€ and give Muslims â€œeven more reason to believe that the U.S. and Israel are at war with Islam.â€
In short, the facts are against Netanyahu. After Iraq, Americans, if they are go to war in a third Muslim country, want that war to be fact-based. His headstrong behavior has been ungrateful to Obama and undermining of Israelâ€™s true strategic interests.