On the Eve of Meeting Obama, Is Netanyahu Listening to Himself?

Gershom Gorenberg

As the prime minister prepares for his next White House appointment, my latest piece at The American Prospect lays out the weaknesses in Bibi’s position on Iran:

When Barack Obama looks at the White House appointment book and sees that Benjamin Netanyahu will come calling  Monday, I doubt he’ll smile. Past meetings between the president and the Israeli prime minister have come in two types: ones in which they publicly displayed the mutual distaste of brothers-in-law who wish they weren’t in business together and ones in which they pretended for the cameras that they get along.

Netanyahu’s political soul is a hybrid of an early 21st-century Republican and a mid-20th-century Central European. In a certain place inside him, every day is September 30, 1938, when Britain sold out Czechoslovakia, and great-power perfidy is inevitable. A year ago, in his more contemporary mode, Netanyahu was publicly supporting Obama’s electoral opponent, a detail neither man will mention on Monday.

Obama and Netanyahu must always discuss two issues, Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peace, which they see in ways so different that they are not quite talking to each other. Netanyahu’s goals are to get Obama to commit himself to conditions for a deal on Iran’s nuclear program that Tehran will reject and to avoid paying with any concessions to America’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian talks. Syria will also be on the agenda. As always, Netanyahu will try to get Congress to take his more hawkish stance against the president, with encouragement from AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group. But there are contradictions—logical, strategic, political, and personal—in Netanyahu’s stance that weaken him even before the conversation with Obama begins.

First, the logical problem: Netanyahu categorically insists that any relatively moderate rhetoric from Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is “spin,” obscuring his intentions. The problem is that Netanyahu also insisted that all extreme statements from Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were precise expressions of what he planned to do. By this measuring stick, all Iranians have the same policy and can be trusted only to the extent that they are as crude as Ahmadinejad. Negotiating with Iran is therefore a dangerous waste of time.

It’s true that the Hebrew advice, “Respect him and suspect him,” should be applied to Rouhani’s charm offensive. His election did constitute a political shift in Iran, but not a revolution. Rouhani’s refusal to tell NBC’s Ann Curry that the Holocaust happened doesn’t inspire confidence. But if it mattered when Ahmadinejad said Israel should be wiped off the map, it should matter that Rouhani hasn’t said that. It makes sense to test him at the negotiating table rather than assuming that all negotiations follow the script of Munich 1938.

This brings us to the contradictions in Netanyahu’s strategic thinking. …

Read the rest here.