US President Obama secured enough votes this week to sustain a veto of Iran deal in Congress, yet Prime Minister Netanyahu vows to continue to fight against it. Is there a method to his moves?
By HERB KEINON
September 4, 2015 – 6:00 P.M.
Despite the media drama, US President Barack Obama’s victory on Wednesday in securing the 34th vote in the Senate to sustain a presidential veto if Congress votes down the Iran deal was expected.
The real shock would have been if a sitting president would not have been able to muster the support of one-third plus-one of the Senate – a chamber in which there are 44 members of his own party – for something being defined as his signature foreign policy achievement.
If anything, the surprise was not that Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski said she would vote for the deal, thus giving Obama his “magic number,” but, rather, the response emanating a few hours later from Jerusalem.
“The prime minister has a responsibility to speak out against the deal that threatens this country, the region and the world,” one government official said soon after Mikulski announced which way she was voting. “And he will continue to do so.”
Despite what Obama has been arguing for months, despite US Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertion on Wednesday evening that “the people of Israel will be safer with this deal,” the official said that the accord “remains a dangerous deal, and it remains important to continue to point that out.”
That’s the surprise: that the Israeli opposition to the agreement will continue – apparently unabated – even though it looks like a done deal. Why continue bashing the deal, standing out publicly alone in the international arena in doing so, if it is now clear that it will go through anyhow?
ARKANSAS FRESHMAN Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, who was in Israel for five days this week, gave an indication of the thinking in the Prime Minister’s Office when he told The Jerusalem Post after meeting with Netanyahu that the premier, like himself, “knows that this is not the end of the story with Iran, just the end of one chapter. Whatever happens with this deal, we will still have to confront Iranian aggression for years to come, as long as it remains in the grips of the radical ayatollahs.”
In other words, by continuing to rail against the accord – which Netanyahu is expected to do – he is trying to impact on other yet unwritten chapters in which Iran will be the main antagonist.
Seen in this light, Israel’s argument now will be less about Iran’s nuclear threat and more about its enhanced conventional threat, which Jerusalem fears will become much more pronounced as a result of the deal. And that is something Israel feels it needs to continue shouting about.
Or, as Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold told the Post, “part of the subtext” during the negotiations over the Iran agreement was the idea that “Iran is on the cusp of becoming a more moderate country, that it is ready to join the community of nations and jettison its revolutionary past.”
The problem, he said, is that there is “no shred of evidence” that the Iranians are moving in that direction, and that – if anything – Tehran is moving the opposite way.
Iran, Gold said, is trying to set up a new Hezbollah front against Israel on the Golan Heights, and is trying to transfer some of its most advanced weaponry to Hezbollah, including “kits that have been supplied to Hezbollah to take their large force of ballistic missiles and rockets and dramatically increase their accuracy with GPS units.”
And all that, he said, was happening during the year when the nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was being signed.
In Gold’s telling, to continue to bash the agreement, to continue to warn that it will give Iran more funds and legitimacy for its subversive efforts in the region, is a way to preempt what will likely be the next Iran-related argument: “that Iran should have a role in the regional order of the Middle East as a result of the deal.”
Reminded, however, that this is not the US argument, and that both Obama and Kerry repeatedly say they recognize full well Iran’s bad behavior in the region, and will work together with Israel and the Gulf countries against it, Gold said that a “part of good diplomatic analysis is seeing trend lines,” and the trend line is that there are experts out there saying Iran should have a positive regional role to play.
Israel’s rhetoric, therefore, will keeps the focus on Iran as an unrepentant, pernicious regime whose ultimate anti-Israel, anti-American goals have not changed.
BUT THERE ARE other elements as well at work behind Netanyahu’s decision to continue fighting against the agreement. For instance, though the polling data is not unequivocal, most recent polls do show the American public strongly against the accord. And Israel has an interest in seeing that the public opinion remains negative, one reason being that US public sentiment against the deal will have ramifications in the upcoming political campaign.
That the major Republican presidential candidates have come out clearly against the accord, and some have even pledged to undo it if elected, is surely not detached from the polling data that they are seeing.
The candidates’ anti-deal rhetoric, meanwhile, will not be dismissed either by Iranian leaders, who have to wonder whether the agreement has a shelf life beyond the term of the current president, or by business leaders who – as a result of this rhetoric – may be unlikely to rush headlong back into Iran, not knowing quite yet whether to do so might jeopardize business ties with the US if moves to unravel the deal are initiated by the next president.
Though many businesses may now make initial moves toward Iran, they are likely to wait until after January 2017, when the new president is inaugurated, before signing lucrative contracts. And a lot can happen in the intervening months to get them to change their mind.
Or, as sources close to Netanyahu said, “The American people get it. They understand the dangers to Israel. They understand the dangers to the United States. That’s why a clear majority believe the deal should be rejected, which is also reflected in Congress, where a clear majority seems prepared to reject the deal. The stronger the opposition in Congress to the deal, the stronger the message to Iran and to America’s allies in the region, and the greater the likelihood that that message will be reflected in US policy moving forward.”
MOREOVER, NETANYAHU seems convinced that he can continue to fight against the deal – to “influence US policy moving forward” – with a feeling that to do so now is relatively risk-free.
There was speculation in July – after the deal was first announced – that Israel would “miss the boat” in receiving a generous “compensation package” from the US if it did not recognize the accord was a done deal and begin to sit down immediately with the US and discuss the package. Netanyahu refused to do so, not wanting to be seen as waving a white flag before the process of congressional review ran its course. But instead of having missed an opportunity, in recent days both Obama and Kerry have articulated a commitment to work together with Israel in enhancing its security capabilities in the wake of the deal.
Obama, in an interview with The Forward last week directed at the American Jewish community, said, “Once we have completed the congressional debate and the deal is in the process of being implemented, it will be important for my administration and the Israeli government to move forward on what I’ve been calling for since April… to sit down and ask the question, what are the major security challenges that we together face in the region, and how can we build on the already robust, unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation that we have to make our security arrangements even stronger.”
Or, as Kerry said on Wednesday night during a speech in Philadelphia, “We are determined to help our ally [Israel] address new and complex security threats and to ensure its qualitative military edge.”
There was also concern throughout Netanyahu’s long, very public battle with Obama over the deal that once it was signed, the US would, through other channels, vent its frustration with Israel’s attempt to block it, specifically by applying pressure on the Palestinian track and removing American diplomatic cover for Israel in various international bodies.
But both Obama and Kerry sought to dispel that notion as well in their recent comments.
“There are always going to be arguments within families and among friends. And Israel isn’t just an ally, it’s not just a friend – it’s family,” Obama said, in his appeal to Jewish Americans. “But I think a testament to how sturdy the relationship is, is that despite this very significant policy disagreement, all the military, security, commercial, cultural cooperation that existed before this debate came up has continued unabated and will continue unabated.”
Or as Kerry put it, “Diplomatically our support for Israel also remains rock solid, as we continue to oppose every effort to delegitimize the Jewish state or to pass biased resolutions against it in international bodies.”
While some may say that these are mere words designed to win support for the accord, Netanyahu – by making the decision to continue to resist the deal – has made clear he believes those words, and is not unduly concerned that Israel will pay a steep price for his continued opposition.
Especially as most of the American public seems to agree with him, and especially during an election year when US lawmakers in both the Senate and the House will want to appear in their home constituencies – where support for Israel remains high – as compensating Israel for a dangerous deal, not punishing it for its opposition.