Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Four More Years of Middle East Noise

November 12, 2012 6:51 pm 0 comments

President Barack Obama (far right) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak—both checking their watches—in September 2010 at the White House. Photo: White House.

Back in September, when it seemed as if there was everything to play for in the forthcoming U.S. presidential election, President Barack Obama likened Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s anxieties over America’s Iran policy to “noise.” Many pointed out, correctly, that this ill-advised remark was hardly fair to one of the few countries in the world where both the government and the people are unashamedly pro-American.

It was also a curious choice of wording against the wider Middle Eastern context. In terms of American commitments in the region, Israel lies outside the cycle of dependency that governs our relationships with Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf states—all places where we have, or had, substantial numbers of boots on the ground. And when it comes to noise, the sounds Israel makes are sweet music when compared to the fingernails-scratching-the-blackboard racket that emanates from other Middle Eastern countries.

Consider what has been said—or rather, yelled—in the days since Obama won a second term in office. In Iran, the three hardline Larijani brothers who all occupy key positions in the governing theocracy have issued loud, and perhaps contradictory, individual statements regarding their country’s nuclear program.

Sadeq Larijani, Iran’s Chief Justice, seemed to scorn the prospect of direct negotiations with the U.S. “After all this pressure and crimes against the people of Iran,” Larijani said, in a reference to the punishing sanctions imposed by America and its allies, “relations with America cannot be possible overnight and Americans should not think they can hold our nation to ransom by coming to the negotiating table.”

But Mohammed Javad Larijani, head of the country’s laughably named High Council for Human Rights, sounded what was, by Iranian standards, a more conciliatory tone: “To protect the interests of our system, we would negotiate with the U.S. or anyone else even in the abyss of hell.”

Meanwhile, parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, the former nuclear negotiator and the most powerful of the brothers, taunted America outright. Asserting that a growth in domestic production would undermine “enemy plots”—a.k.a. sanctions—Larijani argued that the U.S. had been forced into sanctions because its “military adventurism” in the region had failed.

These three statements all reflect the perception among Iranian leaders that the chances of an imminent pre-emptive strike on their nuclear facilities are receding. In the days leading up to the presidential election, unconfirmed reports surfaced that the U.S. and Iran were already engaged in secret talks under the auspices of Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s senior adviser, who was born in the Iranian city of Shiraz, where her father worked in a hospital, and who apparently speaks Farsi. And shortly after the election, Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, said that Iran’s uranium enrichment timetable had slowed down, thus implying that the world has until at least the summer of 2013 to make progress on the diplomatic front.

Still, a delay is one thing, success something else entirely. There are precious few indications that talks with Iran would satisfactorily prove that its nuclear installations are for civilian purposes only, in part because the Iranians believe, much as the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein did over his supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction program, that any ambivalence strengthens their overall position.

A generous interpretation of Obama’s strategy towards Iran holds that the president wants to demonstrate that all avenues have been properly explored before a military strike, and that America still believes in the primacy of negotiations even though these have failed for nearly a decade. However, Iran’s nuclear program is not an isolated factor. Any faith among Americans in what psychoanalysts call the “talking cure” is offset by the impact talks can have upon Iran’s actual behavior.

Both the Syrian and Lebanese theaters are good current representations of what I mean. Syria lies firmly within the Iranian camp; as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi recently argued, the Iranians are therefore a “vital” element in securing an end to the monstrous bloodshed unleashed by President Bashar al-Assad upon his people (interestingly, this observation, which formed part of a wider encomium to the Iranian regime by Morsi, was not classified in Washington as “noise.”) Hence, if America decides upon a Syrian strategy that requires Iranian goodwill, that will have knock-on effects not just for the nuclear program negotiations, but for other issues in which Iranian and Syrian interference is the major factor.

In Lebanon, the October assassination of intelligence chief General Wissam al-Hassan, most likely at the hands of Hezbollah, was a perfect illustration of the dangers of strengthening Iran and its allies. That danger is now stretching towards Israel.

Just a few months ago, the belief that the Assad regime was about to crumble was widespread. However, emboldened by western dithering and Iranian support, Assad is now provoking Israel, with Syrian army fire straying into the Golan Heights. On a visit to the Golan, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, warned that further escalation might result in a “Syrian affair that could turn into our affair.”

Before the presidential election, it could reasonably be said that the Middle East was closer to regional conflagration than at any other time since the October 1973 war. In the wake of Obama’s victory against Mitt Romney, nothing has changed on that front. Much as America fervently wants to fix its domestic problems, from its weakening economy through to its broken immigration system, the noise from the Middle East may well divert its attention abroad.

We cannot afford to allow these problems to fester. For much of the last two years, Obama has been accused of “leading from behind.” He now has the opportunity, following his victory, to lead from the front. And that will require him not to shut out the noise, but to dive into it headfirst.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.

