Arriving in Washington for the AIPAC conference ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress on Tuesday is akin to looking down on a looming train crash and being powerless to stop it. The conflicting forces are converging upon each other insistently, inevitably. The efforts to prevent the collision have failed. All that’s left now is to watch the disaster unfold, and then try to recover.
The words of doom and gloom you hear from some of the people most closely involved in nurturing the American-Israel partnership are simply unprecedented. How bad is Netanyahu’s speech for US-Israel ties? I asked one such activist. Well, it’s only decades of painstakingly constructed bipartisan relations smashed to smithereens, he replied bitterly.
The prime minister has created the dismal situation whereby even his speech to AIPAC, a day prior to Tuesday’s address to Congress, becomes somewhat problematic. Not only are America’s legislators being asked to choose between their president and the Israeli prime minister, as the veteran administration official Dennis Ross observed at the weekend. But AIPAC’s 16,000-strong, overwhelmingly Jewish audience, in mightily applauding Netanyahu, will be seen by some critics as endorsing a stance against the White House — even though many of those 16,000 have no desire to be torn in this way.
Netanyahu’s handling of this face-off has been staggeringly inept, another activist volunteered, and it follows a pattern of his alienating of world leaders — including but not limited to Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande and Joe Biden — and of exacerbating problems for Jewish communities — notably those in Europe that he has been urging to immigrate to Israel en masse.
‘Forcing the ayatollahs to abandon the bomb was not unrealistic, is not unrealistic, if it is clear to them that their pursuit of nuclear arms would endanger the very survival of their regime. That stark choice has not been brought home to them. That is the heart of the negotiators’ failure’
There’s a good deal of truth in these critiques. There’s a great deal of truth, too, in the assertions from critics at home that this trip, this poking of a finger in the eye of President Barack Obama, is a calculated electoral gambit, designed to bolster support for the ostensibly unflinching Netanyahu among right-wing voters back home, to prevent them from defecting to rival parties and denying him victory on March 17. There’s no doubting the political machinations that saw the Prime Minister’s Office release a short clip of Netanyahu “writing his speech” for broadcast on the main Friday evening Channel 2 news, or the rather cynical decision to have the prime minister filmed at the Western Wall ahead of this trip — co-opting Judaism’s holiest place of worship to his campaign.
Along with the concern and the cynicism, however, there is one other fairly important aspect of the prime minister’s trip to DC that should be borne in mind: The US-led international community has failed Israel, and failed itself, in its handling of Iran’s drive to nuclear weapons. It is on the point of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. And Netanyahu has been trying desperately to warn against this misguided course of action.
Anonymous US administration officials gave a briefing on Friday at which they reportedly sniped that Netanyahu, for all his criticisms, had failed to suggest alternative terms for a deal with Iran. Indeed, many news reports of the Obama-Netanyahu dispute have flatly asserted that the prime minister opposes any and every diplomatic accord with Tehran.
In truth, however, Netanyahu has incessantly stressed that a good deal — a deal, that is, that denies Iran the capacity to break out to the bomb — is infinitely preferable to the resort to military action. He has campaigned relentlessly for a deal that dismantles Iran military nuclear infrastructure, highlighting that energy-rich Iran has no need whatsoever for its claimed “peaceful” nuclear program, that it has repeatedly misled the world about the program, and that it can be guaranteed to continue lying and manipulating and deceiving all the way to the bomb if it is left with the opportunity to do so.
Netanyahu was at the forefront of the effort behind the highly effective sanctions regime which forced Iran to the negotiating table, and his increasingly distraught recent rhetoric is the consequence of his horrified realization that the P5+1 negotiators, having had Iran “on the ropes,” as he put it in his UN address in 2013, was allowing the Islamist regime to evade the necessary diplomatic knockout.
Netanyahu’s “alternative” deal is one in which Iran is required to acknowledge that it was seeking nuclear weapons, and to halt and dismantle all the processes that could give it the bomb. Ongoing concerted enforcement of the sanctions regime could yield that result, he was and remains convinced, but the US-led negotiators have failed to pursue that goal with sufficient resolution — at terrible potential cost for Israel, other threatened states in the region, and the rest of the free world.
The US-led counterargument is that Netanyahu is unrealistic; the deal he envisages could never have been attained; Iran would not have conceded; the international coalition against Iran would have collapsed.
And there’s no doubting that Netanyahu — lecturing Obama in public at a White House meeting here, unwilling to freeze settlements there, alienating European leaders, unresponsive to Arab peace overtures — has often undermined his own self-described central mission of thwarting Iran.
But forcing the ayatollahs to abandon the bomb was not unrealistic, is not unrealistic, if it is clear to them that their pursuit of nuclear arms would endanger the very survival of their regime. That stark choice was not, has not been, brought home to them. That is the heart of the negotiators’ failure.
Quite the reverse. While the Obama administration will be boycotting Netanyahu here this week, Secretary of State John Kerry will be earnestly negotiating with the polished, avuncular Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Israel’s most important ally is hoping to see the ouster of the prime minister who is such an irritant on Iran, even as it moves toward an accord that would ensure the survival of a rapacious, murderous, terrorist-funding regime in Tehran that has its heart set on the destruction of Israel.
Iran is laughing, the United States is torn, and Israel watches with trepidation. The challenge, the imperative, after this week’s now unavoidable train wreck, is to pick up the pieces — to heal a rift with the US leadership that Israel simply cannot afford, and to refocus joint efforts on thwarting Iran’s drive to the bomb. It is not too late. It very soon will be.