To explain Benjamin Netanyahu’s frenzied reaction to the Geneva agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, let me begin with the stack of brown cardboard boxes under my wife’s desk.
Each of the five cartons contains a gas mask and related paraphernalia for a member of my family to use in the event of a chemical-weapons attack. They were delivered last January, as part of the gradual government effort to prepare every household in Israel for a rain of Syrian missiles. I suppose that having “defense kits” in the house could be macabre, but what we usually notice is that they’re a nuisance: another thing on which to bang your toe in an overstuffed city flat.
What’s more, they’re apparently an obsolete nuisance. A couple of weeks ago, the usual nameless military sources told the local media that the Defense Ministry would recommend ending production of gas masks for civilians. According to the leaks, intelligence assessments said that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was successfully reducing Syria’s poison-gas arsenal. In other words, the U.S.-Russia agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons is working, and one result is a significant improvement in Israeli security.
To put it mildly, this isn’t what Prime Minister Netanyahu expected in September when President Barack Obama opted for a diplomatic solution rather than a punitive attack on the Assad regime for using chemical arms. Back then, Netanyahu barely concealed his view that American weakness was both a catastrophe and a betrayal that would encourage Iran to develop nuclear arms. At a military ceremony, he proclaimed that Israel could depend only on itself. “If I am not for myself, who is for me?” Netanyahu said, quoting the first half of an ancient Jewish maxim, without the second part, which says that someone who is only for himself is nothing. “We are for ourselves!” he declared. A nameless senior official, making the prime minister’s warning more explicit, said that “a diplomatic failure in Syria without [an American] military response” might force Israel to attack Iran. The failure of diplomacy was virtually a given; the only question was what would come after.
The Syria agreement was the warm-up act for the interim accord with Iran. …
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