Friends and Enemies

It’s important to know your enemies, but it’s no less important to know — and appreciate — your friends. That, in a nutshell, explains the welcome change in rhetoric coming out of Yerushalayim in recent days regarding the U.S. administration’s policy on Iran.

In the weeks leading up to the interim agreement signed with Iran on November 24, it was legitimate for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to come out swinging on a deal that he saw as a “historic mistake.” He understands Iran at least as well as other Western leaders and has been warning since the 1990s about the threat it poses to the world if it acquires nuclear weapons. Arguably, it is his hard-hitting style that succeeded in finally putting the issue on the international agenda, and he obviously hoped that it would also convince the P5+1 to push for a better deal in Geneva.

At the same time, Netanyahu understands that Israel has a friend in the White House. President Barack Obama has consistently lived up to the pledge he repeated at the Saban Conference in Washington this past weekend: that America’s “commitment to Israel’s security is sacrosanct.”

The president has backed this pledge with actions, investing generously in the Iron Dome anti-missile system that knocked down rockets fired from Gaza during last year’s IDF Operation Pillar of Defense and saved untold numbers of Jewish lives. Just this week, the U.S. House and Senate Armed Services committees passed a measure backing the president’s request for $220 million to buy additional Iron Dome batteries and to invest in the Arrow system, which was developed with U.S. funding and can intercept ballistic missiles at high altitudes, far from Israeli population centers.

As Israel faces increasing isolation and boycott threats from Europe and the rest of the world over “settlements,” it is the United States alone that remains a loyal friend.

While Secretary of State John Kerry can justly be accused of being overly optimistic about the prospects of reaching a final Israel-Palestinian peace deal in the coming months, he cannot be accused of ignoring Israel’s security needs.

Indeed, he is taking flack for standing up for Israel’s right to defend itself. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestinian official who joined PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas at a meeting with Kerry last week, told Voice of Palestine radio that the U.S. secretary had plunged the process into crisis by seeking to “appease Israel through agreeing to its expansion demands in the Jordan Valley under the pretext of security.”

It’s legitimate for good friends like the United States and Israel to agree on a goal but to disagree on how to achieve it. Just a few months ago, in September, when Obama decided at the last minute to hold off on a military strike against Syria after it crossed a red line on use of chemical weapons, many in Israel feared it would be interpreted as a lack of resolve that would embolden radical elements, including Iran.

In hindsight, Obama was right. Firing a Cruise missile or two at some Syrian installation might have provided some temporary satisfaction that the West had carried out its threat, but it wouldn’t have eliminated Syria’s chemical weapons program. What’s more, such a move would have had unpredictable results, including a possible retaliatory strike against Israeli civilians.

Instead, Obama’s “hesitation” resulted in an agreement to systematically dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program. No one, not even Netanyahu, dared dream that such an outcome was possible.

When it comes to Iran, as well, no one has a monopoly on wisdom, on choosing the correct tactical moves that will keep the ayatollahs from obtaining nuclear weapons.

What is known is that the president is determined to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. He has also made it clear that he is prepared to consult with Israel, Saudi Arabia and other interested parties over the next six months, the time period designated for drafting a final agreement.

Netanyahu understands that this isn’t the time to emphasize his differences with the president. Focusing all his energies, and so much media attention, on a tactical disagreement harms the friendship and undermines Israel’s standing in the world.

Moreover, Netanyahu understands that if he wants his voice to be heard over the next six months, he will have to lower his tone.

But how can he remain calm when there is a very real danger that a mistake at the negotiating table can allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons?

The answer has to do with understanding his role as Israel’s prime minister. He is not responsible for protecting Israel. He is responsible to do everything humanly possible to protect its citizens, to make maximum hishtadlus. This involves preparing a plan of attack; creating a three-tiered anti-missile system to defend against Iranian missiles; preparing the home front for the worst eventuality, chalilah; pushing for sanctions; conducting diplomacy, and so on.

But if he understands the most important thing, that there is only One Power that can and will protect Am Yisrael, then he needn’t go into panic mode, which actually undermines proper hishtadlus.

Such an understanding will also convince him that this is the time to reach for the Jewish people’s secret weapon and to strengthen the Torah world, even it means offending some of the members of his coalition.