Read carefully, because it doesn’t happen too often. I’m about to express just a little bit of sympathy for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.
In the difficult days two years ago leading up to the Congressional vote on the JCPOA (The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal), I was outspoken in my criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to address the American Congress in opposition to the deal. To me it seemed like just about the most impolitic thing an Israeli Prime Minister could do, publicly insulting the sitting Democratic American President by casting his lot with the Republican- controlled Congress, which held him in high esteem. I had no doubt that his uber-concern was the safety of Israel, which it was clearly his responsibility to protect. I also had no doubt, then as now, that the JCPOA was a bad deal for Israel, and for the West. But politically, Netanyahu was, for all to see, siding with the Republicans, on the assumption that they were likely to emerge winners in the next presidential election and be more favorably inclined towards Israel’s position vis-a-vis Iran. In so doing, he was consciously insulting the American President who had been, in many important ways, significantly supportive of Israel and her security concerns. Three billion dollars a year is not an insignificant amount, especially when coupled with additional aid for Iron Dome.
Well… things don’t always work out the way you planned them, do they?
Netanyahu’s speech to Congress failed to tip the vote in Israel’s favor, President Obama’s long-standing cold relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu became even frostier, and lo and behold, it’s not at all clear which party is going to triumph in the upcoming presidential election. And even if the Republicans win, no one has any kind of clear idea what Mr. Trump’s policy towards Israel might be. Many Congressional Democrats have a long memory, and Mr. Netanyahu succeeded in doing what decades of work by AIPAC have struggled to avoid– making support of Israel a wedge issue in American politics, as opposed to a bi-partisan cause. Bibi gambled, lost, and in so doing damaged the irreducibly important meta-party connection between America and Israel.
Fast forward these two years, and we find ourselves, after prolonged negotiations between the two countries, having just concluded a new, ten-year MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) on aid to Israel, totaling $38 billion dollars. Despite the previous unpleasantness between the parties involved, which certainly lingers, Israel comes out of all this with an unprecedented amount of aid, although a little less freedom to spend it in Israeli defense industries than she had before.
All good, right?
Just this past week, Senator Lindsay Graham, one of Israel’s fiercest and most dependable supporters in the Congress, ripped into Prime Minister Netanyahu for “caving” to American pressure to accept the aid package. Essentially, he was counselling Netanyahu to do what he had done two years ago– put his faith in the Congress, not the President, and ultimately Israel would come out better off. Similarly, the voices of opposition leaders past, present and future in Israel were quick to pounce on the PM, saying that his mishandling the entire situation had jeopardized Israel’s security and caused it to lose much more money in American aid than it gained though the new MOU. Evidently, the Prime Minister had (belatedly) come to the conclusion that is was in Israel’s greater interest to express gratitude to the American President than to publicly diss him, and that securing the aid was better than tying it to a gamble.
This doesn’t happen very often, but I agree with Prime Minister Netanyahu. The MOU may not be perfect, but being magnanimous and statesman-like as President Obama prepares to leave office (quite possibly to be followed by this former Secretary of State) seems not only prudent, but gracious. The relative merits or lack thereof of the JCPOA notwithstanding, I salute the Prime Minister for making the right move. I’m sure it was tempting to once again heed the siren call of the Republican opposition, but the Prime Minister did the right thing. He doesn’t deserve to be hung out to dry by those seeking to make political gain from a difficult and awkward situation.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.