On days when the political headlines contain both the names “Netanyahu” and “Trump,” one risks whiplash just opening the newspaper.
This may seem like a strange thing for an adult not resident in a psychiatric institution to write, but in my ideal world, there would be a lot more Donald Trumps and a lot fewer Benjamin Netanyahus. Netanyahu spent much of his youth as a soldier, serving in an IDF special-forces unit in the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War, and has spent much of his political career trying simply to ensure that his lonely little country will survive, beset as it is by hostility on all sides. By way of contrast, Trump’s career in business has from time to time constituted an assault against creditors and good taste both, but Trump’s life has been the sort of life that is possible only in nations blessed by peace and prosperity. Napoleon scoffed that the British were a nation of shopkeepers, but even while we honor the courage and sacrifice of the fighting man, a nation that spends more of its time and energy keeping shop or, God forgive us, developing casino resorts is a happier nation than the one whose men and women are obliged to spend their time soldiering.
It is naturally very difficult for us Americans to understand the domestic political realities of Israel. Israel is not a party to the pending U.S.–Iran nuclear deal, but Israel has more of a stake in the outcome than does the United States, at least in the near term. All honest parties acknowledge that some portion of those unsequestered Iranian funds are going to find their way into financing terror operations, and that may be of some direct concern to the United States at some point down the road; it will be a critical concern for Israel the day after the funds are released. The prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon being lobbed into Tel Aviv is much closer than that of one being lobbed into San Francisco.
The prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon being lobbed into Tel Aviv is much closer than that of one being lobbed into San Francisco.
We can afford to joke about that sort of thing; a left-wing talk-radio host this week did a bit about Netanyahu refusing to recognize Pluto as a planet and Israel reserving its right to defend itself against Pluto-related aggression. (Left-wing talk radio is not very funny.) In Israel, they’re taking things rather more seriously: Netanyahu, who is conducting an aggressive campaign to persuade Congress to reject President Obama’s accord with Tehran, was rebuked by the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, a member of his own party, on the grounds that the prime minister’s actions might undermine Israel’s relationship with the United States, which would be a potentially mortal blow to Israeli security. “The prime minister is leading a campaign against the United States as if we were equals,” he said. “We are to a large extent isolated in the world at the moment. . . . I’m not a pessimist but for the first time I see that we are alone.”
But of course Israel is not alone. As an American ally met with a blend of indifference and hostility from the Obama administration, it is part of a growing club that nobody wants to join.
The Israelis are not helpless sheep. They are an unacknowledged nuclear power, and their history has forced them to accommodate reality in ways that citizens of more-insulated nations can comfortably ignore. (For now.) A very large majority of Israelis believe that the Washington–Tehran deal makes a nuclear Iran much more likely, and a near-majority (47 percent in the last poll) support a military strike against Iran to attempt to hobble its nuclear program. This is familiar ground for the Israelis and for Netanyahu, who began getting serious about entering politics around the time Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. The Israelis are not defenseless, but there are not very many of them, and they do not have very many friends in a world that is embarrassed and offended by Jewish national assertiveness.
#related#Meanwhile, our headline writers remain without a sense of irony: “Donald Trump goes nuclear on John McCain,” reads one; “Daily News goes nuclear on Donald Trump,” reads another. These are the nuclear exchanges on our political mind right now, and the combat that concerns most at the moment is verbal.
We don’t take things too seriously. But as strongmen from Islamabad to Pyongyang keenly appreciate, a nuclear weapon or two has a wonderful capacity for commanding the attention of one’s neighbors, and distant unserious world powers, too. North Korea couldn’t produce a can of tomato soup under its own steam, but it can bring the United States to heel with its handful of nuclear weapons. The ayatollahs understand this; Benjamin Netanyahu understands this — it’s obvious enough even for Chuck Schumer, who has announced that he will oppose the Iran deal.
Perhaps even Donald Trump understands that, though the fact that we are obliged to ask is part of the problem.