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March 9, 2012

Ratcheting Down the Rhetoric

On Wednesday, the New America Foundation hosted a discussion about “America, Israel and Iran after Netanyahu’s Visit” (watch the video here) and the participants pointed out several important takeaways from the 2012 AIPAC conference.
Daniel Levy, Co-Director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, observed that Netanyahu got what he wanted rhetorically from Obama’s speech at AIPAC. Obama may not have significantly shifted his position on Iran red lines, but as former chief of Israeli military intelligence Amos Yadlin hoped, Obama cemented the “zone of trust” Israel can have about American intentions.
This point deserves further questioning, however. Senator Levin, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he believes an attack by Israel is very likely if Iran does not open all of its facilities to inspections and stop enrichment as required by several UN Security Council Resolutions. Moreover, even if Obama used strong rhetoric about not having a containment strategy, did Netanyahu really get what he wanted? Obama did not change his redline to a nuclear weapons capability or endorse negotiations restrictions that 12 Senators (Democrats, Republicans, and Joe Lieberman) want. Perhaps he did just enough to make a modicum of political leeway for negotiations to begin.
Helping increase that space for diplomacy is what Heather Hurlburt, Executive Director of the National Security Network, described as a “truly impressive amount of unity from both active duty and retired military folks in support of the President’s caution on an attack on Iran.” She pointed out that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dempsey stuck to his statements about Iran as a “rational actor.” She also discussed the Washington Post ad featuring former military and intelligence officials warning against war with Iran, which she said got “quite positive coverage in the military press.”
Indeed, recently Netanyahu said in an interview that although any Israeli attack would not be in a matter of years, it would also not be a matter of days or weeks. Moreover, Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, welcomed the opening of talks between the P5+1 and Iran.  This may be a reflection of Israel’s internal dynamics; Levy pointed out that in addition to Netanyahu being a fairly risk-averse politician, a new poll released this week by the Peace Index said that 62% of Israelis oppose a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran. Many in Israel, Levy said, find the talk of an Iranian existential threat unhelpful. In fact, in 2009 Defense Minister Ehud Barack said “Iran does not constitute an existential threat against Israel.” Considering the massive amount of pressure we’ve recently seen from with both sanctions and rhetoric, it is natural that without imminent war, the rhetoric should and will even out. For now, at least, hard liners may be forced to give time for negotiations to play out.

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