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Bibi's Dilemma

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Over the course of the last decade, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has been telling anyone that will listen to him that Iran's nuclear program is Israel's greatest threat. So one can imagine Netanyahu fretting as he watches his greatest ally, the United States, currently engage in rapprochement with his greatest adversary. If this wasn't enough of headache for him just a few weeks ago the Presbyterian Church decided to divest itself from companies that it says supply Israel with goods and services used in the occupation of the Palestinian territories. Furthermore, ISIS, a group to the right of Al Qaeda, has taken over huge swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria with broader ambitions in the Middle East. With all that's happening in and around Israel, should Bibi be staying up at night worrying about a peaceful settlement to Iran's nuclear program? Or would his time be better spent dealing with issues closer to home?

The BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank has gained momentum over the last few years. Universities, student associations, professor's guilds, and churches across Europe and North America are slowly viewing it as the most effective way to show their displeasure against continued Israeli settlement building. Similar to the boycotts of a generation ago against apartheid in South Africa, BDS is non-violent in nature and distances itself from the use of force. It's no coincidence that one of the leaders of the movement is Noble laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

It is in this context that the Presbyterian Church, a main line Protestant denomination that boasts several former US presidents as parishioners, decided to divest itself from companies that further Israel's occupation. This move comes off the heels of Pope Francis' visit to the Holy Land where he paid a visit to the separation barrier in Bethlehem, "the wall" that separates Israel from the West Bank. It, perhaps more than any other "thing," enforces the idea in the minds of many around the world that Palestinians are victims of Israeli occupation.

Already the ASA (American Studies Association) has boycotted Israeli institutions and academics; renowned physicist Steven Hawking declined an invitation to go to Israel for a symposium. This movement is a threat to Israel's legitimacy internationally including in the scientific arena where Israeli institutions are the world leaders in cutting edge technology and boast strong ties to European and American universities. United States support for Israel's security is sacrosanct. However, public dismay over its policies toward Palestinians is no longer taboo. Secretary of State Kerry's recent remarks about Israel becoming a de-facto apartheid state while controversial are not uncommon in Israel itself. It is warning that has been echoed by former Prime Ministers Barak and Olmert as well as current Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. With hopes of a two-state solution evaporating, all that will be left is a one-state solution and the Jewish character of that state would be in question as Palestinian birthrates far exceed that of Israelis.

With respect to Iran, Netanyahu's insistence on zero enrichment on Iranian soil has been as maximalist as it has been unrealistic. Iran has always maintained that some level of domestic enrichment is its red-line. Netanyahu intimates that Israel will not be bound by any final deal and may take unilateral action. No doubt this saber-rattling leaves Israel worse off. Israel has an undeclared nuclear arsenal of 200-300 warheads. If Iran were to ever take the irrational first step of initiating military confrontation against Israel then it would invite a massive retaliation by the United States, Israel as well as a coalition of countries. Netanyahu should not over play his hand and push the United States into an unwanted military confrontation, which would be costly if the talks over Iran's nuclear program fail.

The American public is war-weary after 13 years of entanglements in the Middle East. One need only look at the overwhelming pressure President Obama faced when he was contemplating military strikes on Syria and his reluctance to using military power as ISIS advances on toward Baghdad. No doubt when and if a deal is concluded, Netanyahu will instruct his surrogates in Washington through AIPAC to do everything they can to undermine it by leaning on Congress and the Obama administration to not remove any of crippling sanctions that have been placed on Iran over the last decade.

Much to Netanyahu's dismay, the United States has to now work with Iran to combat ISIS advances in the Middle East. The US and Iran share a common enemy in Al Qaeda and ISIS. The US can no longer view Iran as the greatest threat to world peace or be spending so much diplomatic capital nursing the peace process. Events of the past few months prove that. Russia, a stronger and more challenging antagonist then Iran could ever be is in an expansionist mood again. China is extending its maritime boundaries in the South China Sea, which in turn could spark conflict with Japan. Unlike ISIS and the radical Salafist groups now fighting in Syria and Iraq that have little tolerance for negotiation with the United States much less Israel, Iran can be reasoned with if they are incentivized -- the interim nuclear agreement which it signed in November is proof of that.

Israel is in a unique position geopolitically. The Arab Spring has left its neighbors in disarray and weak. While Netanyahu's opposition to any negotiation with Iran is understandable, mindful of all the dangerous developments around Israel, it is now better off supporting a peaceful resolution to the nuclear issue rather than undermining it. Instead, he should spend more time focusing on how to stop the momentum of the BDS movement and think about what it would mean for Israel's long term security should ISIS sets its sights on Israel's doorstep by taking over Jordan.