Skip to main content

Netanyahu's red line isn't getting him anywhere

By Aaron David Miller, Special to CNN
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Fri September 28, 2012
Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, points to a red line he drew while addressing the U.N. General Assembly Thursday.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, points to a red line he drew while addressing the U.N. General Assembly Thursday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aaron Miller: Israeli PM Netanyahu has scored some victories on Iran nuclear program
  • But he says Netanyahu's new emphasis on drawing a red line is counterproductive
  • Israeli politicians are crying wolf, threatening an attack that isn't happening, Miller says
  • Miller: Injecting the issue into U.S. election campaign further alienates President Obama

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and served as a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Can America Have Another Great President?" Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Without firing a shot, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has achieved remarkable results in his efforts to counter Iran's nuclear program.

In little more than a year, the prime minister has managed to move the Iran nuclear issue to the top of the international agenda, to toughen sanctions, and in an extraordinary move, to push U.S. President Barack Obama to strengthen American policy so that preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons became the focus, rather than just containing Iran and its nuclear program.

Indeed, if you throw in Republican challenger Mitt Romney's unwillingness to accept Iran even having the capacity to produce a nuke, Netanyahu's record is even better.

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

But Israel's policy is approaching a point of diminishing returns. By stressing red lines it can't or won't enforce, Netanyahu threatens to overplay his hand, irritate a close ally and undermine Israel's own credibility. And here's why.

News: Netanyahu asks U.N. to draw 'red line' on Iran's nuclear bomb plans

Club Red Line: Who else is going to join?

The logic of getting a great many countries to sign on to some new line in the sand on paper might make sense. Since Israel can't or won't (yet) enforce its own new red line -- Iran is moving to enrich higher levels of uranium -- it will require others to join it to be effective.

But this is a club few seem ready to join. Indeed, Israel's most important ally seems very reluctant to get locked into trip wires or red lines that might commit it to what Obama seems determined to try to avoid -- a military strike against Iran's nuclear sites.

In fact, the cruel reality from Netanyahu's perspective is that with the exception of Israel's government, which sees a putative military strike as a war of necessity, everyone else -- without exception -- sees it as a war of discretion.

Iran has no weapon. It hasn't tested one and doesn't have enough fissile material to produce one. Nobody is ready for Iraq War redux, least of all an American president who is running on extricating America from costly and unpredictable wars, not getting the United States into new ones.

Undermining Deterrence

Israel draws red line on Iran
Nuclear hypocrisy in Middle East?

The more Israel talks about red lines, green lights and military options without actually acting, the more its credibility and deterrent capacity is undermined. Once a day and twice on Sunday, Israeli politicians are either talking or leaking why Israel is going to strike Iran. These war scares are becoming something of a joke, truly. One Israeli source told me that he was getting so tired of this Cry Wolf line that Israel ought to just hit the Iranians and get it over with already.

You can only imagine the chuckling going on in Teheran. This past spring a war scare prompted a parade of senior U.S. officials to run to Israel to reassure their counterparts, then it was the "October surprise" scare that Israel would strike before the November elections. And now the prime minister has stated in his U.N. General Assembly speech that it wouldn't be until next spring, or at most by next summer, at current enrichment rates, that Iran will have finished the medium enrichment of nuclear fuel and move on to the final state, all but implying that Israel would probably not act until next year.

You have to wonder why anyone would lay down red lines publicly if he can't credibly enforce them nor expect others to? If red lines are to deter war not facilitate it as the prime minister says, then Teheran would have to stop enriching uranium out of fear of an Israeli strike. But given the reality that Iran knows Israel is bluffing, figures it can absorb and even exploit an Israeli strike, and the U.S. and the international community don't want war, where's the urgency? In this case, there's very little reason for the mullahs to worry.

News: Three things we learned from the U.N. General Assembly

Angering the President

Even without Iran to complicate it, the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu is among the most dysfunctional in the history of the U.S.-Israel story. There's little sense of confidence and trust and a pronounced sense that each would like to close his eyes and make a wish that the other would disappear.

Netanyahu thinks Obama is bloodless and cold when it comes to understanding Israel's fears and its security challenges; Obama thinks Netanyahu is a conman who thinks only of himself with little sense of respect or sensitivity for American interests. Indeed, one of the reasons Obama doesn't want to endorse Netanyahu's red lines is that it will make it harder for the Iranians to cut a deal, and that is still Obama's preferred option.

The Iranian nuclear issue has actually made the relationship between the two leaders worse. By appearing to jam the president politically by questioning Obama's refusal publicly to accept red lines a month before an election, Netanyahu -- with a good deal of help from Romney -- has thrown the nuclear issue into the middle of the campaign.

Only the interminably obtuse believe that Netanyahu wouldn't prefer his friend Romney to be the next president. The president's much publicized phone call today with Netanyahu (these calls are never touted this far in advance) may help to keep matters from getting worse.

But the Netanyahu-Obama relationship could easily deteriorate, particularly if the president believes as he must that Netanyahu wants his rival to win. The only thing worse for Netanyahu than a re-elected Obama is an angry re-elected Obama.

The smart play for Netanyahu would be to stop talking about Iran publicly at home and abroad, desist from creating the impression that he's pressing the president before the elections and start a quiet dialogue with the United States about how best to handle the period ahead.

He should explore what assurances the Obama Administration is prepared to give Israel and other American allies in the Gulf and give the United States three months to get through the elections and the immediate aftermath of the vote.

This might actually create a greater sense of confidence that Netanyahu was giving the Americans the benefit of the doubt and build up some currency in the bank which Israel will need if in fact it does decide it must go it alone against Iran in the spring. Another several months will not matter. Indeed, as former Israeli Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin has said, the zone of immunity may be much less important than the zone of trust between the two allies.

Whether through negotiations, diplomacy or war, the Americans and Israelis will need one another to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. Red lines aren't the answer -- lines of trust and communication between two allies are.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron David Miller.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT