During the administration of President George W. Bush, when it came to Israel, all you ever heard was how much influence Israel had on U.S. foreign policy, especially toward Iran. Even if it were disinclined not to act in lockstep with Israel (not that the Bush administration was) the power that AIPAC exerted over the Senate and House, the narrative went, was too great for the president to override.
But, in the years since, the heavy hand that Israel has wielded in dealing with Palestinians has created cover under which the next U.S. president, Barack Obama, could peel off the tentacles of Israel and AIPAC. On Jan. 30, in the New York Times, Peter Baker and Jodi Rudoren write of the rift between he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It reflects six years of suspicion and mistrust and grievance, wounds from past brawls easily reopened by what might otherwise be small irritations. It reflects resentment on the part of Mr. Obama, who watched Mr. Netanyahu seemingly root for his Republican opponent in the 2012 election and now sees him circumventing the Oval Office to work with a Republican Congress instead. And it reflects a conviction on the part of Mr. Netanyahu that Mr. Obama may sell out Israel with a bad deal and may be trying to influence the coming Israeli elections.
Meanwhile, on Jan. 27, at the Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg indulged in hyperbole and wrote: “Benjamin Netanyahu believes he has just one job, and that is to stop Iran from getting hold of nuclear weapons.” But aside from attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, which Israel isn’t militarily powerful enough to effectively do,
… 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.
… only the United States has the throw-weight to organize sanctions regimes of lasting consequence.
Goldberg then explains that “for several years, Netanyahu and President Obama, despite their mutual loathing, worked more or less in tandem on this issue.” In fact
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.
They believed “that pressure was a means to an end—the end, of course, being negotiations.” But Netanyahu remained adamant about retaining the option of an aerial attack.Consequently
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.
Most recently by allowing Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, work with House Speaker John Boehner on inviting Netanyahu to appear before Congress to warn it about a nuclear deal with Iran and call for tougher sanctions, informing the White House only at the last moment. Thus
Netanyahu’s management of his relationship with Obama threatens the bipartisan nature of Israel’s American support. … First, the administration itself. … Netanyahu has also alienated many elected Democrats, including Jewish Democrats on Capitol Hill. … 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.
What is Netanyahu thinking? In the Times piece, Baker and Rudoren report the view of Council on Foreign Relations President Richard N. Haass, who said:
“I really do think it represents a strategic calculation that from Israel’s point of view, this president and this White House have essentially been written off,” Mr. Haass said. “Particularly since the midterm elections, they have made the calculation that to the extent possible, they will use Congress as the channel to conduct their relationship.”
But that policy on the part of Netanyahu may, in its prematurity, backfire in his face. From the Times again:
Mr. Kerry, who has invested a lot in building a relationship with Mr. Netanyahu, is said to be especially livid at the planned speech because of what he sees as a violation of a doctrine of no surprises. As a result, he may be emboldened to pursue an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan through the United Nations or outside powers without waiting for Mr. Netanyahu’s assent.