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Will Netanyahu Tell the “Truth” or the Truth?

by Shmuel Rosner

September 29, 2013 | 6:46 am

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points to
a red line he has drawn on the graphic of a bomb as
he addresses the 67th United Nations General
Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York
Sept. 27, 2012, Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

That Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn't trust Iran, and isn't too impressed by Rouhani's so-called "charm offensive", is hardly a surprise. Netanyahu has scores of reasons not to trust the Iranians. He has scores of reasons to demand a verify-first-trust-later policy regarding Iran's new tone. The Prime Minister is threatening that in his UN appearance this week he intends to "say the truth. In the face of the sweet talk and the smiles one needs to tell the truth. Only the truth, today, is vital to the security of the world, and of course essential to the security of our country". That's an assertion unworthy of the upcoming event, since we all know the truth: Iran wants to ease the sanctions and is changing its tone to achieve this goal. The US and other countries in the West want to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons and also want to avoid a violent conflict, if possible. There's very little mystery involved, and very little truth to tell.

What's still unknown is the following:

Will the Iranians agree to do more than just sweet talk as they strive for the easing of sanctions (and for the general bettering of relations with other countries)?

What does the US want more: to prevent Iran from getting the weapon, or to avoid conflict – and how far is it willing to go to achieve each one of these goals?

Yet here, again, there's no "truth" for Netanyahu to tell. Netanyahu, like the rest of us, isn't in a position to reveal a hidden truth, he is only in a position to guess: to guess about the Iranians' true intentions, and to guess about Obama's future actions.

The Iranians didn't tell him what they intend to do. Unless he has a tantalizing piece of intelligence which shows that the Iranians are deliberately misleading the US – say, a recording of a phone conversation between Rouhani and Kkamenei from right after Rouhani got off the phone with Obama – Netanyahu doesn't know what the Iranians intend to do. Maybe even they don't know it themselves yet. Obviously, Obama doesn't know yet – and he is the one having the conversation with them. Sadly, Netanyahu also doesn't know. If there's a "truth" to be told here it is this: Netanyahu will have to wait and see what happens, and having to wait is what's bothering him. Not because he knows something that everyone else doesn't understand, but rather because he knows what everyone else also understands: if the ultimate goal is to make sure that Iran doesn't get a bomb - no ifs, no buts, no maybes - postponement is a dangerous gamble.

So Netanyahu is right to suspect that Iran is playing for time. It would be foolish for anyone not to have such suspicions and there's no doubt that Obama has the same suspicions, and so do all other western leaders involved in the talks with Iran. Thus, when Netanyahu will share these suspicions with the world he will not be telling them something that they don't already know. In fact, he will not even be telling them the truth. Not the whole truth. Netanyahu is not really at liberty to tell the rest of the world the "truth" – his interpretation of the "truth". He is not at liberty to tell the world, while he is a guest on American soil, that it isn't just the Iranians that he doesn't trust, and it isn't just their attempt to buy more time that he has suspicions about. Netanyahu's real worry, his real concern, is that President Obama is also playing for time, that the President is looking for an easy way out – to get some kind of compromise that will kick this ball down to his successor. Some of Israel's high officials have discussed such scenarios in the past and they now feel vindicated. They suspect that Obama is ready to let the Iranians slowly advance with their program, as long as they don't cross the nuclear threshold while he is in office – as long as the failure to stop them will not be his.

Of course, that some officials have suspicions, or even a firm belief, doesn't mean that the PM also feels the same. But even if Netanyahu does believe such a scenario is possible, this isn't something he can share with the world. Truth telling has limits. And anyway – that Obama might be playing for time, or is showing suspicious signs of being willing to compromise much too much, or is looking like a leader that was relieved from an annoying burden by the virtue of having a symbolic phone call, doesn't really teach us any "truth" about Obama's intentions yet. The assumption that Obama might not be tough and determined enough to stop Iran is, again, no more than a guess.

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