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A Familiar Refrain

A Familiar Refrain

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Reuters

In his NYT op-ed today entitled ‘Don’t Do It, Bibi,’ Roger Cohen issued another stern warning to his favorite target, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. In his piece, he warns about the grave repercussions if Israel were to attack Iran without political support from the United States.

This article is the latest installment in Cohen’s crusade against Netanyahu and the Likud-led governing coalition in Israel. Cohen solemnly recites all the ways in which Netanyahu has mistreated President Obama before he settles down and proceeds with his analysis of Iran’s nuclear threat.

Cohen argues that Netanyahu has stalled in his negotiations with the Palestinians because he foresees a rabidly pro-Israel Republican nominee beating Obama in the 2012 presidential elections. Yet in the next paragraph Cohen contends that Netanyahu is sorely tempted to bomb Iran before the elections because he and his advisors increasingly believe Obama can win in November.

Now, almost everybody following the Middle East understands that Netanyahu is a savvy politician who is not oblivious to American election cycles. Perhaps even more than most politicians, Netanyahu may be better characterized as “cynical” than “shrewd” in formulating his political agenda. And it may be true that Netanyahu indeed forecasts a Republican victory in 2012, but wants to hedge his bets by bombing Iran’s nuclear reactors while Obama courts the Jewish vote in the swing state of Florida.

However, Cohen makes the same mistakes in this article that he has consistently made throughout his analysis of the Iranian threat.

First, he implies that any attack by Israel would be a massive bombing campaign that would instantly and irreversibly unite all of Iran’s people under their oppressive regime and against the West. For starters, any aerial attack would be limited to the nuclear reactor sites and would probably result in few civilian casualties. With the possible tacit support of the US, in the last few years Israel has already attacked Iran’s nuclear program with a computer virus, assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists, and sabotaged missile bases in Iran that resulted in dozens of Iranian deaths. Meanwhile, less than three years ago Iran’s regime was strongly challenged by its populace. While the theocratic government may have suppressed the mass protests in 2009, there is still a strong anti-regime sentiment among Iranians. Moreover, the “regime” itself is an uneasy coalition between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that is showing highly visible signs of strain. I’m not sure how Cohen can absorb these facts and compute that an attack by Israel “locks in the Iranian Republic for a generation.”

Second (and he is not alone in this truly bizarre line of argumentation), he reckons that Israel’s security is threatened more by the status of the occupied territories than by Iran. I fully agree that Israel must keep striving to find a way to ensure that Palestinians have a fully functioning state. While the on and off again courtship between Hamas and Fatah certainly complicates matters, it is also reasonable to argue that the Netanyahu administration has shown a distinct lack of urgency in its approach toward negotiations with the Palestinians. I am also gravely aware of the risks that any aerial attack by Israel on Iranian reactor sites would entail (although per above I disagree with Cohen about their nature.) However, I struggle to comprehend how the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire, which is grinding toward its 45th year of existence, can be compared to the existential threat posed by the nuclear program of a country whose stated intention is to destroy Israel.



Zev Wexler

Zev Wexler is an associate at the law firm of Vinson & Elkins LLP, where he represents investment managers. In 2009, he took a sabbatical year and volunteered as a strategic consultant in Malawi for Millennium Promise, a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. Zev is a board member of American Jewish Committee's ACCESS young leadership program, and serves on the Committee's International Relations Commission. Zev is also a board member of the Microfinance Club of New York. Prior to working at Vinson & Elkins LLP, Zev worked at the law firm of Skadden, Arps, and at the asset manager BlackRock Financial Management. He received a BA in Public Policy from Princeton University and a JD from New York University School of Law, and is a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA). Zev currently lives in New York.