Too Clever by Half: Netanyahu Strengthens Obama’s Hand

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by Robert E. Hunter

When the British say that someone is “too clever by half,” they are not paying a compliment. This week, that expression can be applied to the thrice-and-future prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. He will almost surely remain in office once the dust settles on government formation. But he will not be as formidable as he was only recently, at least in trying to achieve one of his key goals: to stop an agreement at all costs between the so-called P5+1 countries and Iran on the latter’s nuclear program.

It’s still unclear whether the negotiators in Switzerland can decide on a “framework agreement” by the March 31 target date, presaging a finished document by the June 30 deadline. But if an agreement is reached, President Barack Obama is now in a far better position to carry it into effect than he was just a few days ago. To use another metaphor, Netanyahu has shot himself in the foot.

The big guns were supposed to be directed elsewhere. With the help of House Speaker John Boehner, Netanyahu spoke before a rapturous joint session of the U.S. Congress to urge rejection of an agreement with Iran even before it was completed. And he pulled out all the stops in citing his version of historic parallels. He even used Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who did so much to make the world aware of the horrors of the Holocaust, as a stage prop.

Then 47 Republican members of the Senate wrote an open letter to Iran’s leadership, lecturing them that any agreement that President Obama concluded with Iran could be revoked “with a stroke of a pen” by the next president. To say that this was irregular is an understatement, and it offended a lot of Americans who pay little or no attention to the Iranian nuclear issue but who do believe in the US Constitution. Then this week, one of Israel’s key American journalist supporters, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, went so far as to ask whether it is “in our interest to destroy the last Sunni bulwark to a total Iranian takeover of Iraq.” Yes, he was talking about the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), a group of the most brutal butchers in modern times.

The Israeli Election

After it became clear on Tuesday night that Netanyahu had won reelection, at first things looked bleak for Obama. But, to cite one of his key principles of foreign policy, he showed “strategic patience” and now stands to be able to achieve what he has set out to do—provided, of course, that Iran does not scotch an agreement at the last moment.

It was always obvious that one of Netanyahu’s objectives, with his florid rhetoric and high-handed tactics, was to secure reelection. He has succeeded but in the process has offended a lot of people in Israel, the United States, and Europe who might have been disposed to support him on the merits of the Iran issue. He has also scared many Israelis and Americans who believe in the steadfastness of US-Israeli relations. They fear that Netanyahu was, for personal gain, risking the sine qua non of Israeli security: the relationship with the United States, including the commander-in-chief.

On top of that, Netanyahu at the last moment declared that, if he were re-elected, there would not be an independent Palestinian state, a stark reversal of his own position and a clear slap at the US president and two decades of US-led peace efforts (he has since modified that position now that the votes have been counted). And on election day, Netanyahu directly insulted Arab Israelis, who make up 20 percent of the population.

In a word, Netanyahu has lost credibility, certainly on the Iran issue and perhaps well beyond. So, too, have the 47 senators, a core constituency in trying to deny the president the capacity to lead American foreign policy on the Iran issue.

That does not mean that Obama has nothing more to worry about. He still has several things to do, in addition to coming to closure with Iran, before he can claim success, not just for his policy but also for America and its increased security in the Middle East. Netanyahu has unwittingly given Obama some breathing space. But the president must use it wisely.

That begins with not reaching for too much. There has been press speculation that President Obama might take a bolder position on Israeli-Palestinian relations, even supporting efforts at the United Nations to recognize Palestine as a state. This is tempting. And nothing can breathe life into negotiations toward a two-state solution without active US intervention. But since no major Israeli leader is now ready to make necessary compromises on a Palestinian state, if Obama were too heavy-handed, he could sacrifice the moral and psychological advantage he now has. He needs instead to concentrate on the Iran talks and implementing an agreement. There is, however, one exception. The president should finally tell Israel that new settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has to stop. Washington has always had that leverage, and it needs to use it, on the principle of “first do no [further] harm.”

