Yediot Aharonoth article by Chuck Freilich (translated by the author)
August 6, 2015
President Obama gave a special speech to the nation regarding the nuclear agreement with Iran. In practice, his words were directed to a large extent at the Jewish community, whose lobbying efforts may, from his perspective, be responsible for the agreement’s defeat in Congress. Never before in American history has the Jewish community been perceived to be a threat to a major presidential foreign policy initiative, and faced such unprecedented tension between its commitments as Americans and Jews. In all likelihood, there has also never been a situation which the American Jewish community so wished to avoid. Sort of a choice between mom and dad.
Obama’s speech reflects considerable presidential puzzlement. What does the Prime Minister of Israel want? No one who knows Congress believes that Netanyahu will really succeed in defeating the agreement in the crucial final vote, following a presidential veto. Maybe he wants a special aid package? No, Netanyahu refuses to even talk to Obama about this, at least until after the battle in Congress has played out.
Does Netanyahu really believe that he can force a better agreement on Iran? This is clearly not feasible for the foreseeable future, if at all: the Iranians, who are suspicious of the US in any event, will not believe that one can close a deal with it, and they too have domestic politics. Is he really trying to help place a Republican in the White House in the upcoming elections, despite the failure of all of his previous attempts to intervene in American politics? Or is the game really about Israeli domestic politics, and Netanyahu believes that his election to a further term, following a collapse of his coalition sometime in the near future, is dependent on the campaign of existential fear that he is waging?
These questions are particularly puzzling for Obama, given that defense cooperation between the two countries has never been deeper and that former senior officials in the Israeli defense establishment, including heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet, Atomic Energy Commission and IDF, believe that the agreement is good for Israel, or at least that the confrontation with the US is even worse.
Obama also knows how to play a campaign of fear. When referring in his speech to the agreement’s “critics”, the president hinted that Jewish Americans and Israel (and of course the Republicans) may be responsible for leading the US into another adventurous war in the Middle East, since the only practical alternative to the agreement with Iran, he maintains, is war. These very same “critics” who pressed for war with Iraq, he averred, are now raising similar claims in support of military action against Iran, despite the fact that they were wrong then, that thousands of American soldiers have been killed and that they now support the interim a deal with Iran, which they had criticized bitterly until recently.
The president stressed that the belief that a better deal can be achieved is a delusion and that the agreement achieved is a good one, not just because it provides a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but because even Israeli experts believe that it will postpone the danger of a nuclear Iran more than a military operation. Obama emphasized that he understands Israel’s concerns, but in his only direct reference to the Prime Minister, he stated that he is simply “wrong”. In so doing, the president continued to send a hinted message that he has been conveying to the American Jewish community for some time, that he is taking care of Israel’s security concerns in a better and more responsible manner than its Prime Minister. No one in Washington will admit that such a message exists, but it is there and it is very dangerous for Israel, possibly leading to a historic divide with American Jews.
For these and other reasons it is time for the Prime Minister to come to his senses and to understand that a small country, whose very existence depends today on the US, cannot physically block a major presidential initiative. Instead, he would be wise to work with the American administration to close gaps in the agreement, maintain close intelligence supervision of Iran’s observance of the agreement, and even to take advantage of this moment to try and reach an historic defense treaty with the US. Dr. Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser, is now a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center and a professor at the Herzlia Interdisciplinary Center.