Sitting in Tel Aviv and watching the fight in Washington over approval of the agreement between the P+5 and Iran has been profoundly disturbing. My considered belief is that the agreement with Iran should be approved – despite some of its weaknesses. That being said, it is not opposition to the agreement, per se that is so disconcerting. What is alarming is the totally misguided and inappropriate campaign Prime Minister Netanyahu is running in attempts to overturn American support for the agreement.
While Prime Minister Netanyahu claims to understand the United States and its history, the Prime Minister seems to have skipped one distinct chapter that every 8th grade student taking US history learns; the incident of the Genêt Affair. The Citizen Genêt Affair, over two hundred years ago, was the last time a foreign country interfered, in such a public way, in the internal politics of the United States. This episode did not end well for Genêt, nor for France, the country he represented. In 1793, Edmond-Charles Genêt was sent to the United States to serve as the Ambassador of the post-revolutionary government in France. During his short tenure, Genêt attempted to convince the Untied States to side with France in its war with Great Britain. When President Washington decided the United States would remain neutral in the war, Genêt chose to publicly oppose Washington. President Washington was livid and demanded the withdrawal of Ambassador (Citizen) Genêt from the United States. This ill-advised strategy by Genet brought the United States and France to the brink of war.
Since then, no foreign power has tried to publicly interfere directly in the domestic political process of the United States. Sure, many governments quietly attempt to influence the U.S. government. Indeed, many hire lobbying firms to do just that. Certainly, in the years before the U.S. officially became involved in World War II, the British worked quietly to engage the Americans in the war. Of course, at that time, British efforts enjoyed the silent support of President Roosevelt.
One could argue whether AIPAC or other Jewish organizations should be in the forefront of the fight over the Iranian agreement. I would probably argue that neither AIPAC nor J- Street should be involved. Though those are tactical and philosophical arguments. It is certainly proper, (albeit likely not smart) for either organization – which are both American Jewish organizations – to involve themselves in an American political debate. If Prime Minister Netanyahu had been working quietly behind the scenes trying to influence the debate, I would say that it was probably not a smart policy, but there was no real harm done. However, the Prime Minister has taken a different course. Netanyahu has been publicly briefing the Jewish community on why they must condemn the deal with Iran, sending Israel’s Ambassador to the offices of leading Senators and Congressmen trying to convince them to vote down the agreement, and being as public and vociferous as possible in his opposition.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s actions regarding the United States political decision on the Iran deal has crossed a very clear red line delineating what is proper and improper for a foreign country to do with respect to the internal politics of an ally. Netanyahu’s actions would be justified, if the very survival of the State of Israel were at stake – or even if the questions at hand were clear and bilateral – say, for example, if the US threatened sanctions against Israel for one of its actions, or warned they might end military assistance. The issue at hand, while very important, is one that in the best/worse case scenario is gray. I think almost all Israelis agree that we wish the agreement was stronger and better. Nonetheless, while the agreement may be unsettling, it is very clear that rejection of the agreement will be in itself be very problematic. Our opposition leaders – Herzog, Livni and Lapid – have been too afraid of being called “unpatriotic” to call out our Prime Minister on his reckless actions. So instead, it appears like the Prime Minister has the support of most of the Israeli people in his quixotic struggle to oppose the Iranian agreement. That may be so, though that is only because most Israelis are unfamiliar with American history and norms.
Since 1967 the linchpin of Israeli security policy has been our close relationship with the United States. I will not try to quantify the value we have gained from that relationship (not to mention the 10’s of billions of dollars toward our defense.) Even so, that does not mean Israel always has to follow the wishes of the United States to the detriment of its own interests. However, here we are not talking about ignoring a U.S. request to stop building new settlements. Here, we are talking about a frontal assault on the President of the United States and an improper embroilment in the domestic politics of the Untied States – all of that with no real clear end game. It is time for our Prime Minister to climb down from the tree has chosen to climb before it comes toppling down, with many of us on it.