Few prospects are more displeasing to Israeli policy-makers and long-term strategists than the thought of doing battle with a US president in public, and in Congress to boot.
One of those more displeasing prospects, however, is the specter of a nuclear Iran.
And this is why, over the next two months, Israel will likely wage what is essentially a lose-lose battle to get Congress to reject removing US sanctions against Iran and essentially vote down the Iran nuclear accord
agreed upon in Vienna on Tuesday.
What does the Iran nuclear deal mean for Israel?
Earlier this year, Congress gave itself the power to review the accord and, if it so desires, to vote on it. A vote against removing US sanctions would trigger a presidential veto – as President Barack Obama said clearly on Tuesday – and 67 senators and 290 representatives would be needed to override it.
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That is a daunting task and – assuming all Republicans voted against the president – would mean having to move 13 Democratic senators and some 50 Democratic representatives over. Congress, historically, has overridden fewer than 10 percent of all presidential vetoes.
Obama: Iran deal cuts off all pathways to nuclear weapons
Those numbers should be at the forefront of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s mind as he charts his next course of action. Government ministers and sources close to Netanyahu have said in recent days that once the parties in Vienna reach an accord, the battle to scuttle it will not end, but will move to another playing field: US public opinion and Congress.
The reason this is a lose-lose proposition is that even in the unlikely event that the necessary votes are found to overturn the presidential veto, Israel will leave a wounded president who will place much of the blame on Israel for shooting down what he believes is his foreign policy legacy achievement.
Granted, Obama will only be in office for another 16 months after the 60-day review period, but that is not an inconsequential amount of time. And during that time, Israel does not need someone in the White House who will not only be openly hostile, but also bear a huge grudge.
Now that the accord has been settled, Israel needs to weigh its course of action carefully. The strategy of going head-to-head with Obama over the issue did not succeed up until now, if one judges success by whether or not an accord was reached.
It may well be the case – as Netanyahu’s supporters argue – that had he not railed so hard and so long against the deal, it would look a lot worse than it does. But now there is a deal, which necessitates a rethink.
If going head-to-head with Obama did not prevent a deal the president seemed hell-bent on reaching from the beginning, then why assume this tactic will enjoy any more success now? One of the more unsettling aspects of the accord is that we are moving into an era where old assumptions about Israel’s presumed nuclear superiority may soon no longer be valid. It’s a new world, and it takes a lot of adjusting.
But if Israel has proven itself particularly apt at one thing over the last 67 years, it is adjusting to new realities. While the country does not plan well for the long term, it has shown a remarkable aptitude for solving short-term problems.
Throw a problem at Israel, and it does not raise its hands in defeat, but finds a solution. It found a solution to the suicide bombers of the second intifada, it found a solution to the missiles and rockets from Gaza, and it is in the process of finding a solution to the scourge of attack tunnels.
It will also be able to find a way to deal with an Iran within spitting distance of a nuclear weapon. And one way of dealing with it will be trying to reach certain strategic understandings with the US.
Now that the deal is done, Jerusalem and Washington will discuss “compensation,” the types of weapons systems and diplomatic understandings that Israel will be provided to give it a sense of security.
One element in this “compensation package” will surely be some state-of-the art military pieces, but that is only part of the puzzle. Other ideas bandied about range from administration- backed legislation mandating US military action against Iran if it breaches its commitments, to an agreement whereby the US would provide Israel with a “nuclear guarantee” – meaning it would respond with nuclear weapons if Israel were attacked by a country that had nuclear arms.
Talks toward the latter option took place in a vastly different context back in 2000 at Camp David, where then-prime minister Ehud Barak and then-US president Bill Clinton reached an understanding that if an accord were signed with the Palestinians establishing a Palestinian state, the US and Israel would sign a defense pact similar to one the US has with NATO countries. Under this deal, the US would have provided Israel with a nuclear guarantee.
That pact never went into effect, however, because the accord with the Palestinians collapsed.
But that idea was out there then, and will likely be revisited now as a whole new Middle East reality – with a muscular and empowered Iran – begins to set in.
As Netanyahu decides what counter-strategy to adopt, one question he must ask himself is the following: Will Israel be more or less likely to get what it needs in terms of security guarantees from the US following a bruising battle with Obama in Congress – a battle that it appears will be very, very difficult to win?