Netanyahu's warmongering on Iran losing momentum

Benjamin Netanyahu has come under strong verbal attack from prominent Israeli security officials and leaders; this is good news for Barack Obama.

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So, what's going to be the main foreign policy contest of the US presidential election? A week ago, you'd have gotten long odds for any answer other than Iran; now, it's looking a lot more like China. The political earthquake has yet to register, but register it must after blind dissident Chen Guangcheng escaped his house arrest and sought shelter in the US embassy in Beijing.

That President Barack Obama has remained silent on the matter of Chen is hardly surprising, as representatives of his administration engage in frantic negotiations with their Chinese counterparts to avert what could be a perilous political standoff. And equally unsurprising is the vocal insistence by Mr Obama's rival, Republican presumptive nominee Mitt Romney, that the US take steps to protect the dissident and his family. "Our country must play a strong role in urging reform in China and supporting those fighting for the freedoms we enjoy," Mr Romney said, in a statement typical of those by Republican and Democratic candidates speaking about China on the campaign trail.

But what happened to the threat of Israel launching a military strike on Iran, while Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters in Washington booed Mr Obama's diplomatic efforts as those of a feckless appeaser?

Mr Netanyahu is still desperate to play that game: Last week he used a Holocaust remembrance speech to paint Iran as the new Nazi Germany, racing madly to build nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel, even if that meant national suicide. "The Iranian regime is acting openly and decisively toward our destruction, and it is acting feverishly to develop a nuclear weapon to achieve this goal," Mr Netanyahu said, just two days after accusing the Obama administration of giving Iran a "freebie" in the recent nuclear talks in Istanbul. Those comments, in which Mr Netanyahu pointedly rejected the idea that Iran's leaders were rational men, were calculated to tell the public that the current diplomacy with Iran is prevarication in the face of a mortal threat to Israel - a message aimed to raise domestic political heat on Mr Obama.

But then a curious thing happened: Israel's military chief of staff, Lt-Gen Benny Gantz, publicly disputed Mr Netanyahu's characterisation of the Iranians. Tehran's leaders are "very rational", Gen Gantz told the daily Haaretz, and he doubted they would go ahead and build nuclear weapons given the choices before them. That was a de facto ringing endorsement of Mr Obama's policy: The US leader had vowed to take military action were that to become necessary to stop Iran building nuclear weapons, but made clear that Iran hadn't yet taken a decision to do so.

Scarcely had Gen Gantz's interview been published then there was more flak for Mr Netanyahu, this time from Yuval Diskin, the respected recently retired head of the Shin Bet internal security service. Mr Diskin pulled no punches, warning Israelis that Mr Netanyahu and his defence minister, Ehud Barak, suffered from messianic delusions, were misleading the Israeli public about Iran, and should not be trusted. "I've seen them from up close," Mr Diskin told a community meeting last week. "They are not messiahs, either of them, and they are not people whom I, on a personal level, trust to lead the state of Israel into an event of that scale [a confrontation with Iran]." Indeed, he warned, attacking Iran is more likely to result in Iran actually acquiring nuclear weapons.

Heavy stuff, and over the weekend Mr Diskin's warnings were backed by both former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and even by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Israeli public opinion polls repeatedly find that no more than one in four Israelis supports attacking Iran without the involvement of the United States. Israelis, it seems, don't want to be isolated from the US and the wider western world. And the consensus in its military and intelligence services clearly opposes the imminent strike threatened by Mr Netanyahu.

Mr Netanyahu's troubles, of course, are good news for Mr Obama, precisely because the Israeli leader has been trying to narrow the space available to him for diplomacy with Iran. Mr Netanyahu knows that the talks currently underway will, at best, produce a compromise well short of his bottom-line demands: the framework of the talks lends itself to a sequence of confidence building steps by both sides, involving an end to Iranian enrichment to 20 per cent and adoption of additional internationally verifiable safeguards against weaponisation, in exchange for easing sanctions. Mr Netanyahu has long insisted that Iran can't be allowed to exercise even those rights permitted it by the NPT, in respect of uranium enrichment - the Israelis want Iran's entire enrichment infrastructure rolled up and removed, which is clearly not going to happen.

US officials are reportedly moving towards accepting the principle - resisted until now - that Iran can maintain low-level uranium enrichment under stricter international scrutiny and safeguards once it has accounted for all its previous nuclear work to the satisfaction of the IAEA. Because such an outcome would leave Iran possessing infrastructure that could be used to build nuclear weapons, it's precisely the sort of compromise Mr Netanyahu is trying to block.

Having so many of his country's own leading securocrats painting Mr Netanyahu as a lunatic certainly undermines the hawkish stance he's adopting, and that diminishes the danger of a war any time soon. In fact, unless Iran does something really stupid and provocative, war remains unlikely this year, at least. But as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's posturing over the dispute with the UAE over the island of Abu Musa reminds us, that prospect can never be entirely ruled out, even if Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's interests and Mr Obama's both require dialing down confrontation.

Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst

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