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

Netanyahu Prepares for a Gunfight

| April 14, 2015


A Hebrew-language version of the op-ed appeared in Haaretz on April 13, 2015. The translation was provided by the author.

A former U.S. official, who knows President Obama well, believes he is a true friend of Israel, but that the president is convinced that Israel's policies are leading it towards a precipice and that "true friends don't let drunk friends drive." Prime Minister Netanyahu's recent actions regarding Iran indicate that he has become intoxicated by his own rhetoric.

The framework agreement with Iran is good for Israel, at least compared to the alternatives, and postpones the nuclear threat for at least a decade. Instead of congratulating the U.S. president, Netanyahu is continuing his efforts to derail the agreement, as well as the policy of confrontation that he began during the election campaign. In the last few days he has, admittedly, begun a very belated effort to work with the U.S. administration to close the holes in the agreement, but even the magician from Balfour Street1 cannot square a circle: one either supports the agreement (even with reservations), or one is against it.

Netanyahu's actions are unprecedented in U.S. history. A foreign leader — from a country considered to be a close U.S. ally — has placed himself, frontally, between a U.S. president and a major presidential foreign policy initiative. Not diplomatic reservations, along with discrete behind the scenes efforts to improve the agreement. Not a polite request to amend the agreement, but total public opposition, designed to torpedo the agreement, along with unrealistic demands, such as Iranian recognition of Israel, even after it has become a fait accompli.

Throughout World War II, Winston Churchill, whom the Prime Minister is known to admire, was careful to never reveal the slightest public hint of disagreement with the U.S. administration, even though there were many. A senior British official equated Britain's efforts to coordinate with the Unted States during the first Gulf War to "riding on the behind of a raging rhinoceros," but the British remained silent. The Saudis, who fear Iran as much as we do, wisely turned their polite opposition to the agreement, into public support. The Prime Minister of Israel, in contrast, has positioned himself as the sole foreign leader to oppose the agreement and is preparing for a gunfight with President Obama.

In practice, Prime Minister Netanyahu's efforts have achieved exactly the opposite of what he intended. Instead of increasing support for the new sanctions legislation in Congress, a number of Democrats have ceased supporting it. The last time Israel dared challenge a president, during the vote over the sale of AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia in 1981, it was dealt a stinging defeat. A senator who had promised to oppose the sale took advantage of the fact that he was the last to vote (his last name started with a Z) and when he saw that the president was about to go down in defeat, changed his vote at the last minute. It is fair to assume that some senator will be found once again, possibly even a Republican, who will prefer to save the president from a defeat. Members of Congress, it has been reported, are even more pro-American than they are pro-Israeli.

Even if the totally unforeseen occurs, and Netanyahu succeeds in defeating the president's initiative, he will lose the battle. He will become the president's mortal rival, and Israel will still need his goodwill during the nearly two years that remain of his term, not just for the Iranian issue itself, but many others, including the Palestinians, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the efforts to isolate Israel in the international community. Moreover, many in the American public will accuse Israel of gross intervention in their domestic affairs, which may even lead to U.S. involvement in a bloody war. An accusation such as that would be a severe outcome for Israel.

For the first time in its history, Netanyahu's ongoing opposition to the agreement has turned Israel into a partisan issue, placing it squarely between Democrats and Republicans, and the damage will take years to repair. Moreover, it has deepened fissures within the Jewish community, most of which is overwhelmingly pro-Democratic, and which will accept the president's contention that the agreement is good for Israel as well. Jewish-Americans have always done their utmost to avoid any hint of a clash between their commitment to Israel and their loyalty to the United States.

Netanyahu deserves the appreciation of the entire Jewish people for his historic success in placing the Iranian issue at the center of the international agenda. His repeated warnings, along with the fear that he might actually launch a military operation, contributed significantly to the imposition of the sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table, and ultimately to the current agreement. This should have been the Prime Minister's finest hour, even if the agreement does not solve the problem and only postpones it for about a decade. In a tumultuous Middle East, Israel's national security doctrine has long been predicated on the assumption that we can only play for time and manage problems, not solve them.

One can, of course, be impressed by Netanyahu's willingness to stand up to Washington, but nothing is more important for Israel than the relationship with the United States. Unpleasant as it is to acknowledge, our very existence as a nation depends today on the United States. In recent decades, Israel has received more foreign aid than any other country in history, and the IDF is an empty shell without U.S. weapons and ammunition. The United States alone has saved Israel from innumerable resolutions calling for its denunciation and for sanctions in international organizations, and has sought to broker peace between Israel and its neighbors. Netanyahu's actions have greatly damaged this alliance and further exacerbated the tectonic changes already underway, to Israel's detriment, within the American public.

Israel, much like the Palestinians, is beginning to look like someone who simply does not know how to say yes to a good, if imperfect, agreement. A crisis with the president, turning Israel into a partisan issue, an effort to derail the agreement that is destined to fail, and the danger that Israel will be accused of leading the United States to war. Scorched earth. Please come to your senses, Netanyahu, before it is too late.

1 Prime Minister's residence

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: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Freilich, Chuck. "Netanyahu Prepares for a Gunfight." Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, April 14, 2015.