And in the last year or two the world has begun to act in a way that is beyond mere rhetoric, imposing harsh economic sanctions against Iran in an effort to dissuade it from continuing its nuclear program.
Now, however, with Iran getting closer to the ability to develop a weapon, and with the growing possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, there is an emerging dissonance in Obama’s rhetoric. On the one hand, the president says it is the world’s issue and is Israel’s sovereign decision to do what it needs to do, but on the other, he is repeatedly telling Israel not to consider attacking in the near period because of the negative consequences that could follow.
To understand this point, one should go back to then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s decision in 1981 to destroy the Iraqi reactor at Osirak.
Begin launched the strike primarily because he believed that if Saddam Hussein, a crazy dictator, were to have a nuclear weapon it could be a mortal threat to the State of Israel. But it also was clear — if not in terms of motivation then at least in terms of consequences — that if Israel succeeded it would dramatically add to the well-being of the Middle East, and indeed all of civilization.
In effect, the threat to Israel was linked to the threat to civilization. Nowhere was this clearer than in 1990, when Saddam invaded Kuwait. Had Israel not destroyed his nuclear program, he likely would have had a weapon at that point and the United States most likely would not have supported an invasion to get Saddam out of Kuwait, where he threatened the sources of oil for the world.
So, too, with regard to the current situation. Of course, as has been repeatedly noted, there is no comparison between the Iraqi facility, a lone site, not well protected, and Iran’s, in several sites and deeply embedded.
Still, if Israel believes it can set back the Iranian program substantially and if it perceives Western efforts to pressure Iran are not progressing fast enough to stop the Iranian program, Israel would be acting first to defend itself. But it also would be serving the interests of the Middle East, the United States and the wider world.
That is what is so troubling about the president’s comments in his press conference on Tuesday, March 6, in which he spoke simply of the negative consequences of an attack on Iran.
It is appropriate and responsible for the president to say that he worries about any American who may be exposed if there is a conflict. But, consistent with his wonderful interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, he should have made some connection in a positive way between Israel protecting itself and being in line with U.S. interests in seeing that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon.
By not doing so, Obama undermined the very point he made earlier about all the advantages to the United States. and the West from Iran being stopped. He left the impression that if Israel acts it will undermine American interests rather than bolster them.
The United States and Israel have demonstrably shown better coordination on these matters in recent months. And the president’s Atlantic interview and his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee carried the ball farther.
Yet we believe it is vital, as things move forward, that the United States avoid language suggesting that, if Israel exercises its sovereign right to defend itself when and if it perceives that Iran has reached a point of no return on its nuclear program, such action will hurt America and its interests.
America and Israel both want to solve this problem peacefully. But time is running out. And while Israel and America see certain elements of the equation differently because Israel sees Iran as an existential threat and the United States sees it as a strategic challenge, in the end both countries want the same thing. How that goal will be achieved is still unclear. But if Israel is able to protect itself, it will also benefit its great ally, the United States.
(Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League.)