Furious in the face of what he saw as Jerusalem’s stubbornness, US president Gerald Ford warned prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, in writing: “Failure of the negotiations will have far-reaching impact on the region and on our relations.”
No, that wasn’t President Barak Obama writing and it wasn’t Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reading – but it is the only precedent to the nadir that US-Israel relations have now reached.
Ford’s context was not Iran, but Egypt, and at stake was an Israeli withdrawal from a strip of desert east of the Suez Canal. Tensions peaked when Rabin felt secretary of state Henry Kissinger was lying to him about Egypt’s intentions while demanding that Israel cede the strategic Mitla Pass yet failing to secure from Cairo a formal nonaggression commitment.
The peace agreement that followed a mere four years later now makes this history difficult to understand, but Ford’s letter – which incidentally turns 40 next month – actually becomes easier to understand in light of current events.
Then as now, Israel has frustrated the White House; then as now, Israel’s leaders felt personally maneuvered and strategically exposed; and then as now, American Jews felt as if daddy and mommy are fighting in the kitchen.
Just how Netanyahu ended up trapped between a congressional rock and a presidential hard place is unclear. What is clear is that the crisis mushroomed into a conundrum involving diplomatic, political and legal enigmas wrapped in thick strategic fog.
The way Netanyahu’s operation presents it, the invitation was House Speaker John Boehner’s idea, and Netanyahu concurred because he has an urgent message to deliver to the American legislature. His assumption, according to that replay, was that Boehner informed the White House; Boehner says he gave the White House “a heads-up.”
The White House denies this, and says the failure to involve it in Netanyahu’s invitation is both deliberate and intolerable. Which makes some ask where Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer was in all this, wondering how he failed to warn his boss not to eat what he must now digest, and asking whether the envoy was the waiter or the cook.
The plot further thickens because of next month’s election. Netanyahu’s local rivals charge him with abusing the American legislature, disgracing the White House and straining Israel’s most important alliance. Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog warned that the speech risks Israel, all because “Netanyahu wants to gather a few more votes,” while Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On appealed to Central Elections Committee chairman Justice Salim Joubran, demanding he forbid the speech’s broadcast because it would constitute campaigning.
Back in Washington, in addition to driving a wedge between the executive and legislative branches, the speech became a partisan bone of contention as well – with Republicans like Sen. John McCain of Arizona backing the invitation and Democrats like Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California calling on Netanyahu to cancel the speech. Twelve lawmakers have said they will not attend it, in addition to Vice President Joe Biden – who obviously can’t attend what has become an affront to his boss – all of which raises the prospect of a high-profile speech delivered to a low-turnout audience.
Set against this backdrop, it went without saying that Obama would avoid meeting Netanyahu during his visit, as will Secretary of State John Kerry.
The official explanation for this is that the White House does not meet candidates on the eve of their elections, an unwritten rule that Obama has indeed followed – but president Bill Clinton did not, when in spring 1996 he hosted Shimon Peres a month before that year’s general election.
Faced with this acrimony, American Jewry was pulled into the fray – with not only anti-Netanyahu circles like J Street calling for the speech’s cancellation, but also the consensual Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman pleading with the prime minister to either relocate or delay the speech until after the elections, while Commentary magazine’s Jonathan Tobin charged Netanyahu with failing to understand “that the politics of the controversy have outstripped its content.”
Where, then, is all this headed? The speech saga will unfold along four milestones next month: March 3, when the speech is scheduled; March 17, when Netanyahu stands for reelection; March 24, when Congress may pass legislation to tighten sanctions; and March 31, when the P5+1 world powers hope to produce a framework deal over Iran’s nuclear program, ahead of a June 30 deadline for a final deal.
At this writing, Netanyahu remains determined to deliver his speech, which in his view is the sharpest arrow in his quiver as he targets a deal that might both legitimize and seal the emergence of a nuclear Iran.
