Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iran sanctions

The Anti-Bibi Offensive Reaches the Point of Diminishing Returns

Taken in isolation, it’s hard to fathom exactly what was going through Secretary of State John Kerry’s mind when he attacked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Seeking to discredit the Israeli’s critique of the administration’s efforts to strike a bargain with Iran over its nuclear-weapons program, Kerry dipped back into history and cited Netanyahu’s support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq as proof of his questionable judgment. Netanyahu’s 2002 testimony before the same committee doesn’t qualify him for the title of prophet. But one wonders why no one among the posse of yes-men and flatterers that follow the secretary about on his travels thought to remind him that as lacking in prescience as Netanyahu’s remarks might have been, it was he, in his capacity at that time as a U.S. senator, who actually voted for the war a few weeks after the Israeli’s testimony. But his foolish eagerness to join the administration’s gang tackle of Netanyahu tells us more about the administration’s desperation and the counterproductive nature of its effort to discredit the Israeli than anything else.

Read More

Taken in isolation, it’s hard to fathom exactly what was going through Secretary of State John Kerry’s mind when he attacked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Seeking to discredit the Israeli’s critique of the administration’s efforts to strike a bargain with Iran over its nuclear-weapons program, Kerry dipped back into history and cited Netanyahu’s support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq as proof of his questionable judgment. Netanyahu’s 2002 testimony before the same committee doesn’t qualify him for the title of prophet. But one wonders why no one among the posse of yes-men and flatterers that follow the secretary about on his travels thought to remind him that as lacking in prescience as Netanyahu’s remarks might have been, it was he, in his capacity at that time as a U.S. senator, who actually voted for the war a few weeks after the Israeli’s testimony. But his foolish eagerness to join the administration’s gang tackle of Netanyahu tells us more about the administration’s desperation and the counterproductive nature of its effort to discredit the Israeli than anything else.

After several weeks of feuding over Netanyahu’s alleged breach of protocol in accepting an invitation to speak to a joint session of Congress from House Speaker John Boehner, the breach between the two governments has now reached the stage where it cannot be dismissed as a mere spat. The administration’s commitment to a policy shift on Iran, in which the effort to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon has been set aside in favor of a push for détente with the Islamist regime, has created more than just a little daylight between Israel and the United States. But what is curious is the way leading figures in President Obama’s foreign-policy team, whether it be Kerry or National Security Advisor Susan Rice, have chosen to treat Netanyahu as a major threat to its objective rather than just the leader of a small, albeit influential, allied country who is not in a position to do anything to stop Obama from doing as he likes.

The most remarkable thing about the piling on the Israeli this week is the disproportionate nature of the attacks. That this treatment has been ordered from the top—which is to say, the president—isn’t doubted by anyone in the know. But in doing so, the administration is now running the risk of losing the advantage it obtained when it was able to use Netanyahu’s blunder about the speech to divert the national discussion from its indefensible position on Iran. Rather than damaging Netanyahu’s credibility and increasing his isolation (an absurd charge since few took notice of Netanyahu’s testimony on Iraq at the time), this all-out offensive is making him seem a more sympathetic figure that deserves a hearing.

Netanyahu has shown remarkably poor judgment in recent weeks that belied the supposedly deft understanding of Washington and American politics that has been his trademark and that of Ron Dermer, his ambassador to the United States. Accepting Boehner’s invitation without clearing it with the White House allowed Obama to make Netanyahu the issue rather than the administration’s opposition to a sanctions bill that would have strengthened its hands in the Iran talks. The prime minister compounded that mistake by then refusing an invitation to meet privately with Senate Democrats because he feared that might constitute an admission that he was colluding with the Republicans.

The administration ought to be wary of overplaying its hand on Netanyahu. After all, no matter how much applause he gets or doesn’t get when he gives his speech to Congress next week, none of that can prevent Kerry from cutting a disastrous deal with Iran if the ayatollahs are ready to make one at all. Given the president’s plans not to present any agreement to the Senate for approval as a treaty and the poor chances of an override of a veto of an Iran sanctions bill, he might be better off ignoring Israeli objections rather than jousting with him.

Though Obama has a reputation as a cold-blooded decision maker, he seems to have let his hatred for Netanyahu get the better of him and ordered his minions to launch a general offensive against Israel in order to crush the prime minister even before he opens his mouth in Washington. Why is he bothering?

