Bibi belligerence repels US
Public statements by John Kerry questioning Israel’s commitment to a peace process have sparked a public spat with Netanyahu. So unusual is this that it has led to a feeding frenzy in the US and Israeli media, some of which is here:
1) AP: Crisis brewing in Israeli-US relations, Kerry questions Israel’s seriousness about peace with the Palestinians;
2) Guardian: Frenemies: the US-Israel relationship gets rocky over Iran and peace talks, Michael Cohen, CiF, on Bibi’s bad move;
3) Times of Israel: Israeli-US rifts ‘should not be aired publicly,’ Liberman says, back in post, Liberman makes the most of Bibi’s loss of favour;
4) Ha’aretz: Republicans blast Kerry’s ‘anti-Israeli’ Senate briefing against new Iran sanctions;
5) Ha’aretz: First we’ll take Washington , Zvi Bar’el says Netanyahu’s ranting is making Israel irrelevant, an insufferable nuisance, and it is causing a fissure in relations with its greatest friend ;
6) NY Times: Kerry and Biden Ask for Room to Reach a Nuclear Deal With Iran;
7) Jewish Forward: For White House, Bitter Split With Israel Undoes Years of Careful Progress, US/Israel relations have never been so bad UPDATE;
Plus Notes and links, Bibi’s appeal on US TV, plus Israel’s anti-Iran pact with Gulf states made a month before Geneva talks;
All smiles at the P5+1 talks with Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, in Geneva, November 9th, 2013
By Associated Press
November 14, 2013
A pair of testy public exchanges this week appear to have undone whatever good will was created between the Israeli and U.S. governments during a high-profile visit by President Barack Obama early this year.
Tensions burst into the open during a swing through the region by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. In an interview broadcast on both Israeli and Palestinian TV, Kerry questioned Israel’s seriousness about peace with the Palestinians. Hours later Netanyahu fired back, vowing not to cave into concessions to the Palestinians _ and also saying he “utterly rejects” an emerging nuclear deal between world powers and Iran.
The rancor signals a tough road ahead for the twin American goals of finding a diplomatic solution for Iran’s nuclear program and forging peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And it raises the specter of a return to the uncomfortable relationship that has often characterized dealings between Obama and Netanyahu.
Israeli news reports describe Netanyahu as being in “shock” over the possible Iranian compromise. Netanyahu, who sees Iran as an arch-enemy, has vowed to do anything, including a military strike, to prevent Iran from reaching weapons capability.
“If there were a synoptic map for diplomatic storms, the National Weather Service would be putting out a hurricane warning right now,” diplomatic correspondent Chemi Shalev wrote on the website of the newspaper Haaretz. “And given that the turbulence is being caused by an issue long deemed to be critical to Israel’s very existence, we may actually be facing a rare Category 5 flare up, a `superstorm’ of U.S.-Israeli relations.”
Obama and Netanyahu took office just months apart in 2009, but seemed to share little in common. At joint appearances they appeared uncomfortable and even occasionally sparred. In one famous instance, Netanyahu lectured Obama on the pitfalls of Mideast peacemaking in front of the TV cameras at a White House meeting.
The lack of chemistry seems rooted in vastly different world views. Obama is a proponent of diplomacy and consensus, while Netanyahu believes Israel can trust no one and must protect itself.
Netanyahu also enjoys strong ties with U.S. Republicans. In 2012, he was widely perceived to have backed challenger Mitt Romney.
And there has been constant friction over Netanyahu’s insistence on continuing to settle Jews on occupied land even as he negotiates with the Palestinians.
Last March, Obama traveled to Israel for a visit widely seen as an attempt to reboot relations. The two leaders appeared together at a series of events, smiling and sharing jokes. But even then there were signs of trouble. Obama urged an audience of university students to pressure Israeli leaders to change their ways and take bold new steps to reach peace with the Palestinians.
Since then, officials on both sides have stressed the countries are close allies regardless of politics. But the atmosphere gradually soured again as Obama pressed forward with his two major diplomatic initiatives.
Over the summer, Kerry persuaded Israel and the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table for the first time in nearly five years. The sides agreed to talk for nine months, with an April target date for reaching a peace deal. To get talks going, Palestinians dropped a longstanding demand for an Israeli freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, captured territories that the Palestinians claim for a future state. In exchange, Israel committed to release 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners.
