Zakaria, Fareed, Newsweek
Byline: Fareed Zakaria
The Israeli Prime Minister says his nation's security is his top priority. Too bad he's undermining it.
In international relations, whenever you hear the term "confidence-building measures," you can be sure that someone is trying to kick a can down the road. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu has now promised to offer such measures to the Palestinians. He has also urged that everyone "calm down" about the diplomatic row between his government and the United States.
But this crisis hasn't been caused by just one event--the announcement, while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting Israel, to approve new Jewish housing units in East Jerusalem. It caps a year of increasingly strained relations between Washington and Tel Aviv. And while he's apologized for the ill-timed announcement, Netanyahu remains unyielding. In fact, the Israeli press has reported plans to build not merely the 1,600 units announced last week, but 50,000. "We will act according to the vital interests of the state of Israel," Netanyahu said last week.
What are those vital interests? If you have listened to Bibi Netanyahu over the past few years, it's clear what tops the list--Iran. In fact, the prime minister has described the Iranian threat as an existential one for Israel, and a grave one for the world. He sees combating it as the central challenge of our times. "We are faced with security challenges that no other country faces, and our need to provide a response to these is critical, and we are answering the call," Netanyahu told his Likud faction in May 2009. "These are not regular times. The danger is hurtling toward us. My job is first and foremost to ensure the future of the state of Israel."
But after watching Netanyahu's government over the past year, I have concluded that he is actually not serious about the Iranian threat. If tackling the rise of Iran were his paramount concern, would he have allowed a collapse in relations with the United States, the country whose military, political, and economic help is indispensable in confronting this challenge? If taking on Iran were his central preoccupation, wouldn't he have subordinated petty domestic considerations and done everything to bolster ties with the United States? Bibi likes to think of himself as Winston Churchill, warning the world of a gathering storm. But he should bear in mind that Churchill's single obsession during the late 1930s was to strengthen his alliance with the United States, whatever the costs, concessions, and compromises he had to make.
In a smart piece of analysis in Israel's Haaretz newspaper, Anshel Pfeffer, no fan of the Obama administration, writes, "When senior ministers or generals list Israel's defense priorities, there is always one point on which there exists total consensus: The alliance with the United States as the nation's greatest strategic asset, way above anything else. It is more crucial than the professionalism of the Israel Defense Forces, than the peace treaty with Egypt and even than the secret doomsday weapons that we may or may not have squirreled away somewhere--But [Netanyahu] has succeeded in one short year in power to plunge Israel's essential relationship with the United States to unheard of depths."
Iran's rise has also placed Israel in the unusual position of being on the same strategic side as the major Arab states, as well as the United States. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan are all deeply worried about the hegemonic ambitions of Iran, particularly if it obtains nuclear weapons. A core Israeli objective should be to strengthen this tacit alliance. What the moderate Arab states ask for, again and again, publicly and privately, is that Israel make some progress--even if only for appearances' sake--on the peace process. The single biggest challenge for these countries is that Iran has appropriated the Palestinian cause, which makes it difficult for, say, the Egyptian government to take a public stand that is hostile to Tehran. …