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.
For Netanyahu, that’s naïve—and an unacceptable outcome. He wants to keep Iran isolated, cornered, and debilitated, as it is now under the sanctions (and under some of Iran’s own belligerent policies). Even better would be a U.S.-Iranian war that would destroy Iran as a major regional power vying for influence and position against Israel in the Middle East. For years he has sought to nudge events in the direction of such a war. And now he is seeking to undermine Obama’s efforts to nudge events away from such a war. That’s why he puts forth such a negotiating position—no enrichment of any kind. Netanyahu believes, based on past experience, that he can set in motion pressures and forces within the American polity that will ensure the demise of Obama’s delicate reach-out to Iran. And he is willing to risk a rupture with this administration in order to do so because he doesn’t think the risk is very great. Many will recall his stunning and oft-quoted words from a 2001 discussion (when he didn’t know he was being recorded):
I know what America is. America is something that can be easily moved. Moved to the right [direction]….they won’t get in our way….So let’s say they say something. So they said it! They said it! Eighty percent of the Americans support us.
But this poses some serious political questions: Is Netanyahu confusing prospects of manipulating the elites of the Washington political establishment with the challenge of controlling broad public opinion within the nation as a whole? And if the Beltway elites find themselves at odds with the prevailing political sentiment of American citizens, what would be the outcome? Finally, is it really inconceivable that the American people could conclude, as they watch the Israeli leader try to nudge their country to war, that the interests of America and Israel have diverged in serious ways?
Americans don’t want another Mideast war. We know that definitively from the events set in motion after Obama signaled plans earlier this year to provide military assistance to Syrian rebels fighting the forces of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Political sentiment welling up within the nation made clear that even limited military efforts in the region, absent some compelling national interest, were overwhelmingly opposed by the American electorate.
But Obama will get rolled in Washington by the pro-Israel forces and their congressional allies if he plays the game simply on the Washington turf. He needs to take the issue to the American people in dramatic fashion, trusting the collective wisdom of the electorate and its ability to see the issue in broad perspective. Thus, prior to his next news conference (which he should schedule soon), he should have Secretary of State John Kerry say something about his Mideast diplomatic efforts just provocative enough to ensure he will get a news conference question on the matter. Then, when it comes, Obama should reply with something along these lines:
Well, I have great respect and admiration for Mr. Netanyahu. He leads a proud and fierce people, and nearly all Americans draw inspiration from what Israel has accomplished since its birth sixty-five years ago. As I have said many times, America’s commitment to Israel’s security is iron-clad and inviolate. The relationship between the two countries is indestructible. But being allies, even allies with the most powerful ties of mutual interest and emotion, doesn’t mean that two nations will always agree on everything, that there can never be a divergence in their interests. In fact, the closer the alliance, the more imperative it is that the two nations recognize and accept that their interests could diverge. Mutual respect requires that. I wouldn’t presume to tell Mr. Netanyahu what the interests of his country are at any given time. He is the elected leader of that country, and it is his job to know such things down to the last detail. I have no doubt that he does.
But I am the elected leader of the United States, and it is my job to know what U.S.national interests are. And right now I believe it is in the U.S. national interest to seek a negotiated accord with Iran that would not only move that country away from nuclear weapons development but also lure it back into the community of nations in ways that could enhance prospects for stability and peace in the Middle East. That’s what I am trying to do with these delicate negotiations. And it isn’t just me. The leaders of several other major nations are involved in this effort (though we’re still working on the French), based on the conviction that this may be our last best hope for resolving the issues that have been moving us toward ever-heightened tensions and possible war.
Can we succeed? I don’t know. But I do know that we will never answer that question one way or another if we don’t proceed with this effort. That is why I have been so disheartened to see Mr. Netanyahu working so hard to undermine support for the effort among the peoples’ representatives here in Washington. His efforts, and those of some of his officials and some allies here domestically, are threatening to undermine these tender efforts to forge an agreement even before we can assess the prospects for success. And moves in Congress to ramp up the Iranian sanctions at this delicate time would cripple our efforts.