With negotiations making no visible progress, Israel’s release of a second round of Palestinian prisoners two weeks ago _ all jailed for killing Israelis _ set off an uproar. Netanyahu followed the release by announcing plans to build thousands of settler homes, infuriating the Palestinians, the Americans and also the moderate camp in Israel itself.
In surprisingly blunt comments, Kerry told Israel’s Channel 2 TV on Thursday that Israel faced the possibility of international isolation and renewed violence with the Palestinians if peace efforts failed. He also said the continued settlement construction raised questions about Israel’s commitment to peace.
“How can you say, `We’re planning to build in the place that will eventually be Palestine?'” Kerry said. “It sends a message that somehow perhaps you’re not really serious.”
Netanyahu responded the next morning ahead of a meeting with Kerry. “No amount of pressure will make me or the government of Israel compromise on the basic security and national interests of the State of Israel,” the visibly agitated premier said.
Netanyahu also slammed the emerging agreement with Iran. “Iran got the deal of the century, and the international community got a bad deal,” he said. “This is a very bad deal and Israel utterly rejects it.”
He warned that Israel is “not obliged” to honor the agreement and would do “everything it needs to do to defend itself.” Following a tense meeting stretching more than two hours, a planned joint appearance with Kerry and Netanyahu to the media was canceled.
While negotiators in Geneva hammered out details Saturday, the discussed deal appeared to include some relief from painful economic sanctions in exchange for limits on Iranian nuclear activity. However, chances of a deal being struck looked slim late Saturday.
Netanyahu has said international pressure should be increased, not eased, until Iran dismantles all suspicious nuclear activities. White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said Saturday the Obama administration was in “full agreement” with Israel _ though that didn’t seem to be the case.
For now, Netanyahu’s options appear limited. Despite longstanding threats to carry out a military attack on Iran if necessary, it would be all but impossible to do so in the current diplomatic environment. On the Palestinian front, Netanyahu holds most of the leverage and is showing little inclination to change.
Nicholas Burns, a former senior State Department official, said that Netanyahu made an error by airing his grievances publicly.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu’s public outburst was unfortunate and ill-advised,” Burns, who now teaches at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, wrote in an email. “It has gone down very badly in the U.S.”
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.
Israeli PM Netanyahu is actively calling on American Jews to challenge the US government. It’s a bold – and bad – move
By Michael Cohen, Comment is Free, guardian.com
November 13, 2013
One of the repeated refrains you hear from American and Israeli leaders about the close relationship between their two nations is that there must be no daylight between them.
This week there was a genuine sunburst separating the two nations.
First, Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that the failure to negotiate a final status agreement with the Palestinians could lead to a “third intifada” and further international “isolation” for Israel. Days later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not only blasted US diplomatic efforts to reach a deal with Iran over its nuclear program but openly encouraged American Jews to speak out against the potential agreement.
While both sides have tried to tone down the rhetoric, the public spat is not an isolated incident. It’s an inevitable outcome of the United States pursuing a policy agenda in the Middle East that is increasingly divergent from Israeli interests – one that Netanyahu and the Israeli government seems incapable of fully acknowledging.
The most notable flashpoint between the US and Israel is quite obviously Iran. Since taking office, President Obama has sought a deal to end Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear weapons. While this is clearly in Israel’s interest, it’s the outlines of a possible agreement that is the problem. The Israeli position of no uranium enrichment, even for peaceful purposes, the removal of all enriched uranium from Iran and the shutting down of all enrichment facilities is a negotiation non-starter – and stands in sharp contrast to the US position.
Israel, which faces a much more serious threat from a nuclear Iran than the US, is, of course, welcome to take a more hardline position. However, such opposition does not occur in a vacuum. Accusing the US of basically selling out Israel after President Obama has spent the past five years working diligently to stifle Iran’s nuclear program is both unfair and also diplomatically unwise. It risks creating a significant rift with Israel’s closest and most important foreign ally (and provider of several billion dollars in foreign assistance). Ultimately, no bond is more important to Israel’s long-term security than the US-Israel relationship and Bibi’s recent statements are widening the gaps between the two countries and in a way that is more likely to harm Israel than the United States.
Even worse, Netanyahu appears focused on trying to torpedo any chance of an agreement, altogether.
This is a dangerous game that if successful would not only create a fundamental breach between the US and Israel, but would almost certainly increase the likelihood of Iran actually getting a clear nuclear capability. Without a deal, Tehran will have little reason to stop its uranium enrichment program (even if remaining still short of producing an actual nuclear bomb). A deal with Iran remains the best hope of delaying that possibility – short of the use of military force – which is far from guaranteed to work in delaying Iran’s nuclear ambitions and would even further isolate Israel.
