Yesterday’s headline here read: “Israel is working to pass a law in the US Congress”. I looked at the headline and I could only ask myself – Are we crazy? I have criticized Prime Minister Netanyahu on many issues over the past few years, but I have always given him credit for focusing the world’s attention on the Iranian threat. In large part thanks to his efforts, sanctions were imposed and negotiations followed. The interim result was the framework agreement announced last week.
It is easy to criticize the Iranian agreement. More over, it is clearly no problem to criticize President Obama’s foreign policy. I certainly have disparaged Obama’s approach to foreign policy many times during the past six years. I have undoubtedly expressed my own criticism and concerns regarding the Iranian agreement and the negotiating approach taken. That said, I am a private individual, a part-time journalist, and while I am a citizen of Israel, I am a U.S. citizen as well. However, what the Israeli government is doing, as a government makes no sense. The saying goes: “when you dig yourself into a hole, stop digging.” Instead, it seems Prime Minister Netanyahu has decided to double up his digging speed (despite all of the damage it can do to Israel, both in the medium and long term).
The Israeli plan seems to be to actively get involved in a Congressional battle to derail the current deal by getting the Congress to scuttle the Iranian agreement – even to the extent of establishing a new norm for the relationship between the President and Congress, (by requiring both houses of Congress to approve an agreement, instead of the constitutional requirement for only Senate approval of treaties). Prime Minister Netanyahu seems intent on fully engaging AIPAC and all of the other political weapons at his disposal to annul the agreement.
Let us examine the two possible outcomes of this plan – i.e. success or failure. Let’s start with what happens if the Israeli plan fails. Israel will have used the influence of what is considered one of the most powerful lobbying organization in Washington, i.e. AIPAC, and it will have failed. The last time that scenario came to pass was over the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia during the Reagan administration. The result was a significant weakening of AIPAC. The power of a lobby lays in the fear it can not be stopped. For that reason lobbying groups rarely become publicly involved in any fight they are not sure they will win; since to fight and lose undermines the very power of a lobby.
With the many and varied challenges Israel faces in the next few years, there are few who would like to see the power of AIPAC undermined – spare J-Street supporters (doubtful Netanyahu is one of them). So if Israel loses this battle, we undermine our Washington lobby, as a follow-up to burning our relations with the White House. Yes, Prime Minister Netanyahu is correct, the connections between Israel and the United States are deep and multi-faceted; based on many things, including shared values. Israel’s relationship with the United States will surely survive Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama, however, our rapport will have without question been wounded.
Now let’s look at the second possibility – we succeed (which in my mind is the more frightening prospect). Success would have four bad consequences, each worse than the other.
First, assume the Congress does not approve the agreement, what would happen next? Does anyone really think the Iranians would come crawling back and agree to anything they did not agree to before – especially if it’s clear it was Israel behind torpedoing the agreement? Does anyone think that China and Russia are going to continue the sanctions regime after signing on to an agreement, only to be torpedoed by the U.S. Congress, with the help of Israel and the American Jewish community? What is the likely result … the effective end of sanctions on Iran and an Iranian regime that will feel free to act in any way it wishes.
Second, Israel relies heavily on the strategic strength of the United States. Since the 1960s, a key factor in all of our diplomatic and tactical planning has been anchored on the existence of a strong United States. One of the most disconcerting aspects of President Obama’s foreign policy has been the perceived weakening of America. While some of Obama’s critics believe this has been deliberate, I tend to believe that it is a result of both his initial lack of experience, combined with his overall lack of strategic vision. It is possible President Obama sees the world through glasses that are just too rosy; or possibly that he overestimates his own ability to influence people and events. Regardless, it is clear that America’s place in the world has been weakened over the course of the past six years, and that that is not good for Israel. Despite the hallucinations of some of our leaders, neither China nor Russia are about to become reliable allies of Israel. America’s prestige and power will suffer incalculable damage if this agreement is undone. A diminished United States is undeniably against the interest of the State of Israel.
Third, if this agreement is invalidated, as a result the power of the Presidency will be undermined. The balance of power between the Congress and the President has been one of the enduring sagas of American history. While some could argue that it is better for Israel if more power lies in Congress (since we seemingly have more influence there), I would argue that this is a fundamental misreading of history. Historically, the U.S. has been strongest on the world stage when the Presidency has remained robust. 640 Members of Congress cannot effectively run U.S. foreign policy (parenthetically, they can’t even pass a budget, but that’s another matter). Who will want to negotiate anything with any U.S. Administration when they know the following week the understandings could be overturned by the Congress? So, refer to the paragraph above – i.e. weakening the U.S. Presidency weakens the United States on world stage – which is absolutely not in Israel’s interest.
Finally, just entering this fight, (without even winning it) will destroy all the norms that have been followed in the United States-Israel relationship over the past 67 years. The American Jewish community has always been crucial in helping grease the relationship between our countries, (going all the way back to the pre-State years.) In 1956, after President Eisenhower forced Prime Minister Ben-Gurion into making concessions that many felt were not in Israel’s interests. As a result, it was decided to reorganize the Jewish community so it could speak to the US government with one voice on issues that it felt were vital. Thus were born both the Presidents’ Conference of Major Jewish Organizations and AIPAC. Both organizations have worked carefully to ensure they take positions of consensus; they have endeavored to be seen as speaking on behalf of the entire American Jewish community, who see Israel’s interest as vital. While not representing the government of Israel, they have worked equally with Democrats and Republicans.
The Israeli government’s recent articulation stating – we (as in the Israeli government) will work in Congress to stop the Iranian agreement – violates all of the principles on which the Conference of Presidents and AIPAC were created, and by which they have dedicated them to operate. This does not represent a clear consensus stance; it takes a definitively partisan position; and finally it shatters long-held norms by making it indisputable the Israeli government is behind the actions.
Where will this leave us? I worry about a remark made by a FaceBook friend (a business acquaintance) who commented on my post of Thomas Friedman’s interview with President Obama, (which was flamed, along with the President by many of my American Jewish friends):
“I guess you guys would rather just have Israel bomb Iran, and have the U.S. clean up the mess? Uh, no thanks … especially with that jerk Bibi in charge, who has no interest in peace …”.
How widely that sentiment is held remains unclear. However, recent polls show that most Americans support an Iranian agreement.
Politics is the art of what is possible. Maybe with better negotiators we would have had a better framework with Iran … maybe if President Obama had supported the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009, the current regime might have fallen … maybe, maybe. However, we are where we are now and we need to look for the best outcome we can achieve. At this moment that means working quietly with the American government to verify that the final agreement (as opposed to the framework) is as iron-clad as possible. In the end, we cannot risk our future on this or any other agreement. We must work ensure the agreement is as good as it can be, and then continue to work on developing the next generation Arrow intercept missiles, along with what ever other high-tech weapons we can to construct a reality in which even a nuclear-armed Iran will be no threat to us. In the meantime we need to stop doing stupid things-we cannot afford them.