Bibi Netanyahu wants to make sure President Barack Obama doesn’t ink a nuclear deal with Tehran. Any nuclear deal.
In an effort to prevent such a deal, the Israeli prime minister (known at home as “Bibi,” not Benjamin) has used unprecedented means to do an end run around the White House. His ambassador to Washington (and right-hand man), Ron Dermer, schemed with Republican House Speaker John Boehner to have Netanyahu address a joint session of Congress – on March 3 – without first informing the White House. That stunning breach of protocol still has Washington buzzing.
The Dermer-Boehner end run is shameful on four counts. It insults the office of the U.S. presidency. It inserts Bibi into partisan U.S. politics (he becomes a tool for Boehner to thwack Obama) and inserts the Republicans into Israeli politics (the speech comes just two weeks before the March 17 Israeli elections, giving Netanyahu a chance to grandstand).
And it could undercut the security interests of the United States.
“The way Netanyahu did it, hiding the whole initiative from the White House, conducting it as a kind of plot between the (Israeli) embassy and Capitol Hill was a great blunder,” says Nahum Barnea, one of Israel’s top political columnists. “Even Fox News said the insult to the presidency was too much for them.”
Israel prides itself on the bipartisan support it receives in Congress. And despite the famously tense relationship between Netanyahu and Obama, the president has twisted himself into a pretzel providing military and diplomatic support for Israel, often casting vetoes at the United Nations as the lone vote against resolutions Israel opposes.
So why would Bibi publicly align himself with the Republican Party against a president whom Israel must deal with for two more years? What is going on?
No doubt, Boehner’s invite offered Bibi a great photo op right before elections. “The prime minister is trying to show (the Israeli public) he holds the key to relations with the United States,” Barnea said, in a conference call organized by the Israel Policy Forum. “In a joint session, with applause every four minutes, hugging and kissing, this shows the Israeli public their prime minister is the most popular figure in the United States.”
But Netanyahu’s real reason for taking this risk runs deeper, says Barnea. The Israeli leader looks at the speech as an ideal forum to promote his campaign against Iran.
“For Netanyahu, the issue of the nuclearization of Iran is almost an obsession,” says the Israeli columnist. The diplomatic norms of conducting business with the United States were overshadowed “by Netanyahu’s frustration that he can’t dictate to the United States the endgame he wishes would happen” in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
“He would like the United States to force Iran to abandon its nuclear project and he knows it won’t happen,” says Barnea. “President Obama has a different policy. He believes he should negotiate. The U.S. public is not looking for another war in the Middle East.”
So here we come to the heart of the matter: the different perspectives between Israel and the United States on how to deal with Iran.
Netanyahu believes that Iran is an existential security threat to Israel and its suspect nuclear program must be entirely eliminated. If that were possible, it would be a good thing. But unfortunately, the prospects for such a draconian accord had already vanished by the time George W. Bush left office. No Iranian government will sign it.
So the Obama administration seeks an agreement that will require Iran to substantially reduce its program and stocks of low-enriched uranium, and provide for very intrusive inspections. The goal: to ensure it would take Iran at least one year to produce enough nuclear material for a single weapon, should it decide to cheat.
We will know shortly whether such a deal is possible. The odds at best are 50-50. The deadline for ongoing talks is in June, and a framework accord is supposed to be signed by March 24.
But Netanyahu has long made clear he’d prefer to see a U.S. military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. (Most analysts, including Barnea, doubt Israel would attack Iran alone.) Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates tellingly recounts in his memoir, “Duty,” how Bibi told him a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would likely trigger the regime’s overthrow – and that Iranian retaliation after a strike would probably be pro forma.
Gates recounts that he strongly disagreed on both counts, telling Bibi that a strike would rally Iranians behind the regime, and an attack was more likely to spark a war in the region. I agree.
So from the U.S. perspective, these negotiations are vital. Obviously, a deal should not give away the store, and sanctions can’t be removed quickly. The gaps between the two sides may prove impossible to close, but the effort must be made. Netanyahu, on the other hand, wanted Congress to undercut any possible deal before it was drafted – by passing new sanctions at a critical time in the talks. No doubt he would have urged such action on Feb. 11 – the initial date Boehner invited him to speak.
The brouhaha over his invitation led that date to be pushed back to March 3, and any congressional vote pushed back until after the March 24 deadline. But, unless Boehner is ready to endorse a new Mideast war, he should cease playing partisan politics with a subject as important as the Iran talks. Netanyahu’s address to Congress should be postponed until after Israeli elections, and the negotiations given a last chance to work.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.