But the Iran negotiations are only one part of the current rift between Washington and Jerusalem. There are also the current peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. It should perhaps go without saying that the right wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu did not willingly and happily join these negotiations. And the betting odds are that Bibi will ultimately balk at the concessions necessary to make peace. Coming on the heels of this week’s Iran blow-up, failure to reach a deal risks putting Israel in a potentially intractable position.
If no deal occurs, will the United States blame both sides equally, hold the Palestinians responsible (as was the case after the Camp David negotiations in 2000) or will they be openly critical of Israeli (ie Netanyahu’s) intransigence? Will the continuation of the status quo – and a permanent occupation of Palestinian territories – fundamentally change US attitudes toward Israel? No one can say for sure, but as tensions in the US-Israel relationship grow greater over Iran such thoughts should not be far from Netanyahu’s mind. If he is counting on Obama to continue expending significant political capital for a leader who undermines not one but two of his key foreign policy objectives, he might be in for a surprise.
Of course, Netanyahu has played this game for a while with the Obama Administration. After all, he basically endorsed Mitt Romney during the 2012 election. Part of Bibi’s calculation is almost certainly that he could always depend on strong support from the American Jewish community and in turn Congress.
Yet even here Bibi is doing himself no favors. On Sunday, he spoke in Jerusalem to the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly – an influential group of North American Jewish leaders. In disparaging the potential “bad deal” with Iran, Netanyahu went beyond mere criticism and said to his co-religionists:
We are the Jewish state. We are charged with defending ourselves and we are charged with speaking up. And it is time now to speak up – all of us. All of us have to stand up now and be counted.
The next day Israeli right-winger – and member of Netanyahu’s government – Naftali Bennett made clear what this meant, “Before the talks resume, we will lobby dozens of members of the US Congress to whom I will personally explain during a visit beginning on Tuesday that Israel’s security is in jeopardy.”
The US-Israel relationship is so unusual that such comments rarely seem to garner much attention. But they are amazing nonetheless. A close ally of the US makes clear its intention to lobby the US Congress to scuttle a US foreign policy objective in defense of another country’s security. Try to imagine any other nation doing something like that.
Netanyahu’s words are even more troubling because he is basically asking American Jews to put their religious allegiance ahead of their national one.
Together, these comments are both an affront to the American government and to American Jews who though welcome to live in Israel have chosen to express their religious and cultural identity in the United States.
But putting aside propriety, Netanyahu is misjudging American Jews (pdf) and their attachment to the Jewish state. Such demands for tribal solidarity will be welcomed by some but ignored – and even further alienate – by the increasing number of American Jews who feel less and less of a connection to Israel.
In the end, it’s hard to see how widening fissures with the one country essential to Israel’s security – and pursuing policies that will further isolate Israel – is a smart political play. But then again, no one ever accused Benjamin Netanyahu of being much of a long-term thinker.
To be sure, part of what we are seeing is the inevitable push and pull between close allies. But there is something much deeper going on here. The Obama Administration has made clear both in actions and in words that it wants to lessen its presence and role in Middle East politics. The current Israeli government doesn’t appear to have gotten the memo. Netanyahu may win the battle on Iran and even with the Palestinians, but he – and the nation he leads – runs the very real risk of moving forward increasingly on its own.
Michael A Cohen is author of Live from the Campaign Trail: The Greatest Presidential Campaign Speeches of the 20th Century and How They Shaped Modern America. A regular columnist for the Guardian and Observer on US politics, he is also a fellow of the Century Foundation.
In first public appearance since regaining his post, foreign minister says he’ll work to calm tensions over Iran talks
By Raphael Ahren, Times of Israel
November 12, 2013
The Israeli government needs to get over its public spat with the United States on Iran, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said Tuesday, launching a surprising attack on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has openly criticized Washington’s approach in nuclear talks with Tehran in recent days.
“We need to understand that relations with US are foundations set in stone; without them we can’t maneuver in the contemporary world,” Liberman said. “All these differences of opinion, which are natural and have always existed, should simply not be aired as publicly as they were. I think a step to calm them is important, and we will already start dealing with this tomorrow.”
