Thursday, February 08, 2007

Bibi Netanyahu Briefs Bloggers In Conference Call

This morning former (and perhaps future) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to bloggers in a conference call sponsored by One Jerusalem. I was invited to participate due to the kindness of Rick Richman at Jewish Current Issues, who put in a good word for me.

In his recent public addresses (such as his speech at the January 2007 Hezliya Conference on Israel's National Security, depicted in the photo at the right), Mr. Netanyahu has sought focus to attention on the threat posed to the West by the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Not surprisingly, that was the main topic of the conference call as well.

Mr. Netanyahu feels that the relatively mild UN economic sanctions already in place, while a welcome step forward from past international inaction, are too weak to compel Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program. However, even those sanctions, when added to the effect of misrule by the Islamic government of Iran, are having a perceptible deleterious effect on the Iranian economy. Mr. Netanyahu stated that the Iranian regime is vulnerable. If its nuclear program is to be halted by steps short of military action, the West must act strongly now to escalate economic pressure.

As the next escalation, Mr. Netanyahu recommends a program of divestment from investments in Iran. The State of Missouri's public employee pension plan has already done so, according to Mr. Netanyahu. He said he has also spoken with the State of Massachusetts, and with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who he described as a "personal friend." As Mr. Netanyahu noted, the California Public Employees Retirement System is the largest pension fund in the United States.

I confess that Mr. Netanyahu's advocacy of a divestment campaign at first made me somewhat uncomfortable. Too often of late, such divestment campaigns have been aimed at Israel. Recent examples include attempts to compel divestment of investments in Israel by the Presbyterian Church USA, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the United Methodist Church. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA actually passed a divestment resolution in July 2004.

In 2002, a coalition of Harvard and MIT professors called for divestment from Israel by the huge endowments of those two universities. Then Harvard President Larry Summers nipped that campaign in the bud, stating:

"Members of our community are free as individuals to express their diverse views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the conduct of the parties involved. The university protects that freedom, and affirms its proper role, by resisting calls to issue institutional judgments on that conflict through the act of divestment. Harvard is first and foremost a center of learning, not an institutional organ for advocacy on such a complex and controversial international conflict."

Can one draw a principled distinction between that campaign and the one advocated by Mr. Netanyahu, other than that we agree with Mr. Netanyahu's cause and not with the cause of the anti-Israel divestment campaign?

Yes, I believe one can. First, an Iranian nuclear arsenal poses not only poses an existential threat to Israel, but also severely threatens the security of Europe and the United States. Extraordinary measures are called for. Indeed, if economic pressure does not work, the only alternative is war, a far more dire alternative for the Iranian people than a divestment campaign. Moreover, it is already the official policy of the United States and the United Nations to exert economic pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear weapons program. Divestment is merely one aspect of economic sanctions.

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