The current disagreements between the United States and Israel over how best to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons bring to mind an old Jewish joke:
In a small town in 19th century Russia, two men brought their complaints to the local Rabbi. After listening to the first man, the Rabbi said, “You are right.” After listening to the second man, the Rabbi said, “You are right.”
When both men had left, the Rabbi’s wife, who had been listening impatiently in the next room, approached her husband. “What kind of judge are you?” she asked. “They both can’t be right.”
After pondering his wife’s words, the Rabbi replied, “You know something — you’re also right.”
America is certainly right in cautioning Israel against striking Iran’s nuclear facilities, warning that such a strike would have unpredictable consequences that could destabilize the entire Middle East. But Israel is also right in saying that however destabilizing such a strike might be, a nuclear-armed Iran would be even more destabilizing.
Similarly, America is right to point out that the international community (i.e. the U.S. and Western Europe) is now united as never before against Iran, and that the current round of sanctions should be given a chance to work. But Israel is also right in saying that by the time the sanctions take effect, Iran’s progress toward acquiring nuclear weapons may well be irreversible.
How can this clash of rights be resolved?
I think the only way out is a grand compromise, whereby Israel pledges not to strike Iran for an agreed-upon period of time and allow the sanctions to do their work, and America pledges to join Israel in a military strike against Iran if, after the agreed-upon period, the sanctions fail to achieve their purpose.
Several senior American officials, including National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, have recently visited Israel, and while their discussions are a closely-held secret (the Israeli press is full of rumors that are not to be taken seriously), I suspect that they and their Israeli counterparts were hammering out the details of such a compromise.
Obviously, neither the United States nor Israel will be entirely happy with whatever deal is reached, but at least America will gain time to let the sanctions work (and who knows? — perhaps the combined impact of devastating sanctions and the overthrow of the pro-Tehran Assad regime in Syria will provoke regime-change in Iran), while Israel will gain the assurance that if it does ultimately decide to strike Iran, it won’t be alone.
Hopefully, a draft agreement will be ready by March 5, when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is due to arrive in Washington. He and President Obama will have to overcome a huge gulf of mistrust and mutual contempt to arrive at an understanding (and it certainly did not help matters when the Obama administration recently announced its intention to lobby Congress to restore UNESCO’s funding, despite that organization’s decision to admit “Palestine” as a member-state), but as the great Dr. Johnson observed, “The prospect of being hanged concentrates the mind wonderfully.” For Obama no less than Netanyahu, a nuclear-armed Iran would amount to a political hanging.