The minister was addressing Israel’s diplomatic corps in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem for the first time since retaking the helm on Monday. His remarks came as a surprise because in the past his uncompromising stances vis-a-vis the Palestinians and Iran have occasionally caused tension with Washington. The move seemed to be an attempt to present a friendlier, more moderate public face to the world, and Washington in particular.
Liberman’s remarks came close on the heels of a bitter back-and-forth between Netanyahu and US Secretary of State John Kerry over last weekend’s negotiations between world powers and Iran.
After rumors that a prospective deal with Iran was in the offing Friday, Netanyahu urged Kerry not to sign an agreement with Tehran. On Sunday Kerry shot back that the US was “not blind, and I don’t think we’re stupid.” The prime minister on Monday urged world powers to push for a “better” deal with Iran. Kerry batted away Netanyahu’s criticism, saying Netanyahu “needs to recognize that no agreement” with Iran had been reached and that his opposition was premature. “The time to oppose [a deal] is when you see what it is,” he said. “Not to oppose the effort to find out what is possible.” Jerusalem shot back by saying it would be too late, once a deal was done, to oppose it.
Liberman said that US-Israel relations remain “stable and good” and that nothing would change that. Differences of opinion between the allies are natural, he added, and have existed from before Israel’s creation.
“We need to deal with this in the most natural manner,” Liberman said.
The Yisrael Beytenu party leader resigned his foreign minister post in December 2012 pending resolution of a court case against him.
Last week, a three-judge panel at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court unanimously acquitted Liberman of fraud and breach of trust charges, clearing the way for him to return as foreign minister.
The Knesset on Monday approved his reappointment as Israel’s top diplomat with 62 for and 17 against, and he was sworn in at a Knesset ceremony.
The foreign minister held his first working meeting on Tuesday morning with US Ambassador Dan Shapiro.
Harsh rhetoric between Jerusalem and Washington continues, with the U.S. blasting Israel’s ‘unreal’ evaluations of Iran accord and Netanyahu warning that the ‘bad deal’ could lead to war.
By Chemi Shalev, Ha’aretz
November 14, 2013
Tensions heightened and rhetoric escalated between Washington and Jerusalem on Tuesday as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gave what was described as a “fairly anti-Israeli” briefing on Capitol Hill while his State Department dismissed Israeli evaluations of the proposed nuclear deal with Iran as “inaccurate, exaggerated and not based in reality.”
Accompanied by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, top U.S. nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman and other officials, Kerry tried to convince Senators to refrain from approving new sanctions against Iran, with saying that such a move would “destroy the ability to be able to get agreement.” Kerry told skeptical lawmakers that they needed to “calm down” and to give the negotiations a chance to succeed.
But Republican Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) said that Kerry’s briefing had been “disappointing” while his colleague Mark Kirk (R-IL) described it as “very unconvincing.”
Speaking to reporters after the briefing before the Senate Banking Committee, Kirk described it as “fairly anti-Israeli” and seemed to put more trust in intelligence assessments apparently given to him by Israeli officials than in Kerry’s official presentation.
“I was supposed to disbelieve everything the Israelis had just told me, and I think the Israelis probably have a pretty good intelligence service,” Kirk said. He revealed that the Israelis had told him that the “total changes proposed set back the program by 24 days.”
According to the Buzzfeed news site, a Senate aide familiar with the meeting said that “every time anybody would say anything about ‘what would the Israelis say,’ they’d get cut off and Kerry would say, ‘You have to ignore what they’re telling you, stop listening to the Israelis on this.’”
“They had no details,” the aide said. “They had no ability to verify anything, to describe anything, to answer basic questions.”
Kirk also adopted the Israeli comparisons of the Iran deal to the Munich Agreement, saying: “Today is the day I witnessed the future of nuclear war in the Middle East.”
Buzzfeed reporter Rosie Gray said that Democrats coming out of the meeting were tight-lipped, with Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) the only one who said anything further than “no comment.”
“I have trust and faith in Secretary Kerry’s ability and his intentions in making sure we find the path” to keeping Iran from going nuclear, Manchin said.
Kerry told reporters after his meeting: “Our hope is that no new sanctions would be put in place for the simple reason that, if they are, it could be viewed as bad faith by the people we are negotiating with. It could destroy the ability to be able to get agreement and it could actually wind up setting us back in dialogue that’s taken 30 years to achieve.”
Earlier, State Department spokesperson Jen Paski used unusually blunt and undiplomatic language to dismiss claims made on Tuesday by Israeli Minister Yuval Steinitz that the proposed deal with Iran would cut 40% of the value of the current sanctions regime and would give Tehran a $40 billion benefit.
