Benjamin Netanyahu’s blinkered view of American politics

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel shows an illustration as he describes his concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions during an address to to the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in September 2012. Netanyahu will really need to up his PowerPoint game in his upcoming address to Congress.  (AP File Photo/Richard Drew)

When I first wrote about Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to a joint session of Congress opposing a nuclear deal with Iran, I was mostly focusing on the domestic politics of President Obama’s trolling and the GOP’s counter-trolling.

In the five weeks since, the effect of the speech on the Israeli-American relationship has come into stark relief, and the effect could best be described as “toxic.” U.S. officials have blasted Israeli officials for what they think are biased leaks to the press about the ongoing negotiations with Iran. National Security Adviser Susan Rice told Charlie Rose flat out that Netanyahu’s decision to speak is “destructive of the fabric of the relationship” between Israel and the United States. Now I don’t have a ton of experience in government, but I’m pretty sure that if you’re an Israeli foreign policy principal, those are not the words you want to hear coming out of a White House official’s mouth.

Well, at least Netanyahu has Congress to fall back on… except he seems to be doing his damnedest to alienate the Democratic members of Congress, as well, as Reuters reports:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined on Tuesday an invitation to meet with U.S. Senate Democrats during his trip to Washington next week.

“Though I greatly appreciate your kind invitation to meet with Democratic Senators, I believe that doing so at this time could compound the misperception of partisanship regarding my upcoming visit,” Netanyahu wrote in a letter to Senators Richard Durbin and Dianne Feinstein obtained by Reuters.

Durbin and Feinstein, two senior Senate Democrats, invited Netanyahu to a closed-door meeting with Democratic senators in a letter on Monday, warning that making U.S.-Israeli relations a partisan political issue could have “lasting repercussions.”

Jeffrey Goldberg’s latest reporting in the Atlantic highlights even more flummoxing behavior from Netanyahu’s team:

The Netanyahu camp is worried about the political impact of  its preemptive strike on Capitol Hill, I’m told. Netanyahu understands that he will be burning his remaining bridges to the White House by going up to the Hill next week. Israelis close to Netanyahu have been warning him that his decision to openly align with the Republican Party against a Democratic president is both unprecedented and deeply risky. In fact, Netanyahu’s own national security advisor, Yossi Cohen, told at least two people during his visit to Washington last week that he wished the speech were not taking place. According to people who have spoken with him, Cohen said that he is troubled by the timing of the speech —two weeks before the Israeli elections—and by the appearance that it is an attempt by Israel to insert itself directly into American partisan politics. Like most Israeli national security officials, he understands that the United States is Israel’s second-line of defense, and can’t quite believe that Netanyahu has so dramatically written off a president with almost two years left in office.

Netanyahu’s allies believe that the prime minister is correct to argue against the not-yet-finished deal (as its details are currently understood), because it could, over time, legitimize Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But they are upset by the manner in which the speech was arranged.

In essence, Netanyahu is proceeding as if Obama’s lame duck status as president renders him powerless to conduct foreign affairs. Which is pretty much insane.

The thing about most foreign policy decision-making is that a lot of it is irrevocable. In some cases it’s literally impossible: The United States can’t un-invade Iraq, for example. In other cases, the cumulative effects of certain choices renders a particular policy essentially locked in. The United States can’t really renegotiate NAFTA or dramatically curtail its economic opening to China, for example. Instances in which a future president legally reverses course on a prior president’s commitments — like, say, the George W. Bush administration’s reversals on the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court — inevitably trigger severe diplomatic blowback.

The fancy social science term for this is “path dependence.” And the key question to ask is whether a P5+1 agreement with Iran would have similar path dependent effects. Netanyahu seems to think that the answer is no.

This makes Netanyahu’s decision to deliver this speech all the more confusing. The marginal value-added of addressing Congress (as opposed to just AIPAC, which he was going to do anyway) is not that great (indeed, polling suggests a dead heat in the upcoming Israeli election). The speech is such an obvious effort by Netanyahu to bolster his domestic position that the head of Israel’s election commission has ruled that the speech will be broadcast on a five-minute delay to excise any blatant campaigning.

Benjamin Netanyahu is many things, but stupid is not one of them. Why is he pursuing the course of action he is pursuing despite the fretting of his national security team?

I think there are two possible answers. The first is that, for Netanyahu, this is a Hail Mary pass designed to somehow blunt any momentum toward a nascent deal with Iran. He thinks that the odds of a deal are so scary that he’s willing to destroy the bipartisan consensus behind the U.S.-Israel relationship in order to save it. It’s a very risky but plausibly rational gambit.

The second possibility is that path dependence has wreaked havoc on Netanyahu’s perceptions of the Obama administration. After six years of contretemps, the layers of mutual contempt between Netanyahu and Obama are so deep that the Israeli prime minister cannot reverse his course of action. He’s locked into a strictly zero-sum worldview when thinking about the relationship with the White House and his administration. And that worldview helps to exacerbate the tensions that he already believes to exist.

Either way, if Netanyau is reelected and if a P5+1 deal is reached — and these are both big ifs — the effects on the bilateral relationship over the next two years will be devastating.

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