His tone harsh and scolding, in his recent speech before the UN General Assembly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu implicitly accepted defeat in the battle to prevent the nuclear accord with Iran.
Acknowledging that “this deal” was “mov[ing] forward” he called on the international community to enforce the deal and announced that Israel will be “watching closely” and will act to defend itself, notwithstanding General Assembly resolutions. He also moved to repair US-Israel relations with the usual warm references to the US and the Obama administration.
With the battle over the nuclear accord ended, one might wonder why it was fought at all, and why even while accepting the reality of defeat, Netanyahu continued to lambaste it.
Many observers likened the very public fight over the deal to AIPAC’s fight to halt the sale of Airborne Warning Control Systems (AWACS) to Saudi Arabia by the Reagan administration.
The sale of a radar system that could track everything in the air within some 450,000 square kilometers was viewed as an obvious erosion of Israel’s air superiority, specifically Israel’s ability to launch a pre-emptive airborne attack. Likud prime minister Menachem Begin publicly opposed it and AIPAC fought the Reagan administration in Congress. AIPAC ultimately lost out to the “Begin or Reagan” campaign by a total of four votes in the Senate.
Preventing the Iran deal would have been even tougher for Israel. The simple math – and the US Constitution – were in Obama’s favor. The president has the power by law to lift the sanctions and to generally conclude executive agreements with other governments. Such agreements do not require Senate approval. Legislating otherwise would require a supermajority of two-thirds in Congress to overcome the president’s veto. Even embarrassing the president by forcing such a veto would require 60 senators to shut down debate, according to Senate rules. In the AWACS deal, prior law gave Congress the power to veto major arms sales by a majority vote.
The AWACS sale battle also provided precedent for a last line of defense by the Obama administration to overcome opposition – mounting a similar Reagan- or-Begin campaign which questioned the national or party loyalty of Jewish and other members of Congress.
Certainly Netanyahu did not need a lesson in US politics, and must have expected that most Democratic leaders would rally to their president and party leader. He must also have been familiar with the US Constitution which sets up a one-man chief executive with immense foreign policy powers against a fractured Congress.
He must have made the same calculations which led Israeli detractors to claim that there was no point in opposing President Obama; better to go along with the deal, earn political credit with the White House, and strengthen the US-Israel relationship in preparation for what comes next.
Yet even acknowledging the unlikelihood, even impossibility, of defeating the president on a foreign policy Obama sought for his legacy, there were good reasons for Israel to fight the deal to the end.
One set of reasons points to practical benefits.
One of those is political deterrence. The president, and future presidents, should be reminded that when necessary Israel and its supporters will fight with every means at their disposal, even at the risk of “exposing daylight” between the two countries, on an important security issue.
As Reagan learned and as Obama learned, such a fight with Israel requires significant political capital, which most presidents would rather spend on other objectives.
On top of that, there is the prospect of an embarrassing loss for the most powerful man in the world.
Israel came close to winning the AWACS sale. When an undecided senator told Reagan he would pray for guidance, Reagan joked that his own calls to God might cause the senator to hit a busy signal. With the Iranian nuclear accord, Israel had a majority in Congress. Future presidents will hopefully take note to avoid risking their reputation and wasting political capital on policies which endanger Israel.
Another reason is the consolation prize. As is often the case in politics, a loser’s strong showing is not necessarily a loss and is sometimes even the true objective. Even before the showdown over Iran, the Obama administration began to speak of “compensating” Israel for the deal. Having shown its sway in Congress and even having Democratic Congress members who turned down Israel’s pleas makes it more likely those same members will acquiesce to Israel’s secondary requests.
Ironically, had Israel supported the Iran deal all along, it would likely not have earned any points.
Behind-the-scenes attempts to capitalize on its silence would likely be viewed with disgust – the Israelis getting their pound of flesh for a deal the White House believes Israel should have supported on the merits.
Yet another reason involves security deterrence.
Despite their rhetoric, Israel’s enemies are surely aware of the restraining influence the US has on Israel.
In almost every war or major operation Israel has fought, the US has restrained Israel from pressing its victories and in the case of the Yom Kippur War was a major factor in Israel’s decision not to strike first.
Israel’s public feud with Obama over the deal, followed by Netanyahu’s bitter expression at the UN and his declarations of Israeli willingness to act alone, is a message to Iran and the international community that this time the US may not be able to restrain Israel.
The second set of reasons has less to do with practical outcomes and more to do with moral imperatives.
As Netanyahu has often said, including in his recent speech, as the leader of the Jewish state he has a moral duty to speak loudly and clearly the truth of the dangers facing the Jewish people. The Jabotinskyite in Netanyahu remembers that as darkness fell over the Jews of Europe, the leaders of the Zionist movement and the pre-state Yishuv urged a policy of public restraint. Netanyahu will not allow that to happen again.
Like Jabotinsky, Netanyahu believes in the power of words and ideas to influence people. Jabotinsky argued that the public voicing of concerns allows for the possibility of democracy’s moral compass kicking in. In every Englishman’s heart, he believed, there was a court of appeals. Similarly, Netanyahu believes that in the American heart there is a Senate floor, where one can filibuster and awaken the chamber to injustice.
From Mr. Smith to Tea-Party senators filibustering on the Senate floor, or even the loud-mouthed presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, the citizens of democratic societies, particularly Americans, appreciate people who stick to their guns in defiance of diplomatic or political protocol.
But even if the moral appeal fails, such protests create a record. If Israel is finally forced to act unilaterally, it cannot be accused of surprising its allies or dealing double-handedly.
And the final reason may have no basis in logic at all. Almost 4,000 years of history, Jewish culture and struggle have honed in us the most admirable of all human instincts: the refusal to abandon hope and the will to struggle against angels, empires and even God.
Perhaps all Jewish history is a lesson in the futility of struggling for an idea; perhaps it is the history of a stubborn, stiff-necked, stupid people resisting the most basic of rules. Nations decline; man must return to dust. Perhaps all nations will succumb to the risks posed by the nuclear proliferation they prefer to ignore. So be it. The good night must come. But we will not go quietly.The author is a Likud Central Committee member, director of Likud Anglos, and an attorney.