Although the August 21 chemical attacks near Damascus refocused the world’s attention on events in Syria, the potential thawing of U.S.-Iranian relations has since claimed center stage. Addressing the UN General Assembly earlier this week, both President Obama and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani conveyed their respective government’s willingness to peacefully resolve the Iranian nuclear issue, potentially as part of a larger process of rapprochement between the two countries. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, wants none of it.
Netanyahu, who characterized Rouhani’s UN remarks as “ a cynical speech full of hypocrisy ,” opposes even attempting to pursue this potential opening with Iran. His stance is understandable, but his decision to so publicly express his objections to the diplomatic approach embraced by the administration is not, at least not at first glance. Moreover, this is not the first time that he or his government have recently attempted to publicly pressure the Obama administration to pursue—or not pursue—particular policies abroad; some might even call this meddling. Instead of fostering the impression that Israel and America are working in lockstep to resolve foreign-policy issues of mutual concern, Netanyahu has strained bilateral relations and contributed to the perception that Israel is uninterested in attempting to peacefully resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis.
In short, Bibi needs to back off.
While there is ample cause for skepticism regarded Rouhani’s sincerity, the Obama administration has wisely decided to at least give peace a chance . If talks with Iran fail, Obama can more plausibly claim that he seriously pursued the diplomatic route, strengthening his hand should he subsequently decide to resort to force. And resolving the nuclear crisis non-violently—however unlikely this may be—is manifestly preferable to attempting to do so militarily.
America severed diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980, shortly after the Iranian Revolution and subsequent takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Since then, Iranian-American relations have been characterized, with limited exception, by intense hostility and mutual distrust. Of course, the policy inertia of more than three decades of tensions cannot be undone overnight. Netanyahu’s unabashed desire to obstruct the incipient process as best he can only further complicates matters.
Israel and America, despite sharing a number of common foreign-policy goals and facing many of the same threats, are bound to disagree on some issues sometimes; after all, no two states have identical national interests, and the same threat can be viewed entirely differently by even the closest of allies. The closeness of the Israeli-American relationship is a source of strength, yet Netanyahu’s actions undermine both the relationship’s closeness and, by extension, this strength. Rather than adopting the current public-pressure approach, Netanyahu could have instead simply made his views known directly to the administration and adopted a less combative stance in public.
Beyond the Iranian issue, Israeli officials have also used public fora to influence the Obama administration’s response to the Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons. At a conference at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies in April, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, head of military intelligence research for the IDF, declared that Israel believed the Assad regime had used chemical weapons on multiple occasions, including on March 19 at Khan al-Asal. Previously, Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of intelligence, international relations, and strategic affairs, said on Israeli Army Radio a day after the March 19 attack that chemical munitions had been used, although he did not attempt to assign culpability to either the Syrian regime or rebels. At the time of Steinitz’s remarks, the Obama administration maintained that there was no evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria.
Proof that Assad had indeed gassed Syrian rebels would have put pressure on Obama to follow through on his imprudent “ red line ” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria, which Brun’s allegation certainly did.
It seemed evident at the time of Brun’s remarks, and has since become increasingly so, that Obama has little appetite for actually striking the Assad regime. Thus, the administration had until then been dithering over acknowledging whether the regime was actually responsible. Brun’s announcement, however, put Obama even more on the defensive. At first, the administration contested Israel’s findings, although it soon had to acknowledge that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons, albeit on a “ small scale .”
While it is unlikely that Brun made his accusation without first receiving permission—tacitly or overtly—from higher-ups to do so, it is inconceivable that the Israeli government failed to appreciate the sensitivity of his charge vis-à-vis Obama’s red line. To prevent similar public disagreements with its American ally, Israel has since forbidden the IDF’s intelligence officers from speaking at public conferences. Yet Netanyahu obviously remains free to publicly contest U.S. policy, which he will reportedly do when he speaks to the General Assembly on October 1, the day after President Obama hosts him at the White House.