After an Agreement with Iran

Obama must also foresee what will happen the instant there is an agreement. Frankly, all hell will break loose, beginning with a rush by every country but the US to throw aside sanctions and start full-scale economic dealings with Iran. The US private sector is already champing at the bit not to be left out. Opponents in the US of lifting any of the sanctions will be swept away like the Egyptians who followed Moses after the Red Sea parted while, in this case, though, Obama still has work to do before he can go “into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground.”

Indeed, despite Netanyahu’s miscues, he and other enemies of an agreement, including Saudi Arabia and some other neighbors of Iran, will still try to derail implementation. As anxieties rise among several Middle East countries over Iran’s changing relations with the West, President Obama will thus have to assuage whatever legitimate worries they have about Iran, its intentions, and its position in the region. This includes a US commitment to continue its engagement there for as long as necessary. The US will need to restate its security support to Israel, but without providing a capacity for long-range air strikes or bunker-busting bombs. And the US will need to continue some form of security presence in the Gulf region. But the United States must define the terms, not the local Sunni states, who exaggerate the Iranian military threat, which is meager. Iran’s challenge comes in the form of economic and cultural competitiveness, buttressed by the capabilities of the Iranian people, rivaled in the region only by the Israelis.

The instant an agreement with Iran is signed, the administration also needs to be ready to roll out a comprehensive plan that will include the goal of a regional security system in which all countries can, in time, take part. At the same time, the administration must finally make clear to Saudi Arabia and some of the other Gulf Arab states that their citizens who support Islamist terrorism—inspiring, funding, and arming the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and IS—must stop, and stop now, as the price of continued US engagement.

The US will also have an interest in exploring areas of potential compatible interests with Tehran—as in stabilizing Afghanistan, in countering IS (where Iran is already an informal US “ally”), and in promoting stability in Iraq. Such a new relationship will in any event take time to develop, plus the building of trust on both sides, and it may not work. As part of it, the US will need to press Iran to back off from its support for Hezbollah and Hamas.

Finally, the administration must avoid becoming even more deeply embroiled in the Sunni-Shia civil war. Already, Secretary of State John Kerry has said that it will be necessary at some point to negotiate with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. In part, this is recognition that playing the Sunni game of simply trying to overthrow Assad could produce something even worse in Syria, while risking spillover into neighboring countries.

All this is a tall order. But it is also a minimum order if the United States is to pursue its own national interests while also helping to promote the genuine security interests of Israel, Arab partners, and others. But this requires that the United States understands security in its proper sense and doesn’t let itself continue to be a cat’s paw for the geopolitical ambitions of others.

By overreaching, Netanyahu has also given President Obama political room for maneuver domestically to do what is best for the United States, along with its friends and allies in the region—including Israel. The administration has to do the needed planning as soon as possible. Then Obama needs to be bold in executing the plan and also keep his nerve, as he has been doing in his efforts to lead the world past the high risks posed by the unresolved issues of the Iranian nuclear program and Iran’s continued isolation from the outside world.

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Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

8 Comments

  1. Why should we be supporting Israel, an apartheid state who made their nuclear bombs in secret, and did not sign the NPT? What has Iran done to harm us? Nothing. It’s Israel that has the nukes, not Iran, and Israel should be on sanctions for introducing nuclear bombs to the region.

  2. It would be good to have Iran “inside the tent…….”
    Netanyahu needs to learn that people who have nice homes, good jobs and children getting education, are reluctant to go to war. Working towards the growth of prosperity among Israel’s neighbors is the best way to make peace in the region.

  3. Provided France does not scorch a deal at the last minute

  4. If I was Netanyahu, I’d be like “naw man I never said that. You anti-semites don’t know anything about terrorisms. We are under attack, we are under attack, we are under attack.”

    “Who said I said that. Who. Anyone? I thought so. The fact is I didn’t say that. So if you think you got a tape of me saying it, go find a TV station in the US that will play it.”

    “I demand that Barack Obama apologize for making up those lies about what he says I said”

  5. Netanyahu is fighting for the survival of his country , don’t you people understand what Israel’s neighbors want , they want all Jews dead , they even say it , they proclaim it , they relish it , how can anyone in their right mind go along with Iran, good grief WWIII is headed this way and we have Neville Chamberlain as President/Prime Minister

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