Yet March 3 is still more than two weeks away, and much can happen by then. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi’s attempt last week to blame Obama’s insult on Boehner has failed to produce a ladder on which Netanyahu might have climbed down from where he has arrived. However, it indicated that a search for such a ladder is afoot.
For his part, Netanyahu says he must reach Congress in time to impact its potential vote on March 24. As things currently stand, however, that cause has already been damaged because those Democrats who were part of that effort now feel that what they joined as a strategic cause has become a political situation, in which they cannot afford to emerge on the wrong side of the partisan divide.
If he delivers the speech and also remains prime minister – as is widely expected – Netanyahu will have to mend walls with the Democratic Party, whose pride he has hurt in a way he likely did not intend, and whose relevance in the future may be even larger than it already is, considering ethnic processes and social undercurrents well under way across the US.
The role played in this misjudgment by an Israeli ambassador who, unlike all his 16 predecessors, arrived in Washington while widely seen as an identified Republican, remains to be explored. Yet the crux of this crisis will not be in any individual’s conduct, nor in the speech’s fate or even in its content, but in what transpires in the talks between Iran and the P5+1.
Netanyahu’s fear, that the world powers will effectively undo the sanctions without undoing Iran’s nuclear quest, is not his personal whim, paranoia, grandstanding or politicking. It’s real, credible and foreboding, and in the Jewish state, it is also consensus.
The most important statement that the speech brouhaha generated came neither from Netanyahu, Obama or their respective camps, but from Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, who spoke in his capacity as the Zionist Union’s candidate for defense minister and the IDF’s former head of intelligence.
Yadlin warned this week on Israel Radio that there is a school of thought in the Obama administration that says the US should fashion Iran as its new Middle Eastern fulcrum. “This is a horrendous idea,” he said, adding that there is no argument in Israel about the need to thwart Iran’s nuclear effort.
Where the Zionist Union differs with Netanyahu is on the tactical matter of whether a public speech to Congress would be effective toward Iran, and fair toward the White House.
Yadlin – who until recently headed the Institute for National Security Studies – is neither an ignoramus nor a demagogue. His warning concerning American wishful thinking on Iran is therefore even more alarming than the rest of the situation, because it indicates that Obama’s Middle Eastern recklessness is reaching a third peak.
Obama’s first display of Middle Eastern naiveté came in his Cairo Speech of 2009, where he tried to ingratiate Islamism with obsequious rhetoric, and the second came when he failed to deliver on his warning to attack Syria if it used chemical weapons.
Now, if Yadlin’s reading is accurate, Obama’s diplomatic charlatanism is climbing a new summit – as he ignores Persia’s historic marginality in the Middle East, the depth of the Shi’ite-Sunni cleavage that separates Tehran from most Arabs, the sincerity and lethality of Iranian Islamism and the breadth of its imperialism, which now stretches from Baghdad through Damascus and Beirut down to Sana, Yemen.
Yadlin’s warning is in line with Netanyahu’s comparison of the Iran dilemma with previous Israeli decisions taken against American advice, including the declaration of independence in 1948, the preemptive attack that became the Six Day War in 1967 and the strike on the Iraqi reactor in 1981 – in which, incidentally, Yadlin participated as a fighter pilot.
There is validity to Netanyahu’s analogies, except that those were not about speeches, but about deeds. The onus is therefore on Netanyahu to prove that the current crisis was not about his penchant for high-profile oration and ovation, but about Israel’s security.
It follows, then, that the best way for him to convince everyone he is not driven by other motivations is to rearrange his journey so it includes the Zionist Union’s leaders. Where, when and to whom this bipartisan mission speaks will matter less, because what will matter more is that the Iranian issue will then have been depoliticized and refocused.
In this way, the Israeli message concerning modern-day Persia’s plots can be passed as effectively as the biblical Esther’s was – when she repelled an earlier Persian menace to the Jews. Incidentally – or not – Netanyahu’s speech is scheduled for the day before Purim eve, when millions of Jews in synagogues around the world will read Esther’s ancient charge against Persian courtier Haman: “For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred and exterminated.”www.MiddleIsrael.net