The answer is that deep underneath the president’s cool exterior and his conviction that he and only he understands what is right for the country is a fear that Netanyahu’s powerful arguments against appeasing Iran will be heard and believed. That gives the Israeli more credit than he may deserve, but it also reflects Obama’s awareness that if openly debated, his string of unprecedented concessions to Iran can’t be easily defended.

After promising in his 2012 reelection campaign that any deal with Iran would ensure that its nuclear program be eliminated, the president is now preparing to not only guarantee its continued possession of a vast nuclear infrastructure but the phased portion of the current proposal on the table would implicitly grant the Islamist regime the ability to build a bomb after a ten-year period. Just as importantly, the U.S. now seems as indifferent to Iran’s support of international terrorism, its anti-Semitism, threats to destroy Israel, and its push for regional hegemony as it is to the prospect of it being a threshold nuclear power.

In pursuit of this agenda with Iran, the president has ruthlessly played the partisan card (while accusing Netanyahu of doing the same), pushing Democrats to abandon what was formerly a true bipartisan consensus against Iran and seeking to undermine the pro-Israel coalition in Congress. But as long as pundits are discussing or bashing Netanyahu, these issues have been marginalized. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing even when it comes to sniping at the Israeli leader.

Kerry’s absurd overreach against Netanyahu while lamely seeking to defend his current concessions to Iran shows that the administration has reached the point of diminishing returns with respect to the Israeli. Whether Netanyahu was wise to plan this speech is now beside the point. The more the administration seeks to shut him up, the more credence his remarks get. Whereas the address might have been just a Washington story had the White House not gone ballistic about it, it will now be treated as a major international event raising the stakes on the Iran debate just at the moment the administration would like to calm things down. The time has come for the administration to back down and let him talk lest the country listen to Netanyahu’s arguments and realize the president is selling them a bill of goods on Iran.

Read Less

Who’s Destroying the U.S.-Israel Relationship? Obama Deserves the Blame.

It was President Obama’s first White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel who said the administration never wanted to waste a crisis. The maxim appears to still be cherished by the president’s current advisors. The latest administration shot fired at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, this time by National Security Advisor Susan Rice in which she charged the Israeli with acting in a way that was “destructive” to the U.S.-Israel relationship, is best understood by Emanuel’s subsequent explanation of his much-quoted statement: “And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Netanyahu’s blunder in accepting House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to speak to Congress was an opening that the administration has used to change the discussion about Iran’s nuclear threat to its advantage. But it has also given Obama’s team the chance to do something they’ve been longing to do for six years: openly attack Israel’s government. Yet while they are enjoying doing that, no one should be under any illusions about the fault for the problems between Israel and the United States being solely the fault of Netanyahu.

Read More

It was President Obama’s first White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel who said the administration never wanted to waste a crisis. The maxim appears to still be cherished by the president’s current advisors. The latest administration shot fired at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, this time by National Security Advisor Susan Rice in which she charged the Israeli with acting in a way that was “destructive” to the U.S.-Israel relationship, is best understood by Emanuel’s subsequent explanation of his much-quoted statement: “And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Netanyahu’s blunder in accepting House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to speak to Congress was an opening that the administration has used to change the discussion about Iran’s nuclear threat to its advantage. But it has also given Obama’s team the chance to do something they’ve been longing to do for six years: openly attack Israel’s government. Yet while they are enjoying doing that, no one should be under any illusions about the fault for the problems between Israel and the United States being solely the fault of Netanyahu.

As I wrote earlier today, Netanyahu’s decision to turn down an invitation to speak to Senate Democrats is the latest in a series of unforced errors that have aided the administration’s efforts to distract the country from their string of unprecedented concessions to Iran on the nuclear issue. By choosing to accept an invitation from the speaker to speak to Congress in favor of a measure the president opposed—increased sanctions on Iran—Netanyahu allowed the White House to make his alleged breach of protocol the issue rather than the president’s indefensible appeasement of Iran in pursuit of a new détente with the Islamist regime.

That was a tactical error. But if we’re going to discuss who has done the most damage to the U.S.-Israel alliance, the notion that Netanyahu’s willingness to speak up about the administration’s drift to appeasement is the main factor tearing it apart means we’ve left the world of analysis and entered that of fiction. If you want to pin the blame for the decline in closeness, the fault belongs to President Obama.

Let’s remember that this is the same man who came into office determined above all to change one thing about U.S. Middle East policy: create more distance between the U.S. and Israel. At that time, the Obama team took it as a given that the reason peace had eluded the region was that George W. Bush had grown too close to Israel. President Obama did everything he could in subsequent years to change that perception, and he succeeded.

