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Netanyahu plays a dangerous game of chicken
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Netanyahu plays a dangerous game of chicken

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

The recent diplomatic scurrying about and the angry words passed between the United States and Israel raise a series of questions about Israel’s tactics:

If Israel is so concerned about the potential existential threat presented by nuclear weapons in the hands of the Iranians, why did it pussyfoot around over a 90-day settlement freeze asked for by the United States, the only reliable friend it has in the world?

Why did the Netanyahu government permit internal political shenanigans to complicate its relationship with the United States if, indeed, Israel’s very survival is at stake?

If Israel needs support from the United States in confronting Iran, what was to be gained from antagonizing its friend? Could not the Netanyahu government have solidified its own governing coalition without trying to embarrass the Obama administration?

Explanations abound, but few address the precise threat to Israel posed by Iran. No one assumes this is another Iraqi “WMD” charade, but Iran’s research and potential operational capabilities are subject to wide interpretation. It is also unclear whether a nuclear Iran presents a greater threat to Israel or to Iran’s Sunni neighbors in the Gulf. Will blood run deeper than hate? Will oil reserves trump all else?

Reports suggest Israel is genuinely skeptical of its support within the Obama administration. Its leaders wanted to wait out the midterm elections, assuming a Republican return to power would enhance its negotiating position. Perhaps emboldened by the Republican gains, Netanyahu felt he could remain firm on settlements without earning the full wrath of the Americans.

The waiting game also allowed Netanyahu to get a sweeter deal from the administration, and thus earn him more chits among his balky coalition partners. Arriving in the United States when Obama was out of the country, Netanyahu also firmed up his American-Jewish support with a major policy address to the Jewish federation leadership gathered in New Orleans.

Some believe Israel will ultimately need to deal with Iran on its own. The diplomatic initiatives will fail and there will be no international support for a military option. Any concessions in negotiations, according to this view, will only strengthen the Palestinians and hard-line militant forces in the Arab world. Israel remains alone and needs to demonstrate its internal fortitude to confront even the United States. Only if Iran gets this unequivocal message can Israel possibly avoid a military confrontation.

But this approach is risky in the extreme, compared to a more immediate strategy of appearing to play ball with the United States and the peace process. Israel is right that a settlement freeze is not critical to the Mideast negotiations. And yet it is viewed, however incorrectly, as symbolic by the Arab world, the United States, and the world community. A construction moratorium is no threat to Israel’s security, while it would demonstrate Israel’s good faith in resurrecting the talks. It would also be seen as calling the Palestinians’ bluff. Israel’s gains in the international courts of opinion would outweigh the ire of hard-liners.

If the Iranian threat is genuine and imminent, Israel will need to bolster such favorable opinion. It would be foolhardy to permit political strife at home or hubris abroad to win out in the face of an existential threat.

Israel’s political culture has become depressing. Creative ideas and new forces are absent.

Something here makes no sense: Either the Iranian threat is a paper tiger — most unlikely — or the Netanyahu government played a game of very dangerous political chicken with its closest ally. The immediate costs to Israel at this point may appear to be minimal, but when Israel inevitably faces its next crisis, questions of trust and friendship may loom large.

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