US-Israel feud helps Iran

Netanyahu may not like Barack Obama very much – I’m sure the feeling is mutual – but he needs to American president much more than the American president needs him.

By
November 13, 2013 22:03
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama.

Netanyahu and Obama 370. (photo credit: JASON REED / REUTERS)

Iran and Israel’s other enemies must be taking great delight in the deepening crisis between Washington and Jerusalem brought on by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s bitter and angry attacks on the Obama administration over nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic.

While Israel clearly has reason to worry about any agreement that doesn’t eradicate Iran’s nuclear program, Netanyahu’s failure to understand that Washington has other vital strategic interests – and a political interest in avoiding yet another war the American people don’t want and can’t afford – could open the biggest rift in decades between the two allies.

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Early indications are that Netanyahu has declared war on the Obama administration after less than a year of both sides trying to repair relations.

Netanyahu has legitimate reasons for concern. He sees a nuclear-armed Iran as Israel’s greatest existential threat. Over the past several years he has put the issue front and center on the international agenda and his threats of unilateral military action played a role in last year’s presidential campaign here and helped bring Iran to the table.

But he is about to squander his achievement by an ill-advised, near-hysterical confrontation with Israel’s most important ally and the only leader of the international campaign to keep Iran out of the nuclear club. Despite the impression Netanyahu leaves, Israel does not suffer from a surplus of friends, especially ones giving it $3 billion- plus every year.

Washington and Jerusalem have long differed on how to deal with Iran, but those differences are becoming more pronounced with the change in leadership in Tehran. The Obama administration has brought together the international powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) to negotiate interim confidence- building measures (some freeze of uranium enrichment, some thawing of frozen assets, nothing irreversible) to stop the race to the bomb and to buy time to work out a permanent agreement.

Netanyahu disagrees with that approach and warns that the Iranian charm offensive that led to these negotiations is a ruse to buy time to accelerate the race to the bomb, and he insists the only viable incentive would be even tougher new sanctions.

He has many supporters on Capitol Hill, where sanctions legislation slides through with ease. The administration has asked the Senate to delay passage of a Housepassed sanctions bill to give the talks time to work but is running into resistance from all sides.

THE ADMINISTRAT ION has another problem.

Both Republicans and Democrats are complaining they have been kept in the dark about the details of the negotiations, saying they’ve been getting more information – not all of it accurate – from the media and two lobby groups leading the opposition to an Iran deal: The American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, a conservative group generously backed by casino mogul and Netanyahu supporter Sheldon Adelson.

One House top foreign policy staffer who has been contacted by those groups and Israeli diplomats told me, “they’re all working from Bibi’s [Netanyahu’s] talking points. Their message is the same: ‘the sky is falling.’” Kerry and others are to begin testifying this week on the Hill and fireworks can be expected. Look for Republicans to try making it Benghazi II.

He will encounter three tiers of overlapping opposition on the Hill, policy, partisan and political. Many on both sides of the aisle aren’t convinced the Iranians are serious and fear the negotiations are a stalling tactic.

Among Republicans there’s also the penchant for opposing anything Obama supports, period. Add to that a fear of crossing big pro-Israel groups and thereby angering the campaign contributors they influence.

Netanyahu leaves the clear impression he’d prefer the US start bombing Iran if it doesn’t agree to his terms – end all uranium enrichment, send its stockpile outside the country and dismantle the centrifuges.

Republicans are happy to back him up in any confrontation with Obama, who thinks those demands are unrealistic, but only so far. They’re OK with going to war against Obama, but not against Iran; like Obama, they understand the American people don’t want another war and can’t afford it.

The Iranians will be watching the Hill debate closely. They saw the broad bipartisan opposition to bombing Syria after it used poison gas on its own people, and that Obama settled instead for a Russian- backed deal to dismantle Damascus’ chemical weapons arsenal. Some observers say Tehran interprets that as an indication Obama will run into similar problems if he decides to bomb Iran.

And don’t forget that unlike Syria, Iran has the capacity to retaliate against American interests throughout the region.

The six nations want to offer the Iranian negotiators something to take home to show their critics there are benefits to a larger deal, while the West keeps the main structure of the sanctions regime intact and retains its leverage, said Amb.

Dennis Ross, who held the Iran portfolio in Obama’s first term.

Netanyahu opposes that approach. He likes to read back to Kerry his statement that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” but it comes out sounding like the prime minister is saying, “no deal is better than ANY deal.”

Any goodwill and trust generated by Obama’s visit to Israel earlier this year has been largely erased by Netanyahu’s irate and near-hysterical outbursts against his country’s most important ally. He seems intent on increasing Israel’s isolation. Relations with Washington can be patched up in time, but it won’t be so easy with the Europeans.

If Netanyahu is seen there as the major obstacle to any deal with Iran, European support for the sanctions could quickly erode and other nations could soon follow, giving Tehran the relief it seeks without having to curtail its nuclear program.

Israel made preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon a top international priority, and it is right to insist any agreement meet that goal. It cannot do the job alone. It needs the six big powers and American leadership to negotiate and enforce the deal, and Israel can’t get that by bullying, braying and battling them.

Netanyahu may not like Barack Obama very much – I’m sure the feeling is mutual – but he needs to American president much more than the American president needs him, and not just to prevent the Iranian bomb.


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