‘Most analyses of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Congressional address have been surprisingly, but perhaps predictably, superficial and short-sighted. They mirror the protagonists, after all. The impressive forum, the impassioned rhetoric, the wave of standing ovations and President Obama’s blasé dismissal all grab headlines, but distract from the truly important. Yet what counts is only what the speech will or will not do to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, and the its broader impact on US-Israel relations. This is the whole of the matter, “on one foot.” The rest is commentary.
Judged by those two criteria, Netanyahu’s speech was a failure. No Israeli prime minister has ever provoked and escalated a crisis of this magnitude on so sensitive a topic, or lectured a President on US foreign policy from Congress, with the entire world as the audience. The incompetence behind not coordinating the visit with the White House, timing the speech with AIPAC’s policy conference, the implication that Obama is Neville Chamberlain, the sheer arrogance and disingenuousness (“I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political”), all have caused lasting damage to the efforts to build consensus for Israel and against Iran across the political spectrum in Washington.
This harsh judgment may not sit well with Iran hawks or Obama critics, but it is incontrovertible. It is as if Netanyahu has never considered that Israel’s alliance with the United States, the product of decades of relationship-building, investment and sacrifice, can go away. But off-stage is not where Netanyahu shines.
Netanyahu does not represent a consensus within Israel on the best way to deal with Tehran’s nuclear quest. Consider the recent statement of former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan, the mastermind behind Stuxnet and the “accidents” that befall many Persian scientists, and no dove, that it is Netanyahu who has caused the most “strategic damage” to Israel’s efforts against Iran by playing a game of chicken with the White House. Another former Mossad head, Shabtai Shavit, recently voiced equally scathing criticism of Netanyahu and his approach to Iran.
The brusquer Dagan and Shavit grasp something that the (supposedly) savvy Netanyahu does not: Israel’s partnership with the United States is its most valuable asset, and cannot be subordinated to any other concern. That relationship differentiates Israel strategically from other small countries facing hostile neighbors (think of Taiwan, South Korea, or Georgia). Maintaining the strong relationship with the United States has been a cornerstone of Israeli policy since at least 1967, and Israeli prime ministers on both the left and the right – Levi Eshkol, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon – have understood this.
In the realm of US foreign policy, that means, almost categorically, the Executive Branch. The President has the preponderance of power, excluding foreign aid, and presidents since Thomas Jefferson have managed to conduct affairs abroad by bypassing or ignoring Congress. Barack Obama may be a weak and unpopular president, but two years is a long time (especially in the Middle East), and as he does not face reelection, the pro-Israel lobby, like all lobbies, wields substantially less influence on his decision-making.
Israel cannot “go it alone” against Iran, and arguments to the contrary are signs of wishful or lazy thinking. Consider that Israel could not even fight this summer’s very limited war against Hamas without running out of munitions, or the frightening reality that Israel would have lost the Yom Kippur war without massive American military resupply. The Osirak raid that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear ambitions in 1981 was hatched in secret against a far weaker adversary than present day Iran. Israel’s destruction of the Syrian reactor in 2007 does not seem to have deterred Iran’s ambitions. An Israeli air strike could, at best, delay Iran’s nuclear program, but would almost certainly strengthen support for the ruling theocracy, the opposite of the West’s objective.
Netanyahu’s apparent strategy of lining up Congress against the President and attempting a Congressional veto of a future Iran deal is a high-risk proposition and represents a point of no return for Israel. Whatever window to the White House that was still open to Netanyahu is now shut.
For Congress to override the President, the Senate would require thirteen Democrats even if every Republican voted in favor. It is a grave matter for Senators to go against their party’s President on an issue not of highest concern to his electorate, which for most states Iran is not seen to be. If this were the objective, Israel should be doing everything it can to earn the support of these Senators, and avoiding anything that might alienate them.
Yet when Netanyahu was invited to meet separately with Democrats on Capitol Hill – exactly the constituency he might need for a so-called “Congressional strategy” – he spat in their faces. As a result, fifty Capitol Hill Democrats boycotted Netanyahu’s address, including six Jewish members, completely without precedent in American history.
For all of Netanyahu’s self-proclaimed fluency in American politics, this entire affair feels amateurish and demonstrates the absence of strategic thinking altogether. Israelis are not a nation of pomp and circumstance, and cannot afford this kind of a gamble if the stakes against Iran are as high as he warns.
Criticism of the affair certainly does not imply agreement with President Obama’s current approach to Iran, any more than criticism of Obamacare confers a blessing on the US health care system. Indeed, Israel is more than justified to be worried about Obama’s approach to Iran, as are other critical US allies in the region, especially in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
Despite a costly decade of American blood and treasure in the Middle East, there is deep dissatisfaction with current US policies and the apparent lack of leadership. From its dysfunctional response to the Arab Spring, to the hasty and ill-coordinated withdrawal from Iraq, and the failure to support moderates in Syria, the Obama Administration has weakened American standing in the region and alienated most of its historic allies, beyond Israel. Letting Iran extend its reach in Iraq and turn that country into a Shia state has effectively become US policy.
While it is true that the US and Iran share an immediate enemy in ISIS, American interests in the region will only be harmed if Iran goes nuclear. On this point, Netanyahu was correct. A successful strategy in international affairs can pursue competing objectives. Even as the United States cooperated with the USSR to fight Nazism, it prioritized capturing German scientists as it advanced into Berlin in 1945, so that they would not fall into Russian hands, to prevent or delay the Soviet Union from getting the bomb. Fighting Hitler did not mean embracing Stalin in the long run. There is no reason we should accept the false dichotomy of “Iran or ISIS” today. Victory against ISIS must not mean that Iraq becomes a de facto satellite of Iran.
Though by far the weaker party, Iran has managed to outplay the US and the West time and again over the last decade. As in any negotiation, American and Israeli leverage lies in the subtle threat of what they could do, more together than alone, if Iran walks away and moves to build a bomb. Israel is by far the biggest loser in a public rift with the US; Iran, the undoubted victor. That makes coordination with America an imperative.
The time for theatrics is over. Cooler heads and long-term national interests must now prevail. In the game of thrones that Netanyahu referred to, all the world is definitely not a stage. Let’s hope that Israel and its next prime minister can rebound from these mistakes.