Author: Alex Friedfeld
Date: 12 October, 2012
Category: Political, Military
Actors: Israel, Iran, Benjamin Netanyahu
On September 27, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the United Nations General Assembly. While discussing the Iranian nuclear threat, Netanyahu produced a cartoon drawing of a bomb and drew a red line to indicate that Israel would attack Iran before Iran enters the “final stage” of its nuclear development. I will argue that Netanyahu’s red line lacks credibility because of Israel’s military limitations, opposition from the Obama administration, and a history of Israeli public officials engaging in saber rattling. Instead, Netanyahu’s address was designed to garner international and domestic support for his government.
Israel’s military currently does not possess the capacity to enforce a red line without foreign assistance, which reduces the credibility of Netanyahu’s threat. Any Israeli attempt to attack Iranian nuclear facilities would require violating a sovereign nation’s airspace, completing a complicated in-air refueling, and overcoming Iran’s capable anti-air defenses. Israel does not have the military sophistication needed to successfully complete such a mission. As Israeli President Shimon Peres said in August 2012, “Now, it’s clear to us that we can’t do it alone…It’s clear to us we have to proceed together with America.” However, the Obama administration and Netanyahu have an acrimonious relationship and the two leaders disagree on how to address Iran. While Israel is pushing to use force to curtail Iran’s nuclear activity, the American government favors the use of international economic sanctions and continues to praise the effectiveness of these actions.
Furthermore, Israeli officials have been saying for years that they will bomb Iran if the Iranians continue their nuclear program. The Iranian government has simply ignored these threats and continued the nuclear process. There is little reason for Iran to believe that this threat will be any different, and Iran has dismissed Netanyahu’s speech as “baseless theatrics.”
If Netanyahu were truly interested in deterring Iran by designating a point in the nuclear process at which Israel would attack, he would have fully defined this line in order to send a clear warning. However, Netanyahu was not explicit about what the numbers on the diagram referenced, obscuring what the line represented and creating confusion in Israel. In addition, if Netanyahu were committed to his red line he would have been less accepting of President Obama’s plan for addressing Iran. While Obama has declared that the United States will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear device, his red line is drawn at the point where Iran is physically producing a weapon and not at the point at which it has the capacity to do so.
Having established that Netanyahu’s UN address was not designed to directly threaten Iran, it is important to parse out to whom he was speaking and for what end. Some commentators suggest that the speech was targeting the American people in order to use their voting power to influence Obama’s behavior. By drawing a red line during an address that was aired on American cable programs, Netanyahu demonstrated to the American people his conviction that Iran is an immediate threat and he put the issue on the electoral agenda. Netanyahu has been accused of “meddling” in the American election in favor of Governor Romney, whose stance on Iran is closer to Netanyahu’s. As Bradley Burston of Haaretz notes, if Obama refuses to accept the red line then Republicans can paint him as weak on Iran; if Obama does accept the red line, then Republicans and Netanyahu can say that the President was following their leadership.
Netanyahu’s speech also served as a message to the Israeli people amid rumors (which have now been officially confirmed) that the Israeli elections will be held in early 2013 rather than in October 2013. Netanyahu has come under attack from domestic leaders for turning the Iranian threat into a partisan issue in American politics and many Israeli leaders are concerned that he has sacrificed his relationship with Obama by “betting on the wrong horse.” In addition, surveys indicate that the Israeli people fear losing Israel’s strategic alliance with the United States more than they are worried about a nuclear Iran. If Obama wins the election, Netanyahu’s political opponents will attack Netanyahu’s treatment of Israel’s relationship with the United States and criticize the way he antagonized the American president.
However, if the Israeli people believe that Iran will complete a nuclear device by next spring – thus becoming an existential threat to Israel – then the focus of the election will be security. As the incumbent, Netanyahu can use the UN speech to portray himself as a proven strong leader who is tough on Iran. This will give him an advantage over challengers who are promoting social and economic issues. Furthermore, he can silence critics by portraying his antagonistic relationship with Obama as a necessary evil to protect his country.
By issuing a red line, Netanyahu helped Israel’s cause by increasing the prominence of the Iranian nuclear issue on the global agenda while strengthening “coordination with the Obama administration.” The speech assured Obama that Israel would not strike Iran before the November election, which allows the President to avoid having to address a potentially divisive issue. This is win-win move for Netanyahu: if Romney wins the election then this red line is irrelevant as Romney has been vocal in his belief that the President needs to support Israel more. If Obama wins the election, Netanyahu can use the good will created by this assurance to gain more support from the United States.