It is time to reframe the dispute. We are not witnessing what is being widely depicted as a battle between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government over the timing, content and ostensible partisan implications of the prime minister’s scheduled March 3 address to Congress over Iran. We are, rather, watching the collapse of trust between the two leaderships over the critical issue of thwarting Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.
It is not inexplicable only to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the Obama administration appears hell-bent on leading the international community into a deal that will apparently reward the Islamist regime in Tehran for lying about its nuclear program by allowing it to become a nuclear threshold state, with the right to enrich uranium via thousands upon thousands of centrifuges.
The looming deal is similarly inexplicable to the political rivals of Netanyahu who are campaigning to oust him in general elections on March 17. “I’m worried about a bad deal as well, and [about the international community] caving into all sorts of Iranian pressure as well,” Isaac Herzog, the center-left Zionist Union leader who is Netanyahu’s leading challenger, said in a CNN interview on Friday.
Where Herzog and other Israeli party leaders differ with Netanyahu is over his handling of the crisis. Like Herzog, centrist Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid does not underestimate the Iranian threat. They just both think that Netanyahu is acting counterproductively and for domestic political reasons by preparing to lobby publicly against Obama in Congress, when they say he ought to be working to shift the administration more discreetly, behind the scenes.
Of course, party leaders like Herzog and Lapid have to publicly criticize and castigate the prime minister; we’re less than a month from elections, and their entire domestic political goal is to undermine Israeli public confidence in his leadership so as to unseat him.
In truth, it can hardly be doubted that Netanyahu has tried to impact the president’s stance in years of one-on-one conversations and in the endless top-level contacts between his officials and the Obama administration. The nature of the imminent deal — whose terms cannot be independently verified, but are profoundly troubling to such diplomatic veterans as Henry Kissinger and George Shultz — would indicate that private argument and entreaty have failed. His critics would suggest that had Netanyahu been more flexible on Israeli-Palestinian matters, ready to rein in settlements, more receptive to Arab Peace Initiative overtures, less confrontational with Obama, his Iran concerns might have gained a more resonant hearing. Perhaps.
Netanyahu is an unusually long-serving, but not a beloved prime minister. Some voters like his swaggering style; plenty of others don’t. His rivals on the left think his overall outlook is too bleak, that he’s missing opportunities for alliances with relatively moderate Arab states, that his economic policies are deeply misguided — that overall he’s been leading the country to disaster. His rivals on the right think he talks too much and does too little; “If you want to shoot, shoot, don’t talk,” carped Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, another would-be prime minister, on Friday, in a barely veiled assault on Netanyahu’s handling of the Iranian issue.
In these final weeks of the election campaign, the face-off with Obama has become one more issue for the challengers to use against Netanyahu, whose campaign is also stuttering amid a much-reported scandal over alleged abuse of funds at his official residence.
At any other time, the Iranian issue — the countdown to a deal, the troubling reported terms, the astounding US acknowledgment that it is no longer keeping Israel fully in the loop — would have overshadowed all other matters on the domestic agenda. But it needs to take center stage, even now.
Israel’s most important ally is led by a man who seems to believe that the Iran of the ayatollahs can be wooed toward, if not moderation, then what the West considers to be pragmatism. That it can be cajoled into setting aside its nuclear weapons ambitions, gradually reformed. This despite all the evidence of Iran’s unbridled ideological and territorial ambition, its expanding influence in the region, its promotion of international terrorism, its ongoing development of ever longer-range missile systems, and its relentless incitement against the state of Israel.
A president who refuses to acknowledge the core anti-Semitism of Islamic extremism — refuses even to recognize that a Sabbath-eve assault on a kosher grocery, carried out by an Islamist killer who specified that he was targeting Jews, was anything more than a random attack on folks in a deli — appears similarly unwilling to fully internalize the radical religious imperative that drives Ali Khamenei’s Iran.
Three years ago at a graveside in Jerusalem, the prime minister eulogized his father, historian Benzion Netanyahu, for having “taught me, Father, to look at reality head-on, to understand what it holds and to come to the necessary conclusions.” It is that apparent disinclination by Obama to acknowledge what is playing out before all of our eyes, to face up to Iran’s pernicious ambitions, and to take the appropriate counter-measures, that is so galling and horrifying for Israelis as they watch the US-stewarded nuclear negotiations.
The prime minister says it would have been unthinkable to turn down the invitation to set out his concerns in the world’s most resonant parliamentary forum. His opponents say he risks turning Israel into a partisan issue and deepening the crisis in Israel-US ties for the sake of narrow potential political gain at home. But Israel and those who care for Israel should not be blindsided by the battling between Netanyahu and Obama, or between Netanyahu and his domestic rivals, over the Congressional speech.
They should be sounding the alarm to prevent a deal that would allow Iran to maintain an enrichment capability and other core aspects of its nuclear program. They must recognize that, were such a deal concluded, there would be insufficient will in the international community to move decisively to stop Iran when — rather than if — the ayatollahs subsequently deem the time is ripe to break out to the bomb. They must internalize, too, that even as a threshold state, Iran’s regional influence will grow still further, as will its capacity to assist Hezbollah and other Islamist terror groups bent on destroying Israel.
Those who care for Israel, in short, should look at reality head-on, understand what it holds, and come to the necessary conclusions. The growing fear in Israel is that when it comes to Iran, and despite his repeated talk of the unbreakable, unshakable alliance with Israel, the US president is failing to do so.