US turns against Bibi for 'playing us for fools'

January 29, 2015
Sarah Benton

Nancy Pelosi, Democrats’ leader in the House of Representatives and former 60th Speaker of the House, 2007-2011, warns Netanyahu that his intended speech to Congress will harm negotiations with Iran

The Netanyahu Disaster

The Israeli prime minister has two main tasks, and he’s failing at both.

Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic
January 27, 2015

Benjamin Netanyahu believes he has just one job, and that is to stop Iran from getting hold of nuclear weapons. He might argue that this description of his mission as Israel’s prime minister is too limiting, though such an argument would not be particularly credible. Israel’s very existence, he has argued, consistently, and at times convincingly, is predicated on stopping Iran, a country ruled by a regime that seeks both Israel’s annihilation and the means to carry it out.

Netanyahu’s options are limited. A country possessing scientific knowledge, material resources, and the will to cross the nuclear threshold is very difficult to stop. One way for Netanyahu to stop Iran, or to slow down its progress toward a bomb, would be to launch a preventative attack on its nuclear facilities. He has threatened to do so (credibly, according to officials of the Obama administration) but he has not yet done it, perhaps because American warnings against such a strike have been dire; perhaps because he understands that such an attack might not work; or perhaps because he is by nature cautious, despite his rhetoric.

Whatever the case, the only other way for Netanyahu to stop Iran would be to convince the president of the United States, the leader of the nation that is Israel’s closest ally and most crucial benefactor, to confront Iran decisively. An Israeli strike could theoretically set back Iran’s nuclear program, but only the U.S. has the military capabilities to set back the program in anything approaching a semi-permanent way. And only the United States has the throw-weight to organize sanctions regimes of lasting consequence.

For several years, Netanyahu and President Obama, despite their mutual loathing, worked more or less in tandem on this issue. Netanyahu traveled the world arguing for stringent sanctions, and Obama did much the same. In fact, Obama used Netanyahu’s tough posture to America’s advantage: On several occasions, Obama and officials in his administration played good cop/bad cop, telling other world leaders that toughening sanctions on Iran would be the only way to forestall an Israeli attack, and this line of argument often proved effective.

Obama, who has argued that a nuclear Iran poses a “profound” national-security threat to the U.S., believed that pressure was a means to an end—the end, of course, being negotiations. A negotiated neutralization of the Iranian nuclear threat would be in the best interests of the U.S. and its Middle East allies, he argued, and he has worked assiduously to keep Netanyahu from taking precipitous action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, even as he used the threat to his advantage.

Netanyahu does not appear to believe that negotiations will bring about an end to the Iranian threat. He believes that any settlement agreed to by Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader, would necessarily be, from the Israeli perspective, hopelessly weak. There is good reason to be sympathetic to this argument. Doubts about Iranian intentions are warranted, as is skepticism about the zeal with which the West is seeking such an agreement. But there is good reason to sympathize with Obama and his negotiators as well. They believe that a negotiated settlement that promises to keep Iran perpetually a year or more from the nuclear threshold, and provides for intrusive inspections of Iranian facilities, is far from perfect, but better than the alternative, which is eventual confrontation.

Thus, a conundrum, one with greater consequences for Netanyahu and his country than for Obama and his, because of Israel’s small size, relative lack of power, and close physical proximity to Iran.

Faced with this conundrum—an American president who he believes is willing to strike a flawed deal with Iran—Netanyahu has made the second-worst choice he could make. He has not attacked Iran, which is good—an Israeli attack holds the promise of disaster—but he has decided to ruin his relations with Obama.

To be sure, the Obama administration does not make it particularly easy on Netanyahu. For instance, early in Obama’s first term, senior officials in his administration were quasi-openly rooting for Tzipi Livni to replace him as prime minister.

But, unfortunately for Netanyahu, it is incumbent upon the junior partner in the Israel-U.S. relationship to maintain an even keel in the relationship. Netanyahu, grappling with a fear that Obama will go wobbly on Iran, could have tried a long time ago to create a discreet, continuous, and respectful dialogue in advance of the conclusion of negotiations, in order to try to shape the president’s thinking, and—this is important—to work with Obama on issues that interest the United States (advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, for instance, by taking the initiative once in a blue moon) in order to make the American side understand that his government is interested in giving, not merely in taking.

Instead, Netanyahu chose to make a desperate-seeming end-run around the president and attempted to appeal directly to Congress to oppose a decision Obama has not yet made. In a plan concocted by Ron Dermer, who serves as Netanyahu’s ambassador to the U.S., the speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, invited Netanyahu to address Congress on the dangers of a nuclear deal and the need for tougher sanctions, without first informing the White House.

