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Bibi a Republican, Dagan a Democrat?

Not exactly, but Israeli politics are entering America

Marc Tracy
March 13, 2012
Prime Minister Netanyahu on Capitol Hill last week.(Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Netanyahu on Capitol Hill last week.(Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

If you’re hearing less talk about Iran this week than last week, it’s not because Iran has suddenly gotten serious about negotiations or being honest with international inspectors. It’s because Prime Minister Netanyahu has left town. And, as should be clear to even mildly close observers, the Iranian nuclear crisis, while real—a theocratic rogue state developing bomb-related technologies—has been especially in the news because Netanyahu, acting for what he believes are Israel’s best interests, has put it there. Under a different Israeli prime minister, we may not be talking about Iran at all.

Jeff Goldberg considers whether Bibi has been bluffing, “creating conditions in which U.S., Western, and Arab leaders believe that they must deny Iran its dream of nuclear weapons or else suffer the chaotic fallout of a precipitous, paranoia-driven Israeli attack.” Goldberg isn’t completely endorsing this view. But it’s a sign of the extent to which Netanyahu has been able to force Iran onto the international—and specifically U.S.—agenda that it seems even remotely plausible.

GQ’s Marin Cogan was being clever but not cheeky in putting Netanyahu at the top of her Washington power list last week. “On the night before Super Tuesday,” she noted, “it wasn’t the primaries most news anchors and political types were obsessing over—it was Netanyahu’s visit to the White House.” More than a few cracked wise after his masterful address to Congress last May that Netanyahu should be the Republican nominee; I found him similarly brilliant at AIPAC, a thoroughly American pageant, last week. Aaron David Miller described Bibi to Cogan as “a key GOP player.” Netanyahu grew up in the States and speaks English with an accent half-Israeli and half-Philadelphian; he got a graduate degree at M.I.T.

Bibi’s hawkish position has given Republicans, including frontrunner Mitt Romney (who last week published an angry op-ed accusing President Obama of fecklessness on Iran) and the Republican Jewish Coalition (which launched a new ad last week), cover to turn what might be a fairly useful foreign policy issue—after all, even Obama acknowledges that Iran’s nuclear program is an American problem, not merely an Israeli one—into the defining national security issue of the campaign, one that has come to stand as a totem for the president’s basic values. Last week, Obama took the bait, punching back at Republicans, “wrapped up in politics,” he said, “beating the drums of war.” (In Zion Square yesterday, Gershom Gorenberg put it more bluntly: “Loose lips launch wars. For heaven’s sake, Netanyahu and his Republican friends should shut up.”)

If there is new Iran news this week, it is the interview former Mossad chief Meir Dagan gave 60 Minutes Sunday night. Since retiring a year ago, Dagan has been the most prominent Israeli voice publicly agitating against an attack, a line he reiterated to Lesley Stahl. The segment builds up Dagan’s credibility as the hard-nosed spy chief more responsible than anyone else for destroying Syria’s nascent nuclear program. At the same time, it suggests that Dagan might be getting revenge on Netanyahu for forcing him out following the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabouh in Dubai in January 2010. It’s an epically ludicrous insinuation: Dagan was one of the Mossad’s longest-serving chiefs; another former Mossad chief chastised Romney for warmongering; and as for Dubai, from the way it is invariably referred to as a “mishap,” a “disaster,” or a “catastrophe,” you would think it did not succeed at all.

“An attack on Iran before exploring all other approaches is not the right way,” Dagan argued. “You are going to ignite—at least from my point of view—a regional war. And wars you know how you start, you never know how you are ending it.” The segment is must-view-YouTube. It cuts through the politics and heads right for the facts and the logic.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.