This week, in high spirits after a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and after the speech in the U.N., Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to provide an up-to-date picture of the situation as he sees it. He told two stories to illustrate his point.
The first was about the basic training he received as a young recruit in the Paratroopers Brigade. Although it was early in the morning, he and his fellow recruits had already been in training for several hours, charging toward a hill on the right and shooting at an empty barrel on the left. After they had run through all the possible scenarios and it looked as though they would be able to go back to their tents for lunch, the commanding officer shouted: "Look out -- you've got a submarine in the wadi!"
Last week in New York, the Iranians changed tactics, putting a nuclear submarine in the diplomatic wadi. Netanyahu said that the nature of the war had not changed, but that to overcome the difficulty, planned actions had to be combined with the flexibility required in battle.
The second story was about the power of the French national anthem, the Marseillaise. The story goes that a dangerous criminal broke into a private home, and while he was gathering up the valuables, the homeowner returned and ran angrily toward him. The burglar broke out into a rendition of the Marseillaise, and the homeowner instantly stood at attention. The burglar took advantage of that moment to get away.
Netanyahu, who grew up in a Revisionist Zionist home, heard this story as a boy and learned something about the power of educating to positive values. Sometimes, one had to be careful of it. American education sanctifies freedom of expression and requires dialogue, listening and negotiating first and foremost. Sometimes that is ridiculous, as it is now with the Iranians, when the truth is obvious.
Obama spoke last week about the Iranians' right to develop nuclear power for a civilian purpose, the production of electricity. As of today, roughly 40 countries use nuclear reactors to produce electricity. Those countries have conventional work methods and receive the various ingredients for nuclear manufacture, such as fuel rods, from outside. They also possess other materials that are appropriate for civilian manufacture, such as "light" rather than "heavy" water.
They do not construct underground bunkers to hide those reactors, nor do they run advanced centrifuges. They also do not display intercontinental ballistic missiles. These countries do not call for the destruction of other nations. They are not regimes that support terrorism against other countries, nor do they possess enormous reserves of natural gas, as does Iran. The Americans are well aware of all this, but according to Netanyahu, mentioning these things with the proper relevance is not the name of the game.
Do not be misled
The Israeli prime minister and the American president met for three hours. Netanyahu's first question was: "And what will happen when you discover that they are lying?" Obama answered, "What do you suggest?" "Look," Netanyahu said, "We are not old, but we are old hands."
Netanyahu said that there must be no letup on the Iranians and the world must not allow their words to mislead it. Action against the Iranians must be like the well-known drill of the submarine in the wadi. The Israeli approach is that a combination of formidable sanctions and a credible military threat has always been the most effective formula. It worked with Iran and also with Syria. This approach must be maintained as long as the Iranians move forward with their nuclear program.
Netanyahu also asked Obama to promise that there would be no relenting on the economic sanctions on Iran. Obama did not grant his request. In a public statement, Obama said that "anything that we do will require the highest standards of verification in order for us to provide the sort of sanctions relief that I think they are looking for." Both sides stressed the agreement they had made, pushing aside the disagreements. Obama also said, on camera, "Both the prime minister and I agree, since I came into office, that it is imperative that Iran not possess a nuclear weapon."
Netanyahu referred to Obama's statement that he was committed to Israel's security, but said right away that there were not two players on the court, but three. "Iran is committed to Israel's destruction," he said, and then spoke bluntly: "We have a saying in Hebrew. We call it 'mivhan hatotzaa' -- you would say it in English: What's the bottom line? And the bottom line, again, is that Iran fully dismantles its military nuclear program."
Netanyahu met with Obama in Washington on Monday. When they made their statements to the cameras, it was evident that they were having a dialogue rather than an argument or a lecture. Both parties spoke, and both parties listened. Netanyahu faced a president who had not yet finalized a plan of action for Iran's new conciliatory approach. This was a president who understood that he had a certain advantage because the sanctions and the military threat had led to talks, but now was asking himself how to press this advantage to complete the task of Iran's nuclear disarmament.
Netanyahu believes that this is the time to solidify a common policy -- a plan that will emphasize the [Israeli] policy of threats without colliding with the [American] policy of dialogue. Netanyahu believes that the pressure he is applying now is helping with the international pressure on Iran. Still, The New York Times blamed him for the pressure having the opposite effect, and actually sabotaging Obama's efforts to rebuild relations with Iran.
The prime minister's advisers this week recalled Netanyahu's first meeting with Obama, which preceded the sanctions on Iran. It took place in 2007 in the janitor's office at Reagan National Airport in Washington. Netanyahu, an opposition MK at the time, was a candidate for prime minister, while Obama was serving on the Illinois Senate. At the time, Obama asked, "What is most important to you?"
"Sanctions combined with a credible threat," Netanyahu answered. "They will stop Iran from becoming a nuclear state." Two weeks later, Obama proposed a Senate bill to step up the sanctions on Iran. Will Netanyahu find Obama sympathetic once again?
At any rate, Netanyahu sees his actions in Washington, at the U.N. and in the American media as "stopping [Iranian President Hasan] Rouhani from endlessly dribbling the ball," as he put it. Now, as stated, there are three significant players on the court: Israel, Iran and the United States. In the past, the Europeans and the Americans went with significant economic sanctions because Israel had threatened that if there were not sanctions, we might attack Iran. The Europeans' real fear was that Israel would act alone.
