Saturday, August 8, 2015

Netanyahu and Obama On Collision Course

U.S. and Israel must renew engagement, and Obama's speech at Washington synagogue showed he's willing to reach out despite disagreements on Iran’s nuclear program, the president is reaching out to the Israeli government to find a way forward.

The Israeli prime minister has two main tasks, and he's failing at both in dealing with the Iran crisis which is an incredibly difficult situation but there is NO excuse for the antagonistic stance he has taken towards the Obama administration. He is playing with fire by so openly siding with the Republicans. Even if the US-Israeli friendship is "unshakable" that doesn't excuse hitting the foundation with a sledgehammer to test it.

Obama seems an eternal optimist who refuses to see the reality of the ongoing crisis in the Middle East and the dire threat to Israel. Contrast this with Netanyahu, who is realistic with possibly a tinge of pessimism regarding the situation with Iran and their entirely divergent personalities, and a clash was bound to happen between Jerusalem and the White House. The breakdown in the relationship between the U.S. and Israel is indeed deplorable. Americans even strong supporters of Israel cannot accept circumventing their President by involving internal politics with foreign problems, even when mutual concerns are brought forward by a traditional ally like Israel.

Internal politics play a dominating role in Israel for decades, but since the last “cliffhanger” victory that brought the present Netanyahu government to an impossible 61 mandate supported coalition, (from a 120 member Knesset) so that every single member move endangers its very existence. Thus the prime minister fights and everyday battle for political survival, becoming virtual “slave” to the extreme rightwing support he needs. This dictates an unfortunate policy of extremism, which has already caused raised eyebrows by Israel’s most loyal supporters around the world, especially in the USA.

The inevitable result is that Israel has a deluded and seemingly ridiculous superiority complex, which based in facts is little understood. While there is no doubt that Israel is a strong military nation with a long record of survival against superior odds, the reality is that Israel is a tiny country, which without American political and military support would be under severe stress to survive.

Not only its military aid is crucial, but also its economical relations are important. The US buys over a quarter of Israeli exports (more than the next 8 countries combined. And lets face the sheer facts during Israel’s most severe crisis, the Jewish Nation wouldn't have made it through the 1973 war without US military equipment sent during the war. It was surrounded by Soviet heavily armed Arab enemies and came extremely close to losing that war without Washington’s urgent support.

Again in a recent briefing before 22 Jewish leaders US President Barack Obama said that he is ready to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and discuss the necessary measures needed to make Israel feel safer after the Iran deal. According to Obama, sadly Netanyahu refused to hold a meeting, preferring to maintain his stance against the ongoing debate over the Iranian nuclear agreement which he considers endangering his country with an existential threat.

But there are those in Jerusalem who see matters different: "Yes, I am very concerned about the front that has been opened up between Obama and Netanyahu [and its impact on] relations with the United States," Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said in a Press review Rivlin, a traditional member of Netanyahu’s right wing Likud Party added, "The prime minister has waged a campaign against the US as if the two sides were equal," the president said. "And this is liable to hurt Israel itself. I must say that he understands the US better than I do, but, nonetheless, I must say that we are quite isolated internationally. Rivlin decried Netanyahu’s ongoing conflict with US President Barack Obama over the Iran issue. “We also need the world, even though many times we don’t agree with it,” he said, alluding to Netanyahu’s increasingly go-it-alone approach on the Islamic Republic’s controversial nuclear program, flying in the face of the US and European Union.

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, for a few years time and this, if implemented at all, at an unacceptable price. An attack under such circumstances would certainly not become a” walk in the Park’ as was the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor, back in 1981. In fact, if anyone could do neutralize the Iranian nuclear program indefinitely, it would be the US Air Force in a sustained campaign, 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 distrust, worked more or less in tandem on the Iranian issue. Netanyahu traveled the world arguing for stringent sanctions, and Obama did much the same. But 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.

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.

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.

Alarger 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.

At this stage the PM should have realized that the Iran deal train has left the station, conceded defeat and worked to minimize the damage he had inflicted on the bilateral relations. Moments like this can turn a prime minister into a leader.

Unfortunately for the majority of the Israeli people, it seems that this will not materialize. The deal with Iran has led to an openly hostile relationship between the Oval office and the Prime Minister's Residence. Even if Congress votes against the deal, it won't have the majority to override Obama's veto. This could have been Netanyahu's golden hour. He could have conceded that after making all that noise, invoking fear and warning the world, he could have said that in the face of no real alternatives he was taking his seat at the table, and accepting all the concessions the US was offering the IDF in order to boost its qualitative edge.