The flaws in this approach are many. Obama administration officials have already felt disrespected by Netanyahu (recall his condescending, and public, Oval Office lecture to the president), and so this latest violation of protocol set their teeth on edge. Another flaw: The Obama administration is trying to create conditions so that if the negotiations do collapse, it will be the Iranians who get the blame, not the Americans. Legislating new sanctions—even delayed, triggered sanctions—would give the Iranians the excuse to quit negotiations and blame the U.S. Such a situation would not help Obama maintain the strong international sanctions regime that has stayed in place through the past year of talks. (Actually passing legislation now also seems superfluous; only the most obtuse Iranian leader would fail to realize that a failure in the negotiations process would lead to more sanctions.)

An even more obvious flaw: John Boehner is not the commander-in-chief, and does not make U.S. foreign policy. Netanyahu might find Boehner’s approach to Iran more politically and emotionally satisfying than Obama’s, but this is irrelevant. Yes, Congress can pass new sanctions against Iran, but it is the executive branch that drives U.S. Iran policy. Barack Obama will be president for two more years, and it makes absolutely no sense for an Israeli leader to side so ostentatiously with a sitting American president’s domestic political opposition.

Netanyahu appears to believe that his mission is singular, but Israeli prime ministers, in fact, have two main tasks. The first is to protect their country from existential threats. The second: To work very hard to stay on the good side of the president and people of the United States. Success in accomplishing this first task is sometimes predicated on achieving this second task.

Israel has been, for several decades, a bipartisan cause in Washington. Bipartisan support accounts for the ease with which Israeli prime ministers have historically been heard in Washington; it accounts for the generous aid packages Israel receives; and it also explains America’s commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge.

Netanyahu’s management of his relationship with Obama threatens the bipartisan nature of Israel’s American support. His Dermer-inspired, Boehner-enabled end-run has alienated three crucially important constituencies. First, the administration itself: Netanyahu’s estrangement from the Obama White House now appears to be permanent. It will be very difficult for Netanyahu to make the White House hear his criticisms of whatever deal may one day be reached with Iran.

Netanyahu has also alienated many elected Democrats, including Jewish Democrats on Capitol Hill. One Jewish member of Congress told me that he felt humiliated and angered by Netanyahu’s ploy to address Congress “behind the president’s back.” A non-Jewish Democratic elected official texted me over the weekend to say that the damage Netanyahu is doing to Israel’s relationship with the U.S. may be “irreparable.”

A larger group that Netanyahu risks alienating is American Jewry, or at least the strong majority of American Jews that has voted for Obama twice. Netanyahu’s decision to pit U.S. political party against U.S. political party—because that is what his end-run does—puts American Jewish supporters of Israel in a messy, uncomfortable spot, and it is not in Israel’s interest to place American Jews in a position in which they have to choose between their president and the leader of a Jewish state whose behavior is making them queasy.

Why doesn’t Netanyahu understand that alienating Democrats is not in the best interest of his country? From what I can tell, he doubts that Democrats are—or will be shortly—a natural constituency for Israel, and he clearly believes that Obama is a genuine adversary. As I reported last year, in an article that got more attention for a poultry-related epithet an administration official directed at Netanyahu than anything else, Netanyahu has told people he has “written off” Obama.

I should have, at the time, explored the slightly unreal notion that an Israeli prime minister would even contemplate “writing off” an American president (though I did predict that Netanyahu would take his case directly to Congress). I still don’t understand Netanyahu’s thinking. It is immaterial whether an Israeli prime minister finds an American president agreeable or not. A sitting president cannot be written off by a small, dependent ally, without terrible consequences.

As Ron Dermer’s predecessor in Washington, Michael Oren, said in reaction to this latest Netanyahu blow-up: “It’s advisable to cancel the speech to Congress so as not to cause a rift with the American government. Much responsibility and reasoned political behavior are needed to guard interests in the White House.”

Oren, though appointed ambassador by Netanyahu, is now running for Knesset on another party’s line. When he was in Washington, he worried more about the state of Israel’s bipartisan support than almost any other issue. He recently criticized Netanyahu, albeit indirectly, for risking Israel’s relations with the U.S.:

Today, more than ever, it is clear that Israel-U.S. relations are the foundation of any economic, security, and diplomatic approach. It is our responsibility to strengthen those ties immediately.

