In the years spent in my three diplomatic assignments in the US, I had many opportunities to witness the power and influence of the Israeli lobby — in particular, its suffocating hold over Congress. However, few Israeli leaders have demonstrated greater disdain for a US president than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu towards President Barack Obama, an attitude described by some as “chutzpah”, a Yiddish word (of Aramaic origin), with which I became familiar thanks to William Safire, the well-known word maven, who described it as “brazen impudence”.
An extremely intelligent and articulate politician, Mr Netanyahu knows the American political system better than any of his predecessors. Playing the Israeli card to perfection, he has made no effort to disguise his deep misgivings about President Obama’s politics, which he believes has its roots in his mixed heritage and unusual life experience. President Obama’s espousal of the Middle East peace process and Mr Netanyahu’s rejection of it only added to their mutual dislike. Even though President Obama dropped this initiative in the face of Mr Netanyahu’s public defiance (including humiliating President Obama in a speech before Congress in May 2011), Iran came on the radar screen as another major irritant in their relationship.
Ever since, the two leaders have made no secret of the fact that there is no love lost between them. While the Israelis have made clear their fear that neither negotiations nor imposition of sanctions would deter the Islamic regime from pursuing the nuclear weapons option, the White House remains convinced that stricter implementation of sanctions, global diplomatic isolation and sabotage activities — including the use of cyber warfare — remain appropriate tools to deter Iran from pursuing its nuclear weapons programme. When Mr Netanyahu visited Washington in early March 2012, President Obama gave a commitment that his policy was not one of “containment” but of “prevention” of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, adding ominously: “When I say all options are on the table, I mean it.” President Obama and his military commanders are, however, not convinced that a military strike will resolve the problem. Instead, it would create a host of other issues that could cause grievous harm to US and Israeli interests in the region.
Israel’s concern is rooted not only in its historical experience but also influenced by its conviction that it should remain the only nuclear weapon state in the region, which explains its unilateral strikes to destroy Iraq’s nuclear facilities in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007. But Mr Netanyahu’s incessant public airing of his demand that the US give serious thought to undertaking military action against Iran has made their exchanges highly acrimonious. It is his latest outburst, however, in which he criticised the Obama Administration for not setting “red lines” on Iran’s nuclear programme — with his assertion that “those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have the moral right to place a red light before Israel” — that caught the Obama Administration by surprise. Even by the unusual latitude given to Israeli leaders to say and do things in the US that no other foreign leader would even contemplate, this accusation was unprecedented. What made it worse was that it came in the midst of a presidential race that has become increasingly tight and acrimonious and in which Mitt Romney has sought to portray President Obama as less than totally committed to Israel, using such inflammatory language as to accuse President Obama of “throwing Israel under a truck”.
The Obama Administration, however, claims — with considerable evidence to support it — that President Obama has done more to cement strategic cooperation with Israel than any previous president. Mr Netanyahu’s remark was, however, no mistake but a well-calculated attempt to insert himself into a close presidential race. Not surprisingly, it unleashed a storm of protest, with many mainstream politicians and well-known journalists sharply critical, with some such as Bill Keller of The New York Times characterising it as a “crude intervention in US politics”. President Obama is right to reject this “exercise in manipulation”.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 19th, 2012.
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