“Without going into specifics about what we’re considering, that number, I can assure you, is inaccurate, exaggerated, and not based in reality,” she said.
The cross exchanges also continued between the White House and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with the latter telling the Knesset in the morning the “bad deal” with Iran could ultimately lead to war, while White House spokesperson Jay Carney retorted that scuttling a deal by imposing new sanctions could “open the door to confrontation.”
Netanyahu’s ranting is making Israel irrelevant, an insufferable nuisance, and it is causing a fissure in relations with its greatest friend.
By Zvi Bar’el, Ha’aretz
November 13, 2013
If they don’t let us bomb Iran, we’ll bomb the United States. That seems to be the new Israeli strategy in the face of the Iranian nuclear threat. That was the strategy in the Marx Brothers’ movie ”Duck Soup,” in which the little debt-ridden country of Freedonia did battle and beat another mythical country, Sylvania. If their remarks hadn’t been connected to such a serious crisis, the sharp, witless dialogue between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry could provide an excellent basis for a skit, one that would culminate in Netanyahu landing a resounding slap on Kerry’s face, while in the background President Barack Obama announces America’s surrender.
Like many other countries in the region, Israel, too, is beginning to portray the United States as a real enemy. After the crisis with Egypt, which is taking the U.S. administration to task over the sanctions it imposed as a result of the Egyptian army’s seizure of power in July, and like Saudi Arabia, which declared its intention to change its America policy due to what the kingdom sees as a strategic U.S. rapprochement with Iran, Israel is now adopting a crazy policy. It is suddenly becoming an ally of the anti-American axis. It’s like a fly that hitched a ride on an elephant and is suddenly enamored of all the dust the two are kicking up.
“Many of the Arab states see eye-to-eye with Israel when it comes to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said at a conference making the 40th anniversary of David Ben-Gurion’s death. It is doubtful that an alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel would cause Netanyahu to adopt the Saudi peace initiative on the Palestinian issue, but who remembers that when the two countries face a horrible threat from the United States at their doorstep?
Netanyahu is having a very hard time coming to grips with the fact that Israel was just the warm-up act. Israel got the international show up and running and was correct in presenting the Iranian threat as a threat against the whole world and not just against Israel. If it had not been for the rhetoric of violence and the threat of an attack on Iran, it’s possible the sanctions that were imposed on Tehran would have stalled rather than reached their current level. And without these sanctions, it is doubtful Iran would have changed its strategy and turned to the option of quick, flexible negotiations, a resumption of contact with the United States and a push for a quick resolution of the issue.
Netanyahu’s success made him believe he could continue dictating the international approach, decide the nature of the sanctions on Iran, and even force an international consensus behind the military option as a live one. But Netanyahu’s success blinded him, and now he believes he can set the terms of an agreement with Iran, challenge American policy and walk away from the process if his instructions are not carried out.
But the resolution of the crisis has passed into the hands of the major powers, and Israel is not one of them. The prior consensus behind a punitive approach is waning while the new consensus, the diplomatic one, is taking its place. Netanyahu’s ranting is making Israel irrelevant, an insufferable nuisance, and it is causing a fissure in relations with its greatest friend.
One can understand his arguments, but as long as he threatens that Israel will act on its own against Iran and that “Israel is not bound by any agreement reached with Iran,” what does he care what agreement is stitched together between Tehran and the major powers? After all, from the beginning he didn’t believe in diplomatic moves vis-à-vis the Iranians. All of a sudden, Washington has betrayed Netanyahu and betrayal of him means betrayal of Israel, world Jewry and the memory of the Holocaust.
Undoubtedly the time has come to occupy Washington. It is the genuine enemy that is leading the world to the precipice and threatening Israel’s existence. Therefore, we stand ready to commit suicide in battle against the United States as long as we emerge as having been right. We’ll agree to a compromise only if we retain the right to veto the agreements made in the negotiations with Iran. So you see, countries, too, can suffer from a Napoleon complex.
By Jonathan Weisman and Michael R. Gordon
November 13, 2013
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. pressed senators on Wednesday to give the Obama administration some breathing room to reach an accord with Iran to freeze its nuclear programs, warning that a new round of sanctions could mean war instead of diplomacy.
But they faced extreme skepticism from lawmakers in both parties who worry the administration is prepared to give the Iranian government too much for too little.
