Obama and Netanyahu: A mutually beneficial crisis?

Had Netanyahu truly been committed to serving Israel’s best interest he would have canceled his congressional address.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (L) and US President Barack Obama meet in the White House (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (L) and US President Barack Obama meet in the White House
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last Wednesday, President Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice stated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress today would be “destructive” to the US-Israel relationship. Over the past weekend numerous Israeli newspapers used Rice’s statement to demonstrate the degree to which relations between both nations have deteriorated given Prime Minister Netanyahu’s insistence on addressing both houses of Congress regarding a possible agreement with Iran.
Yet the truth is that leaders of both nations may be attempting to increase the visibility of their disagreement. The Obama administration is currently entering the final stages of its negotiations with Tehran. For President Obama, tackling the menace of an Iranian nuclear bomb through negotiations rather than force may prove the crowning achievement of his second term in office. Like most second-term presidents, Obama is currently concerned with his legacy and envisions his White House portrait as that of a tall, slender, black man extending his hand in friendship. If Herbert Hoover was known as the great humanitarian, Obama would like to be remembered as the great negotiator, the only US president willing to negotiate with the Castro brothers rather than ignore their existence.
An agreement with Iran would also endorse Obama’s foreign policy doctrine, one he detailed in his 2014 State of the Union address. According to Obama, “American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated... And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program.”
Obama may actually be using the conflict with Prime Minister Netanyahu to demonstrate US commitment to diplomacy to his Iranian counterparts. By openly confronting the leader of the US’s closest ally in the Middle East, and possibly alienating the all-important American Jewry, Obama is telling Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that the chips are down and he is “all in.”
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In addition, President Obama may be publicly escalating his conflict with Netanyahu out of a desire to watch him lose the upcoming elections. The president is well aware of the importance Israeli voters ascribe to the strategic relations with the US. By personally condemning Netanyahu, and sending his chief advisors to attack the prime minister on prime time television, Obama may be trying to arm Netanyahu’s political opponents.
Indeed the prime minister’s upcoming speech has become a central theme in the Zionist Union’s campaign. Earlier this month, Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog stated that Netanyahu’s speech is endangering Israel’s security, while his running mate Tzipi Livni claimed that Netanyahu is thinking of his own well being rather than that of the country.
For Netanyahu, the conflict with US administration is also more of an asset that a liability. Every attack by US officials further solidifies his claim that he is the only Israeli leader willing to do whatever it takes to prevent a Shi’ite bomb. The Iranian bomb is not an important component of Netanyahu’s campaign platform – it is his platform. This was made abundantly clear last week when the prime minister tweeted: “When we talk of housing prices, of the cost of living, I never forget life itself. The greatest challenge to our life is Iran’s nuclear armament.” As part of his campaign, Netanyahu is marketing himself as St. George willing to slay any dragon in order to safeguard the existence of the State of Israel, even the one situated in the Oval Office. And the louder that dragon roars the more Netanyahu’s defiance seems to impress potential right-wing voters.
When commenting on Netanyahu’s upcoming speech, Congressman Steve Cohen described it as “political theater.” However, the Congressman from Tennessee may be forgetting that in politics all the world’s a stage and all politicians are actors. Therefore, the current crisis between Obama and Netanyahu may be nothing more than role-play meant to politically benefit both actors.
But there is one important difference between the two leaders. For Obama, the confrontation with the Israeli prime minister may also be a means toward achieving two important foreign policy goals which will further America’s interests: a non-nuclear Iran and the election of an Israeli prime minister willing to return to the negotiating table opposite a Palestinian counterpart. For Netanyahu, this confrontation has no foreign policy goals but only the personal benefit of his reelection.
Had Netanyahu truly been committed to serving Israel’s best interest he would have canceled his congressional address thus enabling US legislatures to pass a bipartisan bill mean to limit Obama’s bargaining chips when negotiating with Iran. It is this difference between the prime minister and the US president that still echoes Henry Kissinger’s old assertion that Israel has no foreign policy, only a domestic one.
The author is concluding his Mass Media Studies at Tel Aviv University. He has previously contributed to The Jerusalem Post, The Jewish Daily Forward, Haaretz and 972online Magazine. He blogs at www.digdipblog.com.