Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Netanyahu Undermines Battle Against Nuclear Iran

| February 17, 2015


A Hebrew-language version of the op-ed appeared in Haaretz on February 15, 2015. The translation was provided by the author.

An unskilled but political Israeli ambassador, together with a wily American Speaker of the House, also motivated by narrow political interests, tried to pull off a "fast one." The result is arguably the greatest damage to U.S.-Israeli relations in the history of the "special relationship." It is not just another in a long line of passing incidents, with that charming scent of Israeli chutzpa, but a deep fissure that will take a decade to repair and which has already caused irreversible damage to the efforts to contain Iran's nuclear program.

The unusually strong U.S. response reflects pent-up fury towards a country that owes its security and prosperity to the United States, but repeatedly allows itself to spit in its face and which has now crossed all limits. American fury, which has been building-up for years over a variety of Israeli "misdeeds," especially on the Palestinian issue and settlements, which have made it increasingly hard for Members of Congress and the administration to justify their support of Israel, was exposed in public this time by the Prime Minister's own actions.

The Prime Minister's planned speech before Congress has turned Israel into an issue of contention between Republicans and Democrats, for the first time in its history. Ever since its establishment, all Israeli governments and all Jewish-American leaders have gone to great lengths to position Israel as a bipartisan issue, above political divisions. Bipartisan support of Israel has been an asset of supreme importance, indeed, one of the fundamental pillars of the "special relationship".

The announcement by Vice President Biden and other Democratic representatives that they will boycott the Prime Minister's speech is thus nothing less than horrifying, an expression of fury that is unprecedented in the history of the bilateral relationship and which is designed to make it clear to Israel that if it allows itself to humiliate a U.S. president, the United States will hit back much harder. The possibility that the vice president's seat, which is located directly behind the lectern in the House of Representatives—opposite the cameras—will remain empty, should be causing grave alarm in Jerusalem.

Moreover, the planned speech, in essence an attempt to mobilize Congress against the administration, places Israel right between the two branches of government, an irresponsible measure to begin with, but one which is destined to fail. Israel has never succeeded in mobilizing Congress against the administration when it has held a firm position. The secret of its success has been in the attempt to encourage the administration to pursue approaches that it had been considering in any event, but may have been reluctant to adopt for various reasons and in encouraging limited changes in desired directions. Ever since the failure to prevent the AWACS sale to Saudi Arabia in 1981, all Israeli governments have carefully refrained from further attempts to mobilize Congress for frontal confrontations with the administration.

The above damage might, conceivably, have been tolerable, had the Prime Minister's speech contained the potential to achieve its declared objective—an almost desperate attempt to prevent the administration from signing a "bad" nuclear deal with Iran, which may pose an existential threat to Israel. It is clear, however, that not only will this objective not be achieved, but that the true motivation for the visit was an attempt by the Prime Minister to use the Congressional stage for his own political purposes and by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Boehner, to drive an historic wedge between the Democrats and Republicans on Israel.

In practice, the outcome has already been exactly the opposite of what the Prime Minister intended: ten Democratic representatives, co-sponsors of the new sanctions legislation, have withdrawn their support and announced that they have adopted the president's approach, i.e. waiting until the end of March, the deadline for an agreement with Iran, prior to passing the new legislation. Legislation, which had heretofore enjoyed broad bipartisan support, and which was a basis of the joint U.S.-Israeli position against Iran, collapsed in one fell swoop.

Moreover, it is not at all clear that a purely Republican majority can be found to pass the legislation at this time, as the Prime Minister had hoped, and if it can, it will be a narrow partisan vote on an issue which Israel has struggled to keep bipartisan for two decades. Indeed, in the poisoned atmosphere now created, it will be harder to gain a bipartisan majority for the sanctions even if the talks fail, which was almost guaranteed until now. The prime minister, who had placed the battle against Iran at the top of his agenda, destroyed the base of support that had been carefully built up in the United States over years, with his own hands.

To all of this we must add the fury expressed by ardent supporters of Israel over its gross intervention in U.S. politics and the humiliation of the president, neither of which will be forgotten soon. Even the Republicans, the only ones to benefit from this disaster, will make a mental note to themselves, that anyone willing to enter the political fray for one side, may switch to the other when circumstances change.

The U.S.-Israeli relationship is built on a strong foundation and will not collapse over the above, and the administration will continue to support Israel on the various issues, if with less enthusiasm. Netanyahu, however, who professes to have a deep understanding of U.S. affairs, has subordinated supreme strategic interests to electoral considerations, and harm has been done. In those cases in which the administration has room for discretion, it will remember the actions of a prime minister who is already deeply embroiled in a confrontation with it over the Palestinian issue. When we need the president in the next confrontation with Hezbollah or Hamas, in the ongoing confrontation with Iran, the negotiations with the Palestinians, the International Criminal Court in the Hague, or the Security Council, will he rush to assist us?

It will be hard for the Prime Minister to acknowledge both the severe mistake he made and the great damage that has already been caused. The only thing that may be more dangerous for Israel than a nuclear Iran, however, is damage to the relationship with the United States. It is thus essential that some pretext be found for postponing the visit. "A diplomatic flu," scheduling difficulties, or placing the blame on some official, such as a certain ambassador, will do the trick.

The author, a senior fellow at the Kennedy School and former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is now completing a book about Israel’s national security strategy.

Statements and views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, the Harvard Kennedy School, or the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Freilich, Chuck. "Netanyahu Undermines Battle Against Nuclear Iran." Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, February 17, 2015.