There is hypocrisy in the discussion of the Netanyahu-Boehner end-run. It is not unprecedented for foreign leaders to lobby Congress directly; the Arab states opposed to Iran do it all the time, and the British prime minister, David Cameron, lobbied Congress earlier this month on behalf of Obama’s Iran policy, and against the arguments of the Republicans.

But the manner and execution and overall tone-deafness of Netanyahu’s recent ploy suggest that he—and his current ambassador—don’t understand how to manage Israel’s relationships in Washington. Netanyahu wants a role in shaping the Iranian nuclear agreement, should one materialize. His recent actions suggest that he doesn’t quite know what he’s doing.

Netanyahu Talk Stirs Backlash in Israeli Race

By Jodi Rudoren, NY Times
January 27, 2015

Michael B. Oren, who spent four years as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ambassador to Washington, has called on Mr. Netanyahu to cancel his speech to Congress about Iran. Amos Yadlin, a former military intelligence chief who frequently briefed the Israeli prime minister on security matters, denounced the event as “irresponsible.”

Both men criticized their former boss for politicizing issues vital to Israel’s future. Both also have their own political motives: Mr. Oren is running for Parliament with a new center-right party, and Mr. Yadlin is the defense-minister designee of the center-left party Zionist Camp.

If Mr. Netanyahu imagined that the speech, scheduled for two weeks before the March 17 elections in Israel, would bolster his status as statesman, the undiplomatic way it was arranged has instead given his challengers an opening to undermine his main campaign platform. The backlash, not only from the White House but also from congressional Democrats, has reverberated in Israel, where maintaining bipartisan support in Congress is considered as crucial as preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. On Tuesday Senate Democrats who had been pushing a new sanctions bill against Iran — which Mr. Netanyahu supports — said they would hold off a vote until late March, handing the Obama adminstration a victory.

As in America, conservatives like Mr. Netanyahu tend to have the advantage when election campaigns are about security, and so far his opponents have emphasized pocketbook issues and corruption. But political analysts say that international isolation is a prime public concern of Israelis, and that attacking Mr. Netanyahu for deteriorating relations with Washington, Israel’s main defender on the world stage, could be a winning message in a tightening race.

“It’s a huge miscalculation,” said Eytan Gilboa, a professor at Bar Ilan University who specializes in political communication and Israeli-American relations. “People are now questioning his judgment. If the opposition would not just focus on economic and social issues, but also argue against his claims on security and foreign policy, I think this exercise might backfire.”

The invitation to address a joint meeting of Congress to make the case for new sanctions on Iran came from the House speaker, John A. Boehner, a Republican. Mr. Boehner did not consult either the Obama administration or his Democratic counterparts, something several veteran diplomats described as unprecedented. The White House responded with its own snub, announcing that President Obama, who has promised to veto any new sanctions, would not meet with Mr. Netanyahu while he was in town.

Senate Democrats who had been pushing the new sanctions bill said Tuesday that they would hold off a vote until late March. And while officials on both sides say the underlying security and intelligence co-operation between the United States and Israel will continue, some political analysts close to the Obama administration say it may not work as hard to rally its allies to Israel’s side in critical forums like the United Nations.

Mr. Netanyahu, who has made the Iranian nuclear program a mainstay of his career, insists his motivations are not political and declared on Sunday: “I will go anywhere I am invited in order to enunciate the state of Israel’s position and in order to defend its future and its existence.” Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington who orchestrated the invitation with Mr. Boehner, said at an event in Florida that speaking out on Iran was the prime minister’s “deepest moral obligation” and “most sacred duty.”

Yaakov Amidror, Mr. Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, said that “about the issue of Iran he is willing to go very far.”

“He is ready to do everything to prevent it from being signed, what he thinks is a bad agreement, to risk many things,” Mr. Amidror said of Mr. Netanyahu. “It is only because from his point of view he should prevent something that is so critical to be materialized that he allows himself to make moves that otherwise he would not.”

Experts on Iran said they did not see any new developments in the continuing nuclear negotiations, or in the differences between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu, that might explain the timing of the speech, or what appeared to be the willingness to risk the repercussions of its unorthodox arrangement. Some critics of the prime minister fear that the whole episode is strengthening Iran’s hand.

Israeli and American commentators have described a toxic mix of political considerations in both countries — a touch of pre-election panic by Mr. Netanyahu meeting up with Mr. Boehner’s opportunism. Many have called it self-promotion with a high cost, clumsy at best, if not cynical.