Current day month ye@r *


  • Arts and Culture Israel Jerry Seinfeld to Make Comedy Debut in Israel

    Jerry Seinfeld to Make Comedy Debut in Israel – Famed Jewish-American comedian and actor Jerry Seinfeld is slated to make his comedic debut in Israel later this year. Seinfeld, who was born in Brooklyn to Jewish parents from the Ukraine and Syria, will perform in Tel Aviv’s Mitvtachim Menorah Arena on Dec. 19 as part of a world tour. The comedian is most known for his enormously popular NBC sitcom Seinfeld, which ran from 1989-1998 and is widely considered one of the greatest TV series of all time. […]

    Read more →
  • Food Israel New Video Shows American Kids Reviewing Israeli Food After Tasting Dishes for First Time (VIDEO)

    New Video Shows American Kids Reviewing Israeli Food After Tasting Dishes for First Time (VIDEO)

    A new video circulating online shows eight American children reacting — mostly positively — to their first taste of the famed Israeli eggplant salad/dip, known in Hebrew as “salat hatzilim” and in other parts of the Levant as baba ganoush. The clip, created by, features the youngsters trying a variety of exotic dishes from other countries as well, such as Hawaiian poi, Colombian pork belly and Russian borscht. The Israeli delicacies served include schnitzel, slices of pita, hummus and the baba ganoush salad. “If someone […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Pioneers/Philanthropists ‘Start-Up Nation’ Israel to Host Forbes Magazine Young Entrepreneurs Summit

    ‘Start-Up Nation’ Israel to Host Forbes Magazine Young Entrepreneurs Summit – Forbes magazine announced Tuesday that it will host its Under 30 EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) Summit in Israel for the first time in April 2016. The conference is expected to bring together some 600 young entrepreneurs, with 200 from Europe, 200 from the U.S., and 200 from Israel. The summit has been hosted in Philadelphia for the past two years. It will include presentations, speeches, a pitch competition, and cultural immersion opportunities in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Beliefs and concepts What’s That Huge White Bridal Dress Floating Over the Tower of David?

    What’s That Huge White Bridal Dress Floating Over the Tower of David? –  “What’s that huge white bridal dress floating over the Tower of David?” That’s what visitors to Jerusalem’s Old City asked last week. The wedding gown, created by leading Israeli artist Motti Mizrachi, is part of the 2nd Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art, an event that blew into town as the Sukkot holiday got underway. Mizrachi, who lives and works in Tel Aviv, created the dress that floats majestically over the Tower of David, the main exhibition site […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion The Top 10 Places to Visit in Israel

    The Top 10 Places to Visit in Israel

    Israel is a holiday destination on many travelers’ bucket lists. No matter the style of holiday you are after, Israel has the answer. Whether you prefer to relax by the beach, hike up mountains in the desert, visit religious and historical sites, eat your way through the country or just enjoy some retail therapy, your journey through Israel will be one to remember. While there are obviously so many things to see and do, here is a list of 10 of […]

    Read more →
  • Pioneers/Philanthropists US & Canada Jewish American Fashion Mogul Ralph Lauren to Step Down as CEO

    Jewish American Fashion Mogul Ralph Lauren to Step Down as CEO – Jewish American fashion mogul Ralph Lauren announced his plan to step down as chief executive officer of the renowned fashion brand. The head of Gap Inc’s Old Navy brand will take over the position. The 75-year-old Lauren, who founded Ralph Lauren Corp. in 1967, will continue to serve as executive chairman and will continue leading the fashion house’s design team, according to a statement by the company. After the announcement, Ralph Lauren shares rose 3.79 percent while Gap shares […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Sports US & Canada Jewish Boxer Dustin ‘White Tiger’ Fleischer Scores Fourth Knockout Victory

    Jewish Boxer Dustin ‘White Tiger’ Fleischer Scores Fourth Knockout Victory

    Jewish boxer Dustin Fleischer, who said his quest is to become the first world champion descended from a Holocaust survivor, stayed unbeaten with a first-round knockout. Fleischer, nicknamed “The White Tiger,” moved to 4-0 with the defeat of Ira Frank on Saturday night in Beach Haven, New Jersey, near his home, he reported after the fight on his Facebook page. The 26-year-old welterweight has won all his bouts by knockout. Read full story at JTA.

    Read more →
  • Featured Israel Pioneers/Philanthropists Meet Israel’s Santa Claus, the Trustee Tasked With Handing Out Leona Helmsley’s Billions (INTERVIEW)

    Meet Israel’s Santa Claus, the Trustee Tasked With Handing Out Leona Helmsley’s Billions (INTERVIEW)

    Renowned New York attorney Sandor (Sandy) Frankel, one of four trustees of the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, was in Israel earlier this month to look at additional philanthropic options and to observe the progress of those endeavors already funded – to the tune of multi-millions. Frankel, who recently joined the prestigious Park Avenue law firm Otterbourg P.C., met with Israeli politicians and other bigwigs to get a sense from them about which projects in the country […]

    Read more →