Obama’s unmistakable message to Israel: You stand alone

In speech on Iran nukes, president uses a tactic that US Jewish opponents of the deal will find hard to combat: insinuating misplaced loyalty

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the nuclear deal reached with Iran at American University in Washington, DC, August 5, 2015.  (AFP PHOTO/JIM WATSON)
US President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the nuclear deal reached with Iran at American University in Washington, DC, August 5, 2015. (AFP PHOTO/JIM WATSON)

WASHINGTON — In March 2013, US President Barack Obama addressed the Israeli people in Jerusalem, reassuring them that the world’s sole superpower would have their back in the face of threats from Iran and other Middle Eastern states seeking their annihilation.

“Those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist, they might as well reject the earth beneath them or the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere,” he said to raucous applause. “ And today, I want to tell you — particularly the young people — so that there’s no mistake here, so long as there is a United States of America — Atem lo levad. You are not alone.”

On Wednesday, in a speech at American University in Washington, Obama sent the opposite message to Jerusalem: You are indeed alone.

While he said he “deeply shares” the American people’s “sincere affinity” for Israel and remains committed to maintaining its “Qualitative Military Edge,” when it comes to your government’s ferocious but “wrong” opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran, he made clear, you are on your own.

“Because this is such a strong deal, every nation in the world that has commented publicly, with the exception of the Israeli government, has expressed support,” Obama said. “The United Nations Security Council has unanimously supported it. The majority of arms control and nonproliferation experts support it. Over 100 former ambassadors who served under Republican and Democratic presidents support it.”

This was a biting barb aimed at highlighting Israel’s isolation. Though aired via discreet diplomatic channels, the Arab Gulf States’ apprehension over the nuclear deal is the Middle East’s worst-kept secret. Obama is worried that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s incessant attacks on the deal have started making inroads among the American public and — more importantly — among US legislators who can still kill the deal. Therefore he unsubtly asserted that with its vocal opposition, Israel stands against the rest of the world.

It wasn’t Obama’s only jab at Israel and its leader. He mercilessly mocked opponents of the deal and what he characterized as simplistic but fallacious slogans. “Now, the final criticism, this is sort of catchall that you may hear, is the notion that there is a better deal to be had. That is repeated over and over again,” he said. He then slightly altered his voice, almost imitating Netanyahu, and intoned the Israeli leader’s mantra, “It’s a bad deal — we need a better deal.” The audience at American University erupted into laughter.

Obama laid out in some detail why he believes the deal is the best — and indeed the only — option to prevent either war or a nuclear-armed Iran. He said Israel’s opposition was “understandable,” acknowledging that Americans should take heed when Israel is worried about something.

“No one can blame Israelis for having a deep skepticism about any dealings with the government like Iran’s, which includes leaders who deny the Holocaust, embrace an ideology of anti-Semitism, facilitate the flow of rockets that are arrayed on Israel’s borders,” he allowed.

Americans “have to take seriously concerns in Israel,” he noted, mentioning the administration’s willingness to increase military aid and intelligence cooperation “to help meet Israel’s pressing security needs.”

But then Obama went for the jugular, making an argument that is hard to counter for American Jews, Israel supporters and other opponents of the deal.

“I believe the facts support this deal,” he said. “I believe they are in America’s interests and Israel’s interests, and as president of the United States it would be an abrogation of my constitutional duty to act against my best judgment simply because it causes temporary friction with a dear friend and ally.”

In other words, Obama implied, if the commander-in-chief chooses to pursue a certain strategy, then opposing it based on the opposition of another country, even an allied one, is beyond the pale.

That’s why, a day after Netanyahu held a video conference with US Jews highlighting his objections to the accord, Obama pointed out that Israel dwells alone in rejecting it. He wanted to signal to American supporters of Israel and other opponents of the deal that there is no rational reason to fight it, other than an exaggerated, and possibly even problematic, allegiance to Israel.

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