But years of pointless spats with Israel over Jerusalem (though Obama’s predecessors had never recognized Israeli sovereignty over its capital, this administration broke new ground by turning building projects in 40-year-old Jewish neighborhoods into sources of tension), West Bank settlements (in spite of the fact that Netanyahu agreed at one point to a building freeze), and the terms of a final peace settlement brought the region not one inch closer to peace. That’s because no matter how much Obama tilted the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians, they were still uninterested in a peace deal. But not even Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas torpedoing peace talks by making a deal with Hamas and heading to the United Nations in violation of his Oslo Accords commitments could convince this administration that the fault for their failure was the fault of anyone but Netanyahu.

Though the Obama administration did increase security cooperation and funding for defense projects like the Iron Dome missile-defense system, it also sought to undermine Israeli self-defense against Hamas attacks at every step, even cutting off the resupply of ammunition during last summer’s Gaza war.

But it is on Iran, an entente with which seems to have become the chief obsession of the president’s second term, that Obama did most to damage the relationship. Though he had pledged that any deal would not allow Iran to keep its nuclear program, a string of concessions has now led to the point where it is clear an agreement would allow it to become a threshold nuclear power. The latest U.S. retreat is now an offer to allow Iran to do anything it likes with its nuclear toys after a ten-year freeze. Moreover, the president’s decision to acquiesce to Iran’s military moves in Iraq and the continuation in power of Tehran ally Bashar Assad in Syria have signaled a major U.S. policy shift. While moderate Arab nations and Israel are worried about Iran’s successful drive for regional hegemony, the administration appears to be encouraging it.

Just as important, it is the administration that has done most to make Israel a partisan issue by trying to break up the bipartisan coalition in favor of Iran sanctions on party lines. Throughout the last few months it has been Obama who has been playing the partisan card to stop Iran sanctions even though prominent Democrats like New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez were leading the charge against his dangerous policies.

It is these actions and not Netanyahu’s inept decisions that are truly damaging the relationship. Blame the prime minister all you want for allowing his speech to become the cause célèbre symbolizing the breakdown in relations under Obama, but it has always been the president who has been the prime mover in damaging the alliance.

Read Less

Another Unforced Error for Netanyahu

What was Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu thinking when he rejected an invitation from Senate Democrats to speak to a private meeting of their caucus? Netanyahu’s rationale is that he only wants to speak to bipartisan groups rather than to meet with either Democrats or Republicans and thereby be drawn into America’s partisan disputes. But by publicly rejecting what seems like an olive branch from Democrats, he is doing just the opposite. Rather than uphold the bipartisan nature of the pro-Israel coalition in Washington, the prime minister’s refusal is being interpreted as another snub to President Obama’s party after his decision to accept an invitation to speak to a joint session of Congress from House Speaker John Boehner without consulting with the White House. Just when you thought this story couldn’t get any worse for Netanyahu—at least as far as the way it is perceived in the United States—the Israeli leader dug himself and his country a slightly deeper hole in yet another unforced error.

Read More

What was Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu thinking when he rejected an invitation from Senate Democrats to speak to a private meeting of their caucus? Netanyahu’s rationale is that he only wants to speak to bipartisan groups rather than to meet with either Democrats or Republicans and thereby be drawn into America’s partisan disputes. But by publicly rejecting what seems like an olive branch from Democrats, he is doing just the opposite. Rather than uphold the bipartisan nature of the pro-Israel coalition in Washington, the prime minister’s refusal is being interpreted as another snub to President Obama’s party after his decision to accept an invitation to speak to a joint session of Congress from House Speaker John Boehner without consulting with the White House. Just when you thought this story couldn’t get any worse for Netanyahu—at least as far as the way it is perceived in the United States—the Israeli leader dug himself and his country a slightly deeper hole in yet another unforced error.

As his official response indicates, it is likely that the prime minister’s office saw the invitation as a trap rather than an opportunity to counter the White House spin of his speech as the Israeli government taking sides with Republicans against the White House on the question of Iran sanctions. Since he rightly believes that speaking to Congress about the dangers from Iran’s nuclear program and the need for increased sanctions is an issue that transcends partisan loyalties, Netanyahu may have thought that accepting the invite from the Democrats would have been a tacit admission that he had erred in cooking up the speech with Boehner.

