AnalysisIt’s hard to believe Netanyahu really thinks Obama could lose the vote. So what is he up to?

Netanyahu’s Iran lobbying causing invisible but severe damage

The US is promising not to punish Jerusalem for lambasting the deal, but the bitter quarrels will take their toll

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office in 2009. (photo credit: Official White House Photo /Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office in 2009. (photo credit: Official White House Photo /Pete Souza)

What is Israel’s endgame regarding Iran? The nuclear deal will likely be confirmed by the US Congress, yet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is conducting an apparent no-holds-barred campaign against it, hoping to defy Capitol Hill arithmetic and inspire enough American lawmakers to thwart it.

Fearing the cementing of the ayatollahs’ regime, increased terrorism, the establishment of Iran as a regional power, and perhaps even mushroom clouds over Israel, Netanyahu has good reasons to be skeptical about the accord six world powers signed with Iran last month. But his relentless and vociferous lobbying against it is causing severe climate change in the already-not-so-warm ties between Washington and Jerusalem.

After a series of briefings with senior American and Israeli officials in the course of the last few weeks, this reporter was left in no doubt that even if bilateral ties aren’t taking a direct hit as a consequence of Netanyahu’s approach, they will suffer damage, possibly irreparable, in the long run. It’s a bit like global warming: The effects of Israel’s actions aren’t immediately visible, but their long-term devastating effects are undeniable… or are only denied by people with a particular political agenda.

I recently spent a week in Washington and New York for meetings with senior administration officials and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, and have since followed up by speaking to Israeli and American officials about the Iran deal and the effect it has on bilateral ties. The US administration was, is and will remain willing to provide Israel with military assistance, it is clear, and has even pledged to be more generous than usual because of the Iran deal. But Israel’s aggressive lobbying, which includes speaking to US lawmakers about a “moral duty” to oppose the deal, is proving corrosive.

US President Barack Obama has openly criticized the Israeli government’s “unprecedented” effort to scuttle the deal, but insists that it will go unpunished. Indeed, security assistance to Israel will increase once Congress approves the deal, he said. Everyone in Washington echoes these pledges, vowing to never gamble with Israel’s security. But future discussions between American and Israeli professionals about what exactly Israel needs from the US are likely to take place in a less friendly atmosphere.

Talks about upgrading Israel’s military capabilities are conducted by human beings, not robots. Israel’s interlocutors in the Pentagon will naturally not be as well-disposed toward the Jewish state as they would have been had Jerusalem not been fighting a bitter campaign seeking to kill the president’s most important foreign policy initiative.

And yet Jerusalem remains unfazed. “The deal is so dangerous that other considerations pale before it,” a senior government official told The Times of Israel this week. “We believe making our case, whatever the outcome of the votes in Congress may be, is the right thing to do. The end serves the national interest of the State of Israel.”

It’s “not impossible” that Congress would stop the deal, the official said, while admitting that it’s an “uphill battle.”

It’s hard to believe Netanyahu really sees a chance that Obama could lose the vote. Last week, Haaretz quoted sources “privy to Netanyahu’s most recent discussions with American interlocutors” saying that the prime minister has realized that Congress won’t be able to stop the deal. Rather, according to these sources, Netanyahu believes that his public fight with the administration will lead Democrats to want to “mend fences with Jewish voters,” especially ahead of the 2016 presidential elections, and press the government to be especially generous to Israel when it finally discusses an increase in US military aid. Furthermore, the prime minister is said to believe that his constant highlighting of the Iran deal’s weaknesses will reduce the Democrats’ popularity in general and thus help get a Republican into the White House next year.

Whatever Netanyahu believes, however, the fact that Washington keeps vowing that his lobbying will not diminish but actually increase its support for Israel gives Netanyahu a green light to double down on his opposition to the deal. As long as US officials reiterate their willingness to discuss upgrading American aid to Israel at a time of Jerusalem’s choosing, after all, why should he restrain himself? If a ballsy face-off with the leader of the free world comes without a price tag, it’s a win-win for the PM.

Except that the anti-deal agitation could create bad blood not only between Israeli and American officials discussing military assistance, but in other fields as well. Netanyahu’s confrontation with the White House and his call on American Jews to oppose the deal is liable to have at least two other undesired side effects.

First, it turns support for Israel into a partisan issue, since it forces Democrats to choose between their president and the Israeli foreign minister.

Second, it could lead to serious rifts in the American Jewish community. “No policy has threatened to tear our community apart as much as the Iran deal,” according to Greg Rosenbaum, who chairs the National Jewish Democratic Council. Opponents of the accord have compared supporters to Nazis, he noted bitterly, adding that he isn’t sure that this division will heal — that the US-Israel climate change will be reversible — even after the fate of the deal is resolved.

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