Netanyahu’s Kennedy moment

While Netanyahu’s inner circle is agreeing with him, rest of the country seems to be increasingly united in opposition.

"Netanyahu has currently surrounded himself by yes-men," wrote Doron Rosenblum in 'Haaretz' [EPA]

Watching the conflict between Iran and Israel escalate, it’s hard not to draw analogies and lessons from history. Indeed, Netanyahu’s thinking in this regard is very much anchored in the past: “The year is 1938 and Iran is Germany”, time and again he has warned. Such analogs provide leaders with a quick and handy “user manual”: a way to sell a desired policy path and provide a platform for action. 

Yet as mental shortcuts, analogs could easily lead to unwanted outcomes. Crucial decisions, like going to war, could be based on paying attention to the wrong lessons, or making a false comparison between two different situations. Indeed, it is neither 1938 (Iran is far from having a bomb or a delivery system) nor is Iran Nazi Germany (Iran’s military budget is fraction of that of Israel and the US). Claiming so, however, leaves no room for any response save military force. 

Recently, another historical episode, the Cuban Missile Crisis, has been gaining traction. Just as the US, the analogy goes, faced the intolerable choice of either attacking Cuba or allowing Soviet nuclear weapons in its own backyard, so too Israel/US must decide between attacking Iran or allowing it to become nuclear.  

Cuban Missile Crisis model

General Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, former Israeli Air Force Chief, has stated that the current situation is following the Cuban Missile Crisis model in at least two respects: sanction imposed on Iran are similar to the naval blockade imposed on Cuba, and military threats by Israel (and the US) are akin to the Kennedy administration flexing its muscles and putting the armed forces on high alert.  

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Ben-Eliyahu also noted that the successful resolution of the conflict rested on a third pillar: a secret channel of communication between the parties that allowed the Russians to back down. It’s unknown, albeit doubtful, if Israel and Iran have established such channels of communications.  

The problem with Ben-Eliyahu’s account, and with the analogy in general, is that it takes for granted the assumption that the Iranians are dead set on building a nuclear bomb and using it against Israel. In other words, it situates and positions the discussion along the lines of Netanyahu’s talking points – which contradict US, Israeli and EU intelligence on Iran’s capabilities and intentions.

Moreover, Ben-Eliyahu’s overemphasises the military dimension of the resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis and underemphasises the importance and ingenuity on the diplomatic front.  

As Graham Allison has pointed, the successful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis did not just rest on military deterrence and tough-minded diplomacy, but rather on an imaginative mix of carrots and sticks: In exchange of the Soviets dismantling and withdrawing all their missiles from Cuba, the US would make public commitment to never invade Cuba; a private ultimatum that gave the Russians 24 hours to accept the offer or face an attack by the US; and “a secret sweetener” promising to remove the US’ own nuclear missiles from Turkey within six month.   

That said, Ben-Eliyahu is not all together wrong in applying the analogy of the Cuban Missile Crisis to present day situation. Indeed, those intense 13 days, in which the fate of millions stood in balance, can provide Netanyahu and Barak crucial lessons in high-stake decision-making, negotiation and diplomacy.  

The first of these is the importance of adaptability in a negotiation scenario. Adaptability is the capacity for a given person to become better suited to their environment. Studies have shown that in the context of international negotiations, parties were more effective when they were able to show movement with regards to their orientations and behaviour. In negotiating with his staff and with Khrushchev, Kennedy was able to move around from contentious to collaborative. 

Second, exercise empathy towards your enemy. It was precisely when President Kennedy and his staff began to consider the constraints on Khrushchev that they were able to come up with a solution that satisfied both parties’ needs. Empathy also allowed Kennedy to come up with solutions that give Khrushchev a face-saving and dignified way out of the conflict. 

Muscular diplomacy

Third, engage in divergent thinking; thinking in atypical ways to generate solutions to problems. Over and over, Kennedy’s military advisers kept on telling him there is only one viable choice – attack and invade Cuba (interestingly in Israel it’s the security establishment who have come out against a unilateral military strike.) Yet, he refused to succumb to the pressure or the allure of such thinking. Instead, he demanded of himself and his team to come up with alternatives outside of what has been suggested. 

“We need to recognise and celebrate that 50 years ago it was negotiation and diplomacy (not brute force) that saved the world from imminent and violent destruction.” 

Fourth, stimulate constructive conflict. By creating ExCom (the Executive Committee of the National Security Council), encouraging vigorous debate and discussion, assigning devil advocates to subgroups within ExCom and allowing some meeting to take place without him (and away from the White House environment), President Kennedy made sure that the decision-making process would be exemplified by constructive conflict (devoid of the group think that had characterised the Bay of Pigs decision-making process). 

Unfortunately, as Doron Rosenblum reports in Haaretz, Netanyahu has currently surrounded himself with yes-men. And while Netanyahu’s inner circle is agreeing with him, the rest of the country seems to be increasingly united in opposition. 

Finally, as Allison points out, make good use of your time. Though President Kennedy and ExCom were under unimaginable stress, they took six days to deliberate in secret before President Kennedy made up his mind and publically announced a course of action. According to President Kennedy, if he originally had only 48 hours to make up his mind, he would have chosen an airstrike over the blockade – a decision that would have probably launched a nuclear war. 

The Cuban Missile Crisis is often celebrated as an example of muscular diplomacy – best illustrated when Secretary of State Dean Rusk famously said, “We were eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked”. However, it would be a mistake to frame the success of the negotiation between the US and the Soviets as fundamentally a triumph of steely-eyed determination and force of will.  

Instead, we need to recognise and celebrate that 50 years ago it was negotiation and diplomacy (not brute force) that saved the world from imminent and violent destruction.  

Trita Parsi is the author of A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran(Yale University Press, 2012). 

Roi Ben-Yehuda is a graduate student at Columbia University and a PhD student in conflict resolution at George Mason University.