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Obama Faces Israel's Angst

Obama Faces Israel's Angst

by Steve Weissman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

"Could the Taliban get the bomb before Iran does?" read the headline in my favorite Israeli newspaper, Haaretz. The columnist, Bradley Burston, was joining Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in thinking the unthinkable, that the Taliban in Pakistan might soon have their hands on what the country's former President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto called his Islamic Bomb.

Burston noted that the Pakistani Taliban had made no threats against Israel and would have no delivery system with which to reach Israel. But he is nonetheless preparing his bomb shelter, primarily because his far-right compatriots are using the Taliban threat as "one of the best reasons yet" to bomb Iran. As evidence, he quoted Yaakov Katz, a backer of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's coalition government. "If we take this action," said Katz "the US is likely to act the same way against the rising terror threat in Islamabad, Pakistan."

Such cataclysmic thinking sounds pathological, I know. But, even more than the previous Israeli government of Ehud Olmert, the Netanyahu coalition and its neocon allies in Washington are trying to push the Obama administration toward supporting a military strike against Iran. More prudent voices, from Israeli President Shimon Peres to US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, warn that such military action would be a disaster for Israel, the United States and the world. It would only postpone - but not stop - the Iranians from pursuing the capability to build nuclear weapons. It would encourage other countries in the region to create nuclear capabilities of their own. And it would wreck President Obama's effort to build bridges to Iran, Pakistan, and other Islamic countries.

This unmistakable reality faces the policy conference of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which started Sunday in Washington, DC. How will the delegates respond? AIPAC proclaims itself to be "America's Pro-Israel Lobby," and few, if any, at the conference will criticize in public the direction in which Netanyahu is trying to push Obama.

To dramatize the point, AIPAC will send thousands of attendees to lobby their representatives in Congress to co-sponsor the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act and "to speak out forcefully ... about the urgency of dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat." The act would authorize state and local governments to divest from companies investing in Iran's petroleum and natural gas sector. It would also protect fund managers against potential lawsuits for divesting from such companies. Rep. Barney Frank introduced the act in early March, and the House Financial Services Committee, which he chairs, unanimously approved it by voice vote. In 2007, the House of Representatives passed a similar act by a vote of 408 to 406 and will likely support this year's version with the same pro-Israeli enthusiasm.

The Senate seems less certain, having failed even to consider the 2007 act, which was introduced by the then-senator from Illinois, Barack Obama.

In itself, the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act is small potatoes, since Washington already has the legal authority, if it wants, to either stop or penalize most American and foreign business activity with Iran. The real dangers come in the campaign to support the sanctions. Much as in the buildup to the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq, AIPAC and other proponents argue that tough sanctions against Iran will only reinforce President Obama's diplomatic efforts. But the campaign rhetoric encourages Americans to believe that Iran's nuclear program poses "an existential threat" to Israel that could, if unchecked, justify Tel Aviv in launching a pre-emptive military strike.

The truth is far less dramatic. Any country with centrifuges to enrich uranium can, in time, produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. This is why the Obama administration and its European allies will work to convince Iran to keep its nuclear program within the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and under the watchful eye of the International Atomic Energy Commission. The IAEA cannot stop a country from diverting uranium, centrifuges or spent fuel rods to produce weapons-grade uranium or reprocessed plutonium. But IAEA inspectors would quickly know if a country does and warn the world about it.

With some glaring exceptions that the IAEA is still pushing Tehran to explain, the Iranians have shown a willingness to play by the IAEA rules. Israel has not, refusing to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and keeping the IAEA from regularly monitoring the Israeli nuclear facility at Dimona. Israel also has nuclear weapons and the missiles, airplanes and submarines to deliver them. The Iranians do not and would take years to match the Israeli nuclear arsenal, should they want to. As of November 2007, they did not, according to the US National Intelligence Estimate.

From its point of view, Israel faces at worst the same nuclear standoff that the United States faced with the Soviet Union. More likely, the Israelis will continue to have the first-strike nuclear capability to demolish Iran without having to fear a nuclear counterattack. Neither scenario poses "an existential threat" to Israel. Neither justifies a pre-emptive strike. And continuing to threaten one only encourages the Iranians to believe that they do, in fact, need nuclear weapons of their own.


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France.

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