“It’s proven again that what we export best as Israelis is chutzpah,” said Mitchell Barak, a Jerusalem political consultant and pollster. Nahum Barnea, a leading Israeli columnist, said Mr. Netanyahu “lost the major benefit” of the speech because “the whole idea is now contaminated.”

David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said that “unless Netanyahu changes the date it’s hard to escape the view that this was deliberate.”

“If it’s really all about Iran, then make it all about Iran,” said Mr. Makovsky, who worked for Secretary of State John Kerry on the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that collapsed last spring. “I understand why he wants to make his case, but let him do it after the Israeli elections. Iran and bipartisan U.S.-Israel ties are too vital to be politicized.”

Mr. Netanyahu, whose relationship with Mr. Obama has been rocky from the start, was also accused of meddling in the 2012 presidential campaign by embracing the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, in Jerusalem. The appointment of Mr. Dermer, who grew up in Florida and once worked for a Republican pollster, has hardly helped.

With Israeli polls showing Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party and the Zionist Camp running about even, candidates were quick to make hay of the congressional controversy, which dominated headlines in Israel for four days.

Isaac Herzog, the leading challenger for the premiership, said on Army Radio, “What Netanyahu is doing with this violent behaviour is to harm the security interests of Israel.” Mr. Herzog’s partner in the Zionist Camp, Tzipi Livni — a former foreign minister who has made her relationships with foreign leaders a prime campaign point — called the speech “gravely irresponsible.”

Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, a centrist faction focused mainly on economic issues, warned, “This damage will take a long time to mend.”

Yehuda Ben Meir, an expert on public opinion at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said surveys had consistently shown that Israelis see a decrease in American support and a nuclear-armed Iran “as the two most serious threats, almost equal in severity.” Israelis are highly critical of Mr. Obama, and may appreciate Mr. Netanyahu’s standing up to him, but losing congressional Democrats, Mr. Ben Meir said, would play differently.

“Most people in Israel feel or think or believe that mainly this was done for internal political reasons,” Mr. Ben Meir said. “His base may say he went because of the Iranian issue, but those swing voters — and what’s important is always the swing vote — it could among certain parts of the electorate harm him. It might be that he didn’t properly estimate the fallout.”

Pelosi warns Netanyahu: Speech to Congress will hurt Iran talks

By Mike Lillis, The Hill
January 28, 2015

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) this week warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that his coming speech before Congress threatens to sink the nuclear talks between Iran and the United States.

“I think that such a presentation could send the wrong message,” the House Democratic leader told reporters during the Democrats’ annual issues retreat in Philadelphia. “That’s my view, and I shared that with the prime minister today.”

A Pelosi spokesman said Pelosi and Netanyahu spoke by phone earlier in the day. The spokesman declined to characterize Netanyahu’s response.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) raised eyebrows last week when he announced that Netanyahu had accepted his invitation to address a rare joint session of Congress early this year — an invitation extended without consulting Democratic leaders in Congress or the White House.

Boehner defended the action, saying Congress has every right, as a separate branch of government, to operate without the administration’s input. But Pelosi was quick to criticize Boehner’s move as a breach of protocol, saying such invitations to heads of state have always been preceded by consultations with leaders from the opposing party.

The debate arrives amid high-stakes negotiations between Iran and the United States, among a handful of other western nations, over the future of Iran’s nuclear program.

Obama is seeking to ease Iran sanctions as part of a deal to end its nuclear weapons program, setting a deadline for late March.

Republicans and some Democrats have urged stronger sanctions, although a number of Democratic senators this week eased the pressure to allow the negotiations to run their full course.

Adding to the controversy, Netanyahu’s speech, slated for March 3, comes just a few weeks ahead of a contentious national election in Israel.

Pelosi on Wednesday emphasized that Israel is a vital U.S. ally, and characterized Netanyahu as “a respected leader.” But she’s also wary of the effect of the speech on the Iran talks.

“It’s a serious big honor that we extend. That it should be extended two weeks before an election in a country without collaboration among the leaders of Congress, and without collaboration with the White House, is not appropriate,” Pelosi said.

“But the bigger issue is what would that do … to see how diplomacy will work or not [in the Iran talks]. If it doesn’t work, we have to determine a course of action. But our strength in determining whatever course of action that is, I think, springs from the fact that we gave diplomacy a chance.”

Why are U.S. officials trash-talking Netanyahu?

By Daniel W. Drezner. Washington Post
October 29, 2014

Two stories broke last night that, combined, indicate that U.S.-Israeli relations have moved just a bit outside the normal contours of the warm bilateral relationship..

