by Daniel Levy
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in previewing his controversial congressional speech tomorrow, offered three broad messages to AIPAC conference goers: the reclaiming of the vitality of US-Israel relationship, an attempt to depict Iran as the font of all evil, and a reheated riff on the arc of Jewish powerlessness to power.
Netanyahu’s olive branch to Democrats and to the Obama administration will only take him so far. Israel’s most American and most Republican of prime ministers crossed the Rubicon on inappropriate political partisanship long ago. What’s more, Netanyahu’s attempt to reassert the US-Israel relationship based on Israel being a beacon of humanity, hope and shared values will ring hollow to anyone paying attention to Netanyahu’s own brand of narrow chauvinist nationalism, to the democratic recession he is leading in Israel or indeed to anyone who has heard of the Palestinians.
But those are long-term trends, more immediately President Obama is demonstrating his commitment to Israel irrespective, or even in spite, of the shenanigans of its prime minister.
So, Netanyahu may come out of the US-Israel political brouhaha relatively unscathed, but his incoherence on the Iran issue itself is far more worrying and damaging. Netanyahu’s portrayal of Iran as an existential threat to Israel, who’s tentacles are devouring the entire region bumps up against a reality in which Iran is part of the pushback against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), in which most Israeli security chiefs reject the existential threat narrative as shallow scaremongering and in which Netanyahu himself now seems to support an extension to the Joint Plan of Action interim agreement which he previously decried.
Netanyahu is weak when opposing the substance of the deal taking shape, on how it could be worse for Israel than the status quo and he has failed to offer a better alternative. Does Netanyahu prefer an Iran freed from limitations on its enrichment program, stockpiles and facilities, without an unprecedentedly intrusive inspection regime? Does he prefer military action, a game of bluff he has been playing for over a decade? Netanyahu offers spine-chilling rhetoric but no answers.
Netanyahu might even be cast into the role of “accidental peacemaker”—convincing Americans not to risk war at the behest of a foreign leader, even an allied one, convincing hardliners in Tehran that a tough deal to swallow can’t be so bad if Israel is so against it, while allowing Israelis to blame Netanyahu, move on and make the best of a post-deal reality.
Finally Netanyahu’s recounting of the Jewish return to history, from powerlessness to power, the need for strength and to have a voice is standard fare for this prime minister. But many Jews, and the vast majority of us even in Israel who did not vote for him, will surely be hoping for a Jewish voice that is used more intelligently, that is more respectful of our allies and of the Jewish ethical tradition and that understands that with power and strength comes the need for those to be disposed of with responsibility and wisdom.
Daniel Levy is the head of the Middle East and & North Africa program at European Council on Foreign Relations in London. He is also a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. From 2003 to 2004, Levy was an analyst for the International Crisis Group’s Middle East program. From 1999 to 2001, he was special adviser and head of Jerusalem Affairs in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. He also served as senior policy adviser to Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, responsible for coordinating policy on issues including peace negotiations, civil and human rights, and the Palestinian minority in Israel. Levy was a member of the Israeli delegation to the 2001 Taba negotiations with the Palestinians and served on the Israeli negotiating team to the 1995 “Oslo B” agreement under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He was the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative, a joint Israeli-Palestinian effort suggesting a detailed model for a peace agreement to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.