The current wrangle between Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, and President Barack Obama’s administration is another clear sign of the kind of arrogance that Israel has displayed in security matters across the middle east. Netanyahu who has travelled to the United States to address Congress, bypassed all formal protocol with the white house when he accepted the invitation from the Republican Party’s John Boehner – who is speaker of the House of Representatives, even when all sensible reason advised against such a move. Despite wide condemnation of the visit, Benjamin Netanyahu who faces an election in which his popularity is uncertain, barely 2 weeks from now gave a speech attacking Tehran and its nuclear ambitions in which he not only fiercely criticises the US led negotiations in Switzerland, but left no doubt of his contempt for the US government – the very same hand that feeds, arms, protects, and even tolerates Israel’s aggression.
But what’s behind Netanyahu’s public intervention in the domestic politics of the US, so much that he is willing to sidestep Obama’s administration?
It seems like yesterday when an annoyed Bill Clinton, emerging from his first meeting with Netanyahu remarked: “Who’s the fucking superpower here?” (Others quoted Clinton to have said “he thinks he is the superpower and we are here to do whatever he requires.” )
That was 1996. This time, the attrition is between Netanyahu and Obama over Iran which has been building nuclear reactors for purported peaceful purposes. The US and other nations believe that Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb, and numerous governments have made exhaustive efforts to deter Iran from acquiring nuclear technology. Iran says its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes. Obama is of the view that the crisis should be handled through talks where concessions can be made, to deter Iran from acquiring nuclear technology. Israel believes that whatever deal that is to be reached from the talks, will still leave Iran with the expertise and materials to build a nuclear weapon. So, according to Prime minister Netanyahu, Iran should be stripped of its centrifuges and nuclear infrastructure, a move which is unlikely to deter Iran, and which the Obama administration has called ‘unrealistic’ and unattainable.
First and foremost, President Barack Obama as the supreme commander of the United States of America has the ultimate authority to shape America’s foreign policy whichever way he sees fit. The Republican Party is in opposition and despite America being a federalist state where presidential powers can be checked, it is president Obama who is in control, a fact which many Republicans don’t sit comfortably with. It is state-protocol that any head of state travelling to country A notifies the office of the president in country A. It is also not constructive that any head of state opts to travel to country A only to meet the opposition party because he/she does not agree with country A’s foreign policy. Heads of states cannot be seen to take sides in domestic politics especially when there are fresh disagreements regarding policies hovering about.
Netanyahu’s camaraderie relationship with the Republicans undermines Obama’s administration as being incompetent in the face of a nuclear Iran. In a recent interview, Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security adviser criticised Netanyahu when she said:
“Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to travel to Washington to deliver the speech two weeks before the Israeli elections has injected a degree of partisanship, which is not only unfortunate, I think it’s destructive of the fabric of the relationship”
The White house agrees with Ms. Rice’s depiction of Netanyahu’s visit and President Obama has refused to meet him. Vice President Joe Biden who is president of the senate is supposed to be present for Netanyahu’s speech, but he has said he will be travelling abroad. Secretary of State John Kerry also said he will be in Switzerland negotiating with the Iranians. The Israeli prime minister was however invited for a meeting by Democratic senators, but he declined. Senator Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat said,
“We offered the prime minister an opportunity to balance the politically divisive invitation from Speaker Boehner with a private meeting with Democrats who are committed to keeping the bipartisan support of Israel strong. His refusal to meet is disappointing to those of us who have stood by Israel for decades”.
Even J Street, the influential pro-israel advocacy group criticised the visit accusing Netanyahu of using Congress as “a prop” for his election campaign, putting out a campaign to distance itself from Netanyahu.
After the speech, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said she was
“saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States . . . and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), one of nine Jewish senators criticized what she called “circular reasoning” in Netanyahu’s speech which she said proposed a better deal, but yet claimed Iran could never be trusted. How then can you have a deal when you can’t trust the other party?
