Memo to Bibi: What Are You Thinking?

Having made a private vow to myself to steer clear of politics during this High Holiday season, I write this article with considerable ambivalence. The deepest truth is that it is not about the American presidential campaign per se, nor is it intended to indicate a preference for one candidate over another, though I won’t pretend not to have one. The real issue that I want to address has to do with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his obvious decision to insert himself- and Israel- into the American presidential campaign.

Time and time again, Prime Minister Netanyahu has, in a dramatically public way, chastised President Obama and his administration for what he obviously perceives as the President’s inadequate application of pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear program. In print media, at press conferences, and most recently on a series of Sunday morning talk shows here in America, Netanyahu has demanded that America declare publicly what its “red lines” are. What threshold does Iran have to achieve in order to warrant an American military response? When does the much-talked-about “window of opportunity” for negotiation and sanctions to work end, and the time for more aggressive action to begin?

Let me, at the outset, make myself as clear as I can. I have often referred to myself as an “unrepentant Zionist,” and I am. Were I the Prime Minister of Israel, and I had to carry on my shoulders the responsibility for protecting my country and its citizens from the likes of Ahmadinejad, who threatens regularly to wipe Israel off the map and is engaged in a drive to gain nuclear weapon capability, I, too, would do everything in my power to prevent him from reaching his goal. If Israel, based on its intelligence reports and security considerations, decides that it has no choice but to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, then my comfort level or lack thereof with that decision is not Israel’s issue, nor should it be. And if Israel feels that the American government’s assessment of Iran’s intentions and/or progress towards becoming a nuclear power is in error, and is jeopardizing Israel’s security, not for a second would I begrudge Israel the right to make clear to America how I felt, in direct and unmistakable terms.

But I wouldn’t do it in public. And I wouldn’t do it in a way that publicly portrays a sitting president of the United States as less than a true friend to Israel. And last but certainly not least, I wouldn’t do it in the final weeks of an American presidential election, in a way that makes Israel and its security a wedge issue in the campaign.

Let me suggest a parallel scenario to clarify what I am saying. Suppose that an American president, in the midst of an Israeli election campaign, were to decide that the sitting Israeli Prime Minister’s policies on negotiations with the Palestinians were an obstacle to the peace process. In order to advance the possibility of a more left-leaning Prime Minster being elected, said American president goes on Israel’s political talk shows, and publicly implies that the policies of the sitting Prime Minister are impeding the possibility of peace. He doesn’t endorse the opposition candidate, but he doesn’t have to. The message is clear.

It’s hard for me to imagine that such a series of events wouldn’t provoke a firestorm of protest in Israel, and rightly so. Can’t you hear Israelis saying “Who is he to tell us who to elect?” Only the most naïve among us would believe that American presidents don’t have favorites when it comes to Israeli leaders. Of course they do. But political considerations dictate at least a modicum of discretion. And remember- Israel takes more than three billion dollars in foreign aid from America. Of course America benefits from having Israel as a strategic ally in a very difficult and hostile part of the world. Yes, America needs Israel. But really- Israel needs America too… badly.

Again- the issue here is not Israel’s right to differ with American policy on how to deal with the Iranian threat. It has every right in the world. But the implications of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s very public criticisms are clear. With Governor Romney proclaiming a much harder line on this issue in his campaign, it is hard, if not impossible, especially given the well-known testy relationship between President Obama and Prime Minster Netanyahu, to read his comments as anything other than an endorsement of the Republican candidate.

Mr. Prime Minister- have you considered the very real possibility that President Obama might win re-election? I know you think that this election season is when you have leverage over the President in terms of his desire not to alienate his Jewish voter base. But what kind of leverage do you think you’ll have if the President wins? And how lonely will that feel when and if you do have to attack Iran, and the missiles start flying into both northern and southern Israel?

One last time… the issue is not about Israel’s right to defend itself, or its right to differ with the Obama administration on how best to combat the Iranian nuclear threat. It is, simply, about how Prime Minster Netanyahu accomplishes this. As an American Jew, and as a proud Zionist, I have serious problems with his strategy

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.