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.