Mr. Kerry, briefing the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, made his case against the committee’s moving forward with a proposal for new sanctions even as Western diplomats were talking about easing existing sanctions in exchange for concessions on Iran’s nuclear program.
Moving too soon on a new round amounted to “getting in the way of diplomacy,” he said, suggesting that Congress could always act later.
“Let’s give them a few weeks, see if it works and we have all our options at our disposal,” he told reporters as he ducked into the closed-door meeting.
The briefing was part of an all-out effort by the administration both to tamp down congressional saber rattling and to move diplomacy forward to reach the agreement that proved elusive over the weekend in Geneva. President Obama has made a flurry of calls to the leaders of Britain and France ahead of a resumption of nuclear negotiations in Geneva on Nov. 21 and 22. On Tuesday night, he called Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, to discuss Iran, among other issues.
Mr. Biden met with the Democratic Congressional leadership, and on Thursday, administration officials will hold briefings for House leaders and members of the Senate.
Administration officials say they are in striking distance of an agreement that would halt much of Iran’s nuclear program for six months. The aim would be to freeze the program, and even roll back some of it, so the United States and its partners would have time to pursue more comprehensive talks with the Iranians. Easing sanctions would be part of an interim deal and would be done by providing the Iranians with access to frozen funds. But the officials say they would not remove the core sanctions as part of an initial agreement.
Critics in Congress and in Israel, however, say that economic pressure led the Iranians back to the negotiating table and that it would be a mistake to ease the pressure now.
“The American people justifiably and understandably prefer a peaceful solution that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and this agreement, if it’s achieved, has the potential to do that,” said Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman. “So as this legislation is being considered, members of Congress need to ask themselves: Do they believe diplomacy should be the first resort, or should we open the door to confrontation? And what — why not wait and see if diplomacy can be successful in this case?”
But the skepticism is bipartisan. Mr. Reid, a Democrat, said, “I hope we can work something out with Iran, but I am a person who really believes in the state of Israel.”
“Our concern over here in dealing with the nuclear capability of Iran is one thing,” he continued. “Put your mind-set that you’re in Israel. There are not thousands of miles separating you. It’s scores of miles. What we do has to be done right.”
After meeting with top administration officials, including Mr. Biden and Mr. Kerry, Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Democrat, said: “I am dubious of the proportionality of the deal. While I am exploring further details, I am worried that we are reducing sanctions while Iran is not reducing its nuclear capabilities.”
Representative Eliot L. Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a critic of the administration’s negotiating stance, said action on a new round of sanctions would actually help negotiations by allowing diplomats to say that absent major Iranian concessions, Mr. Obama’s hands will be tied by Congress.
Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested that the administration might be shedding “crocodile tears” over the possibility of new sanctions. But Mr. Kerry made the case that moving forward with sanctions, either in the committee or as an amendment to a defense policy bill next week, could not only end negotiations with Iran but lead to a military confrontation.
Treasury officials also briefed senators on Wednesday, assuring them that any sanctions relief offered in an interim accord to freeze nuclear development would be dwarfed by the amount of revenue Iran would continue to lose under the sanctions still in place. They noted that Iran had turned down the initial offer, and they told lawmakers that “no one is suggesting an open-ended delay for new sanctions,” according to a Treasury official.
Administration officials also argue that the imposition of new sanctions by Congress might prompt the United States’ allies to conclude that Washington, not Tehran, is responsible for any strains in the talks. That could backfire, State Department officials insist, by undermining international support for new sanctions.
The imposition of new sanctions “would send the wrong message to the international community,” Ms. Psaki said.
For White House, Bitter Split With Israel Undoes Years of Careful Progress
Can Barack Obama Mend Fences on Peace Talks and Iran?
By Nathan Guttman, Jewish Forward
November 15, 2013
WASHINGTON — In just a few days, the Obama administration’s years-long effort to mend fences with Israel and build a working relationship with its prime minister seems to have crumbled, as Jerusalem and Washington seem caught up in a brutal and deepening exchange of mutual accusations.
The disagreements erupted with the looming arrival of decision points for the two most sensitive issues in the relationship between Israel and the United States: a nuclear deal with Iran, and the expansion of exclusively Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
By coming at the same time, experts say, the distinct clashes over these two issues have combined to erase much of the progress made in the past year between Washington and Jerusalem.
“I think things are actually worse now than they were in the time of Shamir and Bush,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel from the United States.