“I don’t know what he’s saying: Should we work for a better deal or should we cut off any negotiations at this time? . . . It was not helpful at this point to criticize a deal that hasn’t even been completed.”
In a week where leaked cables revealed that Netanyahu’s Iran bomb claim was contradicted by Mossad, one would have thought that Mr Netanyahu’s speech would have taken a conciliatory or at least mild tone. Especially after last summer’s Gaza incursion, which left over 2140 Gazans dead including 513 children. Yet the speech was anything but mild.
The Israeli prime minister vehemently attacked international talks with Iran on its nuclear ambitions despite the rift that might be caused. Whether this was a move to infuriate Obama or some publicity stunt designed to portray Netanyahu as a strongman, with a view to drum up political support back home prior to the elections is anyone’s guess? However, what the speech did not do is make it easier for Netanyahu to have his way. From the kind of reactions the speech has received, it is clear that it’s not won him much mainstream support.
Previously, Mr Netanyahu said,
“Therefore I will go to Washington to address the American Congress, because the American Congress is likely to be the final brake before the agreement between the major powers and Iran”
Mr Netanyahu’s efforts to stop diplomatic talks with Iran must be viewed with scepticism if not suspicion. Especially after the unreliable things he has said in the past – as reported by Haaretz, Israel’s oldest newspaper here. In a volatile time in the Middle-East, the most mature thing to do is to negotiate with the Iranians over their nuclear infrastructure. In any case, unlike Saudi Arabia and others who have offered only verbal support, Iran is infact fighting ISIS, and is suffering casualties and fatalities (including losing a high profile general). What Mr Netanyahu wants is to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, and according to him, the only way to do that is through military action. Any talk of negotiations and whether the Iranians are entitled to a nuclear propgramme of sorts is irrelevant according to him. Obviously, there is no way Iran would consent to such demands, because Iran as a sovereign state also wants nuclear capability as achieved by every powerful nation in the world, including the likes of Pakistan and India.
Mr Netanyahu’s arrogance echoes of the Republican Party’s foreign policy of pre-emptive strike during the administration of George Bush. The Iraq War is the epitome of Bush’s policy where the whole campaign ended disastrously for America’s image and the Middle-East. Currently, with an unstable Syria and Iraq, it would be negligent for the world powers to engage Iran in any other way outside of diplomatic talks. It is therefore possible that Netanyahu’s siding with the Republicans is because he believes that that the Democrats are treating the Iran situation with “kid gloves”. So he probably thinks that going through the Republicans, who have a majority in both houses will halt the deal between the US and Iran.
In this regard, Republicans in the Senate are responding to Netanyahu’s address by fast tracking legislation requiring Congress to review any agreement with Tehran, and to issue more sanctions against Iran which can sabotage the talks. President Obama has made it clear that he will veto any such legislation, and after the speech – which has alienated Democrats, it looks very unlikely that the Republicans will have 13 Democratic votes to override the president.
Whichever way it goes, Mr Netanyahu’s actions are very dangerous to world peace and security. This kind of aggressive behaviour is precisely the very reason why nations seek to build nuclear weapons. So that they can deter hostile situations that arise from rhetoric such as this. Mr Netanyahu’s trip is being seen by others as the beginning of a strained relationship between the US and Israel. Yes, we may all agree that a country whose unpopular and former revolutionary guard leaders have claimed Israel is illegitiate must not come anywhere near nuclear weapons. But it is the manner which Netanyahu has sought to deliver his speech without securing authority from the highest office of the country, that has many people including the Democrats shunning him. If Israeli leaders begin to frustrate political figures from a country that supports them the most, they risk losing their biggest ally. And once the US starts sayng NO, everybody will say NO. It isn’t Iran who is a danger to world peace. In an already volatile region, it is Mr Netanyahu’s belligerence, arrogance and short-sightedness that will cost Israel peace and stability.
Edited: S Nkhwazi