Now, Netanyahu has made that effective threat of an Israeli military strike to clear the way for a diplomatic solution that will enable Iran to move forward on the right path, without lifting the sanctions. The purpose of the military threat now is to keep the sanctions going.
From talk to action
The prime minister returned to Israel Friday from a five-day visit to the U.S. that centered on the question of the relationship between the two countries. First, Netanyahu's stated goal was to speak at the U.N. General Assembly. Actually, the important place this past week was not his speech in New York but his meeting with Obama in Washington.
Can Netanyahu influence Obama? Will the American president abandon Israel and leave it alone with its most important task, neutralizing the existential threat posed by a radical regime that seeks to obtain weapons of mass destruction and states openly that Israel must be destroyed? These questions need to be answered as quickly as possible.
The statements that the prime minister repeats time and again -- that Israel can protect itself from any threat on its own -- are a distress call. So are the statements made by Israel's official spokespeople that it would attack Iran if it should become a nuclear threshold state with the ability to assemble a nuclear bomb at the decision of the spiritual leader in Tehran.
In the past, it took the threat of an Israeli attack to start the sanctions on Iran. Today, the purpose of that threat is to keep the sanctions going. If the Americans and the EU countries do not heed this distress call, Netanyahu will have to change the equation, go from talk to action, and act alone.
For all practical purposes, Netanyahu has issued a warning. It is as if he is saying: I want to reach the moment of truth, but if you make a mistake, if you relieve or remove the sanctions, or if some countries violate the boycott of Iran because of the new situation that has been created, Tehran could leap past the point of no return. This is the point where they could decide to assemble a nuclear bomb and have one within three weeks. Then, as I said, Israel will act militarily and eliminate the danger."
As a rule, Netanyahu and the other high-ranking officials around him, particularly Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, believe that foreign observers will not be able to do the job of keeping Iran from obtaining a bomb. Only Israel's intelligence agencies will be able to do that. Observers can be misled, while what counts is the true intention of Iran, which has chosen deception over transparency.
A wolf in sheep's clothing
At the end of the U.N. General Assembly session, now that the fog has dissipated, we can see clearly that Netanyahu has put the option of an Israeli strike on Iran back on the table, but we must not look at it only from the military perspective. This is a diplomatic move whose purpose, as stated above, is to keep the sanctions in place. From a public-relations standpoint, Netanyahu's speech was a speech of facts that presented absolute truths. It was the speech of a prosecutor trying to stop a dangerous international criminal from being released on bail just because he had put a kippah on his head on beginning his new job.
Once again, Netanyahu is not ruling out dialogue with the Iranians if that should be effective, and if those involved use the model that worked with Libya: sanctions accompanied by military threat. The prime minister does not want to see the model that failed with North Korea, which said that it had given up its intentions, but kept its nuclear capability.
Still, his personal opinion, like that of the entire defense establishment, is that there is no more time for talk. Israel is threatening that any dialogue is superfluous and cannot provide the Iranians with immunity, and that Iran, as a "threshold state," will be attacked by us. Netanyahu says that this is no empty threat. It is honest, serious and credible. It is convincing and shows sharp teeth. Israel has capabilities, so the Americans and the Europeans should expect action on the ground if that should be necessary.
During his speech in the U.N. last year, Netanyahu drew a red line on a diagram of a bomb. Many people said that this was a gimmick, but actually, since then, the Iranians have taken care not to cross that red line. Now, the prime minister has drawn a new line, the color of which does not matter: no to a threshold state that enables the construction of a bomb within three weeks. Israeli officials say that it is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who makes the decisions in Iran, and not President Hasan Rouhani, who was described this week as "a loyal servant of the regime" -- a clerk, not a leader.
"Now here's a strategy to achieve this," Netanyahu said at the U.N., referring to four actions Iran is taking to get the sanctions lifted while retaining its nuclear capability. "First, smile a lot. Smiling never hurts. Second, pay lip service to peace, democracy and tolerance. Third, offer meaningless concessions in exchange for lifting sanctions. And fourth, and the most important, ensure that Iran retains sufficient nuclear material and sufficient nuclear infrastructure to race to the bomb at a time it chooses to do so."
Netanyahu countered with four actions of his own that would put an end to Iran's plans to obtain nuclear weapons and dismantle its nuclear program: "First, cease all uranium enrichment. This is called for by several Security Council resolutions. Second, remove from Iran's territory the stockpiles of enriched uranium. Third, dismantle the infrastructure for nuclear breakout capability, including the underground facility at Qom and the advanced centrifuges in Natanz. And, four, stop all work at the heavy water reactor in Iraq aimed at the production of plutonium. These steps would put an end to Iran's nuclear weapons program and eliminate its breakout capability."
In his speech at the U.N., Netanyahu said, "Rouhani doesn't sound like Ahmadinejad. But when it comes to Iran's nuclear weapons program, the only difference between them is this: Ahmadinejad was a wolf in wolf's clothing. Rouhani is a wolf in sheep's clothing, a wolf who thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community."
But, said Netanyahu, although the international community would like to believe in the change Rouhani is trying to display, it has Iran on the ropes, and must not allow it to get back up for another round. What's needed is a knockout.