Obama and Netanyahu Go to War

A divergence deepens. How can Obama get the upper hand?

President Obama finds himself in a weakened state. His health care law is sapping his political strength and generating intense anxiety among his Democratic troops in Congress. His performance rating is at an all-time low. His trust with the American people is deteriorating badly, as reflected in a recent Quinnipiac University poll. His political capital is ebbing.

And into this dire political situation comes a new challenge that will test the president’s resolve and mettle in a big way. If he wants to save his high-stakes effort to foster a negotiated agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, he must take on, directly, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israel lobby in the United States. If he doesn’t, Congress will kill his effort; the opportunity to find a peaceful solution will be lost; and chances for war with Iran will rise ominously. Indeed, administration officials have warned that the current congressional push for new sanctions on Iran, in the midst of his delicate efforts, would constitute "a march to war."

But that is precisely what Netanyahu seems to want—to upend the talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 nations (United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France and Germany) because he considers this modest first-step agreement in the works as “bad and dangerous.” Speaking to the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America in Jerusalem recently, Netanyahu urged U.S. Jews to “stand up and be counted” against Obama’s effort.

Earlier, Israeli economics minister Naftali Bennett told an Israeli radio station that he planned to lobby members of Congress on the matter. As the Wall Street Journal said in reporting this news, "Such a campaign would mark a rare intervention by the Israeli government into U.S. domestic politics."

According to Foreign Policy’s “The Cable," Bennett did indeed unfurl a lobbying campaign in Congress that included one-on-one briefings with numerous lawmakers, characterized by assessments that differed significantly from what the Obama administration has been saying regarding the impact of the proposed deal under discussion. He was joined by Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). As The Cable puts it, they were “storming Capitol Hill in an effort to discredit the Obama administration’s interim nuclear deal with Iran.” The FP report also said the White House and Israel “are locked in an information war on Capitol Hill.” Israel seems to be winning that war, says the report, adding that "lawmakers have begun citing a range of facts and figures the Obama administration says are wildly inaccurate."

The global stakes here are of immense proportions. On the surface, the disagreement boils down generally to this: on one side, Obama and the other involved nations have been working toward an interim trade-off that would include a partial suspension of the West’s cataclysmic economic sanctions against Iran and a temporary cessation of that nation’s uranium enrichment program. The idea is to begin slowly so the parties can establish their seriousness and good faith, and then work up to an Iranian commitment to forego any nuclear-weapons development in exchange for an end to sanctions.

Netanyahu’s view, shared by many in Congress, is that no sanctions relief should be even considered until Iran terminates all enrichment, even for peaceful purposes, and foreswears any interest whatsoever in pursuing any kind of enrichment. Once Iran does that, the West would consider sanctions relief.

Beneath this surface disagreement is a much more powerful one. Obama wants to take all possible measures to exploit the apparent opportunity—reflected in this year’s election of Iran’s moderate new president, Hassan Rouhani—to lure Iran back into the good grace of nations and establish a diplomatic relationship, however wary, with that temperamental nation after nearly thirty-five years of estrangement. His vehicle for doing so is a good-faith position of accepting limited Iranian enrichment for peaceful purposes in exchange for that nation’s commitment to abandon any plans for nuclear weaponry. Obama also knows that, if he can do this (a big if, to be sure), he will have avoided a war that otherwise looms as a distinct possibility, if not a probability.