A Word from Rabbi Schulman - 3/6/15

In the wake of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress this past Tuesday, I have read a number of commentaries that either approve or criticize his speech. My reaction is more mixed.

On the one hand, I condemn Mr. Netanyahu’s politicization of Israel’s relationship to the United States. Make no mistake, he came at the invitation of the Republican leadership of the House with the clear intent of antagonizing the President of the United States. Mr. Obama was clearly displeased with Mr. Netanyahu’s appearance before Congress. In my view, it does Israel no good whatsoever when it becomes a political issue dividing Republicans and Democrats. Israel has always received wide-spread bipartisan support. However, Netanyahu’s willingness to jeopardize Israel’s relationship with its most important ally is appalling.

In addition, the timing of Netanyahu’s address, coming as it does only two weeks from parliamentary elections in Israel, is reprehensible. His public address to a joint session of Congress has the potential to impact Israeli voters and could determine whether he will serve a fourth term as prime minister.

Mr. Netanyahu’s speech before Congress comes at a time in which the United States is conducting highly sensitive negotiations with Iran. The broad outline of an agreement is starting to emerge and clearly Netanyahu condemns this possibility. In his opinion, it is better that there be no deal than the possibility of a bad deal that could allow Iran to go nuclear, if not imminently, than when the agreement expires after ten years.

Though I have many reasons to disagree with the prime minister, I do think his address served a highly significant purpose. In clear, unambiguous language, Mr. Netanyahu portrayed the extraordinary danger posed by Iran. For decades it has carried out or financed attacks that have killed scores of civilians around the world.

The supreme leader of Iran has repeatedly stated his intent to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. Netanyahu is completely right to state that as Jews, we do not take the intent to commit genocide as political rhetoric. Our history, especially after the Holocaust, teaches us the reality of evil and the moral imperative to be ever vigilant.

A nuclear Iran is a mortal threat to Israel. It also, through its development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, has the potential to unleash untold horror on targets beyond the Middle East, including Europe and the United States.

I do not think the present US administration has presented in a compelling way, the danger of a nuclear Iran. Mr. Obama has stated he would never accede to this possibility, but regrettably, he has made other statements about unacceptable international situations (such as Syria’s crossing a redline in its use of chemical weapons against its citizens) which he has failed to back-up with action.

There are no easy choices to be made when it comes to Iran’s potential to go nuclear. By all accounts, Iran’s nuclear facilities are heavily fortified and would most likely withstand an aerial assault. An attack might delay but would not prevent the development of nuclear weapons. If anything, it could accelerate the process by making Iran the sympathetic victim of aggression and end sanctions that have effectively crippled Iran’s economy. A pre-emptive strike also could result in retaliations by Iran not only against Israel, but world-wide.

President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry presumably will make the case that a negotiated agreement that curtails Iran’s nuclear program over the next decade is better than no agreement at all. They may harbor the hope that ending Iran’s pariah status will eventually lead it to seek greater acceptance into the family of nations.

It is extremely difficult to know at this point whose point of view on Iran – the president’s or the Israeli prime minister’s – is right. But what is completely clear is that the subject of a nuclear Iran is of paramount importance not only to Israelis, but to us as Americans as well. In the weeks ahead, we should evaluate with utmost care the terms of any agreement that may be reached.

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