Thomas Friedman: Obama framed Israel-Iran conflict in a way that removes politics

Thomas Friedman

New York Times

Published: Friday, March 9 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

The only question I have when it comes to President Obama and Israel is whether he is the most pro-Israel president in history or just one of the most.

Why? Because the question of whether Israel has the need and the right to pre-emptively attack Iran as it develops a nuclear potential is one of the most hotly contested issues on the world stage today. It is also an issue fraught with danger for Israel and American Jews, neither of whom want to be accused of dragging America into a war, especially one that could weaken an already frail world economy.

In that context, President Obama, in his interview with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg and in his address to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, offered the greatest support for Israel that any president could at this time: He redefined the Iran issue. He said — rightly — that it was not simply about Israel's security, but about U.S. national security and global security.

Obama did this by making clear that allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons and then "containing" it — the way the U.S. contained the Soviet Union — was not a viable option, because if Iran acquires a nuclear bomb, all the states around it would seek to acquire one as well. This would not only lead to a nuclear Middle East, but it would likely prompt other countries to hedge their commitments to the global Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The global nuclear black market would then come alive and we would see the dawning of a more dangerous world.

"Preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon isn't just in the interest of Israel, it is profoundly in the security interests of the United States," the president told The Atlantic. "The risks of an Iranian nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorist organizations are profound. ... It would also provide Iran the additional capability to sponsor and protect its proxies in carrying out terrorist attacks, because they are less fearful of retaliation. ... If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, I won't name the countries, but there are probably four or five countries in the Middle East who say, 'We are going to start a program, and we will have nuclear weapons.' And at that point, the prospect for miscalculation in a region that has that many tensions and fissures is profound." In sum, the president added, "The dangers of an Iran getting nuclear weapons that then leads to a free-for-all in the Middle East is something that I think would be very dangerous for the world."

Every Israeli and friend of Israel should be thankful to the president for framing the Iran issue this way. It is important strategically for Israel, because it makes clear that dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat was not Israel's problem alone. And it is important politically, because this decision about whether to attack Iran is coinciding with the U.S. election. The last thing Israel or American friends of Israel — Jewish and Christian — want is to give their enemies a chance to claim that Israel is using its political clout to embroil America in a war that is not in its interest.

That could easily happen because backing for Israel today has never been more politicized. In recent years, Republicans have tried to make support for Israel a wedge issue that would enable them to garner a higher percentage of Jewish votes and campaign contributions, which traditionally have swung overwhelmingly Democratic. This has led to an arms race with the Democrats over who is more pro-Israel — and over-the-top declarations, like Newt Gingrich's that the Palestinians "are an invented people."

And it could easily happen because money in politics has never been more important for running campaigns, and the Israel lobby — both its Jewish and evangelical Christian wings — has never been more influential, because of its ability to direct campaign contributions to supportive candidates.

Reports from the AIPAC convention this week indicated that those advocating military action were getting the loudest cheers. I'd invite all those cheering to think about all the unintended and unanticipated consequences of the Iraq war or Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. That's not a reason for paralysis. It's a reason to heed Obama's call to give diplomacy and biting sanctions a chance to work, while keeping the threat of force on the table.

If it comes to war, let it be because the ayatollahs were ready to sacrifice their whole economy to get a nuke and, therefore, America — the only country that can truly take down Iran's nuclear program — had to act to protect the global system, not just Israel.

Thomas Friedman is a New York Times columnist.

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