Kurtzer, who is now a professor of Middle East policy at Princeton University, was referring to the overlapping tenures of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and President George H.W. Bush in the late 1980s and early ’90s — a period characterized by some of the worst tensions in the history of the two countries’ relationship.
Kurtzer was not alone in ranking the current crisis as worse. Exacerbating the dispute is the fact that Israel is now perceived as actively backing an aggressive lobbying campaign in Congress to abort an administrative initiative. Similar fights in the past, whether concerning loan guarantees to Israel or arms sales to Israel’s neighbors, all ended with scars carved deeply into the relationship for years.
“These things cause a cumulative damage to our image in the United States and in the Jewish community,” said Itamar Rabinovich, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington from 1993 to 1996. Rabinovich, now president of the Israel Institute, warned that Israel is increasingly being viewed “as a trouble maker,” an image that makes Americans distance themselves from Israel. “You think you’re over the crisis and things roll on, but then you see the polls showing that the young generation doesn’t want to get involved with Israel anymore.”
The latest spat unfolded in less than a week. It began with an Israeli announcement of new building plans for the West Bank settlements. The move, a well-known routine in the Middle East peace process playbook, involved an announcement by Israel of its intent to expand West Bank Jewish settlements in order to quell internal protests over perceived concessions to the Palestinians. But the move apparently irked Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in the region.
In a joint interview with Israel’s Channel 2 TV and the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation, Kerry lashed out at the Israeli government for its settlement moves and, more broadly, for its hard-line stance in ongoing peace negotiations, which are reportedly now at a standstill.
“What is the alternative to peace?” Kerry asked while suggesting that Israel’s continued settlement activity could raise questions about how serious it is in its stated wish to advance the peace process. “The alternative to getting back to the talks is the potential of chaos. “I mean, does Israel want a third intifada?”
Kerry’s invocation of the possibility of a new Palestinian uprising far exceeded America’s standard condemnation of settlement activity. Some American officials and experts have since speculated that it reflected his anger at leaks from the prime minister’s office suggesting that the United States gave its tacit agreement to the new settlement activity.
Kerry’s harsh words were still echoing in the Israeli media when news came from Geneva that Iran and the six countries negotiating with it on the nuclear issue were about to reach a historic breakthrough. Senior ministers from the six countries, including Kerry for the United States, converged on Geneva for the expected signing of an interim agreement. The deal reportedly would have curbed Iran’s ongoing enrichment of uranium, which many experts suspect is for developing nuclear weapons, in exchange for a partial lifting of international sanctions against Iran. This was then to be followed by negotiations for a permanent long-term agreement.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not wait for the conclusion of the weekend meetings; he condemned the agreement nearing completion as “bad and dangerous” for Israel. Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister in charge of Diaspora affairs, sent a letter to Jewish leaders in America and across the world, urging them to pressure their governments not to go ahead with the Iranian deal.
The whole matter ground to a halt when France’s foreign minister unexpectedly refused at the last minute to sign the draft agreement that all had participated in developing. But Kerry made clear in public appearances that he was less than happy with Israel’s response as the episode unfolded.
“We are not blind, and I don’t think we’re stupid,” Kerry told NBC’s David Gregory in an interview, suggesting that America did not appreciate being told how to deal with Iran.
On TV news shows and in public statements in the days that followed, the Iran issue and the settlements disagreement were frequently mixed together. This generated a kind of negative synergy. In the past, both sides have gone to great lengths to dispel any notion of linkage between the two issues. Now, the pace of developments on the ground was combining with an Israeli perception that America was applying pressure on both fronts simultaneously to tie the two issues together into one, much larger crisis.
Netanyahu seemed aware of this complicating factor on November 12, when he sought to ease tensions on the Palestinian front and focus on Iran. The Israeli prime minister ordered a hold on a planning process for the building of 24,000 new housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In a statement, the prime minister’s office made clear Netanyahu believed new settlement planning now would create an unnecessary clash with the international community at a time in which support is needed to block the Iranian deal.
The history of U.S.-Israel relations has known other low points, more often than many remember. The list includes President Eisenhower’s stern warning in 1956 to Israeli leader David Ben-Gurion that relations would be damaged if Israel did not immediately withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula; Henry Kissinger’s 1975 threat of a “reassessment” of. relations between the United States and Israel; and Jimmy Carter’s disputes with Menachem Begin over the Israeli-Egyptian peace process. President Reagan also got into several angry public disputes with Begin over the sale of advanced surveillance aircrafts to Saudi Arabia, Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, Israel’s 1981 bombing of Iraq’s nuclear facility and its 1982 siege of Beirut.
