P. DAVID HORNIK: NETANYAHU’S RED LINE
At the start of Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech to the UN General Assembly on Thursday, he seemed less than fully focused, at times a little creaky in his delivery.
The content of his words was unobjectionable. It had not been the easiest week for the Israeli Jewish people. The UN had picked Wednesday—Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year on the Jewish calendar—to schedule yet another address by Iran’s Holocaust-denying, genocide-inciting president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with only Israel itself, and the United States and Canada, seeing fit to have their delegates absent themselves from the harangue.
And just before Netanyahu’s speech, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas had taken the podium for yet another anti-Israeli screed, saying Palestinians were “facing relentless waves of attacks against our people, our mosques, churches and monasteries, and our homes and schools; they are unleashing their venom against our trees, fields, crops and properties, and our people have become fixed targets for acts of killing and abuse with the complete collusion of the occupying forces and the Israeli government”—and much more of the same.
In Abbas’s case, the irony is that the target of his vituperation, Israel, is now the main force keeping his Palestinian Authority from financial collapse. Israel continues to see the PA as the lesser evil compared to a breakdown resulting in chaos, riots, attacks on Israeli security forces and civilians, and a further strengthening of Hamas. Abbas, despite the indispensable helping hand from Jerusalem, keeps pushing the standard, decades-old Fatah line of across-the-board demonization of the Jewish state—while seeking a nonmember status in the UN that flouts all the Israeli-Palestinian agreements so diligently produced with the help of earnest American peace processors.
Israelis and Palestinians “won’t solve our conflicts with libelous speeches at the UN,” Netanyahu said in that first, less heartfelt part of his speech, while again repeating his formula of a “two-state solution” between Israel and a “demilitarized” Palestinian state that would recognize Israel’s validity as a Jewish state—a formula that has always been disconnected from reality and is aimed at positioning Israel as the party genuinely seeking peace, while riskily adding legitimacy to the concept of further dividing an already tiny and besieged Israel.
So much for Abbas; Netanyahu responded as well to Ahmadinejad’s allegations earlier in the week about Israel as a country lacking “roots” in the region that stands to be “eliminated.” The Israeli prime minister emphasized the Jewish people’s deep rootedness in the Land of Israel, their combining loyalty to their traditions with cutting-edge creativity in high tech, medicine, and agriculture, while contrasting that with “the medieval forces of radical Islam whom you saw storming embassies in the Middle East,” forces that “want to destroy freedom and end the modern world.”
It was solid but unoriginal stuff, clear to realistic Israelis and Americans and perhaps a smattering of Europeans. But it was when he got to the real focus of his speech—Iran’s nuclear program—that Netanyahu’s manner became much more artful and nuanced; one felt this was his real reason for coming to New York and, justifiably enough, his overriding preoccupation.
“For nearly a decade,” he said, “the international community has tried to stop the Iranian nuclear program with diplomacy. That hasn’t worked. Iran uses diplomatic negotiations as a means to buy time to advance its nuclear program.”
As for sanctions, Netanyahu said they had “had an effect. Oil exports have been curbed and the Iranian economy has been hit hard. It’s had an effect on the economy, but we must face the truth. Sanctions have not stopped Iran’s nuclear program either.”
As he noted: “According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, during the last year alone, Iran has doubled the number of centrifuges in its underground nuclear facility in Qom.”
That left one thing, Netanyahu said, that could stop the mullahs’ march to nukes: “a clear red line.”
Such a red line, he averred, had proved effective when President Kennedy had drawn one during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and could have proved effective against the Nazis if the Western powers had troubled to draw one during the 1930s. But what, in the case of Iran’s nuclear program, would constitute a red line?
It could not be, Netanyahu asserted, the production of a nuclear detonator—something that, in a vast country like Iran, could be achieved in a workshop the size of a classroom, beyond intelligence agencies’ power to detect. Instead, “a red line must be drawn first and foremost in one vital part of their program: on Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium.”
But hasn’t Iran already enriched a lot of uranium, directly flouting the now more-or-less forgotten 2006 UN Security Council Resolution that treated uranium enrichment itself as a red line?
Netanyahu, of course, acknowledged that Iran had already progressed far down the uranium-enrichment road—and used a diagram to clarify where things stand today. The basic message he conveyed with the diagram: Iran has already produced enough low-enriched uranium; it is already “well into the second stage” of producing medium-enriched uranium, beyond which lies only a third stage of having enough high-enriched uranium for the first bomb; and Iran has to be stopped—the red line has to be drawn—at the completion of that second stage of medium enrichment.
When would Iran be completing that stage? It would be, Netanyahu said, “by next spring, at most by next summer.”
Three things should be pointed out here.
First, by treating a certain stage of enrichment as the red line rather than the actual construction of a bomb, Netanyahu appears to be amplifying a known disagreement with the Obama administration, which has claimed that intelligence would be able to detect a final sprint to the bomb so that military forces could stop it in time—a position with which Israel has strenuously disagreed.
Second, in positing a quite-high level of uranium enrichment as the red line and next spring or summer as the end point, Netanyahu appears to be significantly moderating the message he and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been conveying since late 2011, which has often made an Israeli attack sound imminent and the existing situation sound nearly if not actually intolerable. Netanyahu appears thereby to be lessening Israeli pressure and allowing more time to iron out differences, and adopt a joint approach, with the U.S. administration.
But, third, the question that remains is: what happens if (as seems likely if not predictable) Netanyahu’s demand for a red line is not fulfilled by Washington? Netanyahu’s speech on Thursday could, in other words, be viewed as either a last warning before an Israeli attack or—by leaving the red-line demand as another ongoing talking point, but not a real ultimatum—a way to back off from one.
Which of those the speech actually was, only time will tell.
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