Washington watch: Bibi on the outside looking in

His approach may have made Sheldon Adelson and a lot of Republicans very happy, but that never translated into any influence over the multi-party Iran nuclear talks. In fact it made him irrelevant.

April 8, 2015 21:35

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he speaks in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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 Bibi blew it. If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ever hoped to influence the big power negotiations with Iran, he blew it when he declared war on US President Barack Obama and focused his personal and frequently partisan attacks on the president instead of trying to play a constructive role in shaping an agreement.

His approach may have made Sheldon Adelson and a lot of Republicans very happy, but that never translated into any influence over the multi-party Iran nuclear talks. In fact it made him irrelevant. An irritating gadfly instead of a world leader.

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I asked veteran Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross what impact Netanyahu has had on the Iran negotiations and the debate in Washington. “None,” he said, “except to rally Democrats behind the president” and keep them from joining Republican efforts to undermine the talks.

Secretary of State John Kerry said, “Simply demanding that Iran capitulate is not a policy.”

Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Netanyahu may have “boxed himself in as an unalterable opponent to any deal, regardless of its terms [and] that would diminish incentives to meet any of his demands.”

Maybe his strategy played better at home for his own political ambitions, maybe it was intended to please his bitterly anti- Obama financial backers or maybe he’s just not as smart as he thinks he is.

As if to demonstrate how irrelevant he has become, Netanyahu is now demanding that Iran must make “a clear an unambiguous Iranian recognition” of Israel’s right to exist as part of any nuclear agreement with the world powers.

First, even if the ayatollahs agreed, which they won’t, Netanyahu would still oppose any agreement. Second, he’s not serious; it’s just another one of his poison pills.

It’s like his demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jews as part of the price for Israel agreeing to statehood. Does anyone believe that if Mahmoud Abbas endorsed that demand – Arafat apparently did – Netanyahu would alter his opposition to statehood? Of course not.

Obama was harshly critical of some of Netanyahu’s strident rhetoric at the end of his reelection campaign, particularly his race-baiting warning to his followers that Arab citizens were voting in “droves,” but he has dialed back on the tough talk and is trying to make shalom. Netanyahu, however, has intensified his abrasive attacks on the administration.

In announcing the Iran framework, Obama gave special attention to Israel’s concerns and America’s commitment to its security; he then promptly phoned Netanyahu to brief him and invite him to the White House next month for more detailed discussions. He also gave an interview to The New York Times’ Tom Friedman intended to assure Israelis of his administration’s commitment to their security.

That also apparently failed to move the prime minister, who showed no signs of mellowing his strident rhetoric as he took his blistering attacks to the Sunday talk shows on American television to declare his intention to “kill a bad deal” that he declared would “pose a grave danger” to the entire world and “threaten the very survival of the State of Israel.” When Obama said the agreement would “cut off all of Iran’s pathways to the bomb,” Netanyahu said just the opposite is true, “it would pave” that path.

Israeli military analyst Amir Oren said Netanyahu is “totally responsible” for his “abject failure to exert any influence” on the talks. That’s because he chose to wage war on Obama and rejected his defense establishment’s urging to focus on getting an Iranian renunciation of any attempt to destroy Israel.

His jingoistic minister for strategic affairs, Yuval Steinitz, has ramped up his talk of a unilateral Israeli strike on the Iranian nuclear facilities, as if anyone could take him seriously. That option expired long ago; he knows it and the Iranians know it.

Both the tone and substance of Netanyahu’s response will have ramifications far beyond the Iran talks; the results will also leave the Jewish state even more isolated on the international scene.

Netanyahu and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee have already launched a full-bore lobbying campaign against the Iran deal – so far it is only a framework and details remain to be worked out by June 30 – no doubt coordinated with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) during their recent visits with the prime minister in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu disingenuously says the Iran deal should not be a partisan issue, but no one has done more to make it partisan. And in the process he is collaborating with GOP efforts to make the entire matter of US-Israel relations a partisan wedge issue.

Republicans are anxious to hand Obama a defeat on a critical foreign policy priority, but they also know public opinion wants to see an Iran nuclear agreement and their constituents have no stomach for another Middle East. Their priority will be passing a law requiring Obama to submit any Iran agreement for an up-or-down vote, which he opposes.

Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the leading Democratic critic of Obama’s Iran policy, was forced to step down last week as the ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after he was indicted on corruption charges. He has been replaced by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), who is an Iran skeptic but more inclined to support the administration.

Israel has legitimate concerns about a nuclear-armed Iran posing an existential threat, something President Obama has repeatedly emphasized he understands and appreciates.

Republicans largely see it as a partisan issue. Two GOP presidential hopefuls, Gov.

Rick Perry of Texas and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, have already said if they were elected they would immediately tear up any agreement with Iran. Neither, of course, has a clue what’s in the deal but that’s clearly irrelevant.

Obama warned that if the Congress plays a partisan game on this issue it will be responsible for the Iranian bomb and the world will know whom to blame. What he didn’t say – but everyone knows – is that if that happens, Israel and its divisive leader will also take the blame. And with good reason.

©2015 Douglas M. Bloomfield bloomfieldcolumn@gmail.com

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