Still, most experts agree that the lowest point in recent decades was in 1991, when George H.W. Bush and James Baker, his secretary of state, locked horns with Shamir over Washington’s demand that Israel cease its settlement activity on the West Bank as a condition for receiving $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees to help it absorb Jews from the Former Soviet Union.
The American stance, Shamir said then, “damages the deepest foundations of Jewish and Zionist existence.”
Pro-Israel forces in America pushed against imposition of America’s condition for the guarantees, leading Bush to publicly describe himself as “one lonely little guy” up against “some powerful political forces” made up of “a thousand lobbyists on the Hill.” Bush won the battle. But critics accused the president of conjuring an image often invoked by anti-Semites — an intent the president angrily denied.
Aaron David Miller, a senior American peace negotiator over several administrations, including George H.W. Bush’s, agreed with Kurtzer that the current crisis was worse. He called the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu “the most dysfunctional relationship” any American and Israeli leaders have ever had. Still, Miller, who is now vice president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said that the U.S.-Israel relationship, unlike the Lehman Brothers investment house, is “way too big to fail.”
Until the current blow-up, it had seemed like things were on the mend between the two strategically tied partners, after several rough patches between Obama and Netanyahu. One early clash came in 2010, when Vice President Joe Biden came to Jerusalem on a good will visit and was greeted on arrival with an announcement that Israel intended to build 1,600 new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian side of the city, whose final status Israel has agreed to negotiate with the Palestinians. A year later, Netanyahu spoke out strongly against Obama’s call for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to create a Palestinian state that would be based on Israel’s 1967 borders, with adjustments to account for some of Israel’s settlements.
After Obama’s re-election, the Americans made a concerted effort to put relations back on track. The move culminated in Obama’s successful visit to Israel last March and in warmer working relations between the two leaders.
The resolution of the current crisis will depend, to a great extent, on how Israel and the United States gear up for the next round of talks with Iran, which are scheduled for November 20. At a mass gathering of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem on November 10, Netanyahu made clear his resolve to fight against the still pending interim agreement, and his expectation that American Jews must sign on. Invoking memories of the Holocaust, the Israeli leader stressed the urgent need to stop the deal. “That’s what I expect from every one of you,” he told the leaders, “and I know it’s achievable.”
As the battle shifts to Capitol Hill, pro-Israel organizations now seem determined to use all their clout to push for a tougher stance against Iran. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is planning a “fly in” of its members soon, according to congressional sources, in which key activists and donors from across the country will descend on Washington to lobby their representatives to back increased economic sanctions against Iran — a move the administration adamantly opposes while the current talks with Iran continue.
The prospect of an open battle between mainstream American Jewish leaders and the Obama administration struck Kurtzer as a nightmare in the making. “There needs to be no active lobbying on the Hill against the administration,” he said. “If there will be lobbying, then we’re not getting out of this so fast.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com or on Twitter @nathanguttman
Notes and links
Israel’s Netanyahu takes case against Iran deal to U.S. TV Reuters reports on Netanyahu’s appeal to Americans to reject ‘very bad deal’ with Iran;
Report: Israel, Gulf States in Secret Talks over Iran
High-profile Israeli and Gulf diplomats held a series of meetings “overseen by Netanyahu.”
By Arutz Sheva/Reuters, October 5th 2013
Israel is negotiating an unlikely diplomatic alliance with several Gulf and Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, Channel 2 has reported.
Israel eyes anti-Iran security pact with gulf states, UPI, October 3rd, 2013
William Hague says nuclear deal with Iran is ‘on table’ and ‘could be done’
After failure of Geneva talks on Iran’s nuclear programme, the Foreign Secretary says that progress was made and the gaps are ‘narrow’- Telegraph, October 10th, 2013
Brewing Israel-U.S. crisis
Ha’aretz, November 11th: At the UN General Assembly, US ambassador to UN Dan Shapiro says:
“There is no greater priority for the United States and Israel than preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Shapiro said. “On this issue the United Stated and Israel share an identical objective. [Obama] will not permit Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, period.”
Peres’ and Shapiro’s comments contrast with recent speeches by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in which he called a recent deal proposed by the U.S. regarding Iran’s nuclear program “a bad deal.”