First, the Wall Street Journal reports on how the United States appears to be tacitly and not-so-tacitly co-ordinating with Iran across a range of Greater Middle East issues:

The Obama administration and Iran, engaged in direct nuclear negotiations and facing a common threat from Islamic State militants, have moved into an effective state of détente over the past year, according to senior U.S. and Arab officials….

recent months have ushered in a change as the two countries have grown into alignment on a spectrum of causes, chief among them promoting peaceful political transitions in Baghdad and Kabul and pursuing military operations against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, according to these officials.

The Obama administration also has markedly softened its confrontational stance toward Iran’s most important non-state allies, the Palestinian militant group Hamas and the Lebanese militant and political organization, Hezbollah. American diplomats, including Secretary of State John Kerry, negotiated with Hamas leaders through Turkish and Qatari intermediaries during cease-fire talks in July that were aimed at ending the Palestinian group’s rocket attacks on Israel, according to senior U.S. officials.

U.S. intelligence agencies have repeatedly tipped off Lebanese law-enforcement bodies close to Hezbollah about threats posed to Beirut’s government by Sunni extremist groups, including al Qaeda and its affiliate Nusra Front in Syria, Lebanese and U.S. officials said.

None of this is going to make Israel happy. One could chalk it up to simple realpolitik that will erode once the Islamic State is contained. But then there’s the second story: Jeffrey Goldberg’s bombshell column in the Atlantic, in which myriad U.S. officials anonymously vent their true feelings toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

[R]elations between the Obama and Netanyahu governments have moved toward a full-blown crisis. The relationship between these two administrations — dual guarantors of the putatively “unbreakable” bond between the U.S. and Israel — is now the worst it’s ever been, and it stands to get significantly worse after the November midterm elections. By next year, the Obama administration may actually withdraw diplomatic cover for Israel at the United Nations, but even before that, both sides are expecting a showdown over Iran, should an agreement be reached about the future of its nuclear program.

The fault for this breakdown in relations can be assigned in good part to the junior partner in the relationship, Netanyahu, and in particular, to the behavior of his cabinet. Netanyahu has told several people I’ve spoken to in recent days that he has “written off” the Obama administration, and plans to speak directly to Congress and to the American people should an Iran nuclear deal be reached. For their part, Obama administration officials express, in the words of one official, a “red-hot anger” at Netanyahu for pursuing settlement policies on the West Bank, and building policies in Jerusalem, that they believe have fatally undermined Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace process.

Over the years, Obama administration officials have described Netanyahu to me as recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, and “Aspergery.” (These are verbatim descriptions; I keep a running list.) But I had not previously heard Netanyahu described as a “chickens**t.”

One could dismiss this as senior officials venting about an ally that has been incredibly rude to this White House again and again. The thing is, this comes on the heels of the Obama administration’s less-than-anonymous dissing of Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Also, using Goldberg as the venue for the Airing of Grievances changes things. Goldberg has excellent sources in both governments; it is unlikely that a U.S. official would vent to him without the express purpose of having the other side hear about it. No, there’s a reason that Goldberg’s column is now serving the same function as Key & Peele’s Luther.

And let’s face it, this is a cowardly move by whomever spoke to Goldberg. Even if one grants that the Netanyahu government has behaved pretty badly towards the Obama administration, this kind of response is sophomoric. Great powers are supposed to be the grown-ups in the green rooms. Even if Netanyahu fits the description in Goldberg’s column — and everything I have heard about him suggests that this is true — one doesn’t say this in print. Or, as Matt Duss tweeted last night:

Matt Duss ✔ @mattduss

Sure, Bibi and Company richly deserve the smack, but also a little sad to see US admin lower themselves to his level.
2:09 AM – 29 Oct 2014

So what’s going on? Is there a rational reason for this kind of talk? I think there might be, but let me stress at the outset that I’m spitballing here. I have no inside information to suggest it’s true, and it may very well be that Goldberg simply liquored up the right White House senior official.

The one thing this kind of trash-talking does is send a signal to Iran about the U.S. commitment to a nuclear deal. Bear in mind that in recent weeks the administration has made it cleat that it won’t be going to Congress to get approval for the permanent lifting of any Iran sanctions. But this raises the question for both Iranian negotiators and Iranian hardliners of just how much they can trust their American interlocutors to implement such a deal. Furthermore, Netanyahu’s persistent and bellicose rhetoric towards Tehran would also have to be a source of concern for the Iranians. If they cut a nuclear deal, they want it to be implemented and they want the shadow of military action lifted.

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