He may have been right about that. But, once again, the prime minister and his advisors—people who have a better grasp of Washington culture than most Israelis—have gotten so deep into the issue that they’ve lost sight of political reality. Rightly or wrongly, the speech to Congress is widely seen as a Netanyahu attack on Obama that is resented even by Democrats who agree with the prime minister and disagree with the president on Iran sanctions and the direction of the negotiations with Tehran. Rather than viewing the invitation from the Senate Democrats negatively, he should have taken it as an opportunity to prove that he had no interest in playing one party against another. If there were a problem with the perception of him meeting with one group of senators—something that is far from unprecedented—it wouldn’t have been too hard to persuade Republicans to meet with him too.

Instead, by stubbornly sticking to his narrative about the speech to Congress and ignoring the need to acknowledge that the story has gotten away from him, Netanyahu has done more damage to his reputation and, once again, assisted the administration’s efforts to brand him as a disruptive force within the alliance. Just at the moment when it seemed the discussion was shifting from one about the prime minister’s chutzpah to the latest dangerous round of concessions being offered to Iran by the president, we get another news cycle in which the focus is on Netanyahu’s incompetent management of relations with people who should be his allies in Congress.

Acknowledging this latest blunder doesn’t mean that Netanyahu’s position on Iran isn’t correct. The administration’s reported offer of a ten-year freeze with Tehran that would grant Western approval not only for Iran’s nuclear infrastructure but its eventual acquisition of a weapon is a betrayal of the president’s 2008 and 2012 campaign pledges on the issue. Though some were accusing Israel of making up stories about the talks in order to discredit the diplomatic process, it now appears that the worst fears about Obama’s push for détente with Iran are coming true. Rather than stopping Iran, the administration’s priority is making common cause with it to the detriment of the security of both America’s moderate Arab allies and the Jewish state.

This is the moment when the bipartisan pro-Israel community in this country should be uniting behind a push for more sanctions on Iran and opposition to appeasement of its nuclear ambitions. But by walking right into Obama’s trap, Netanyahu has reduced the chances of passing sanctions by a veto-proof majority. And by doubling down on this by refusing to meet with Senate Democrats, he has ensured that his speech will continue to be interpreted through a partisan lens rather than as a necessary cry of alarm that should be taken up by both parties.

It’s possible that, as I wrote yesterday, the duel with the White House may actually be helping Netanyahu in his reelection fight at home since it puts Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog in the unenviable position of being the Israeli ally of a president that is rightly viewed with suspicion by most voters in the Jewish state. But you don’t have to sympathize with either Obama or Herzog to understand that Netanyahu’s blunders are deepening the divide between Republicans and Democrats on Israel just at the moment when he should be redoubling his efforts to bridge them.

In the first six years of this administration, Netanyahu was roundly abused in the American press for his arguments with the president. But on the whole he conducted himself with dignity and strength and was rarely outmaneuvered. But in the last two months, Netanyahu has not been able to get out of his own way when it comes to managing relations with Congress or the White House. It may be too late for him to step back from the speech. But it isn’t too late to try and rectify the harm he is doing by rethinking his rejection of the Democrats’ invitation.

I don’t know exactly who is advising him to make these unforced errors but whoever it is, they should be fired or ignored in the future. Whether or not Netanyahu is reelected next month, the next prime minister of Israel is going to need both Republicans and Democrats in the years to come to maintain the alliance and to manage the growing threat from Iran that Obama is encouraging rather than stopping. Much to my surprise and others who thought him a brilliant political operator, Netanyahu seems to have forgotten that.

Read Less

Iran Talks Continue U.S. Nuclear Retreat

The latest round of nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and its Western partners and Iran ended today in Geneva without agreement. But it’s clear that the Obama administration is hoping that its latest concessions will entice Iran to finally sign a document in the coming weeks that could somehow be interpreted as a foreign-policy victory for a president badly in need of one. To support this notion of an impending deal, a “senior administration official” briefed the press on the outlines of the latest proposal delivered to the Iranians. But while it seems like something Tehran ought to pounce on if it really wants to “get right with the world,” in the president’s words, the details tell us more about the administration’s desperation than about progress toward an accord that would conclusively end the Iranian nuclear threat. After several previous Western retreats that had gradually ensured that Iran could keep its nuclear infrastructure, the latest concession in the form of a phased program will eventually grant the Islamist regime the freedom to do anything it wants.

Read More

The latest round of nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and its Western partners and Iran ended today in Geneva without agreement. But it’s clear that the Obama administration is hoping that its latest concessions will entice Iran to finally sign a document in the coming weeks that could somehow be interpreted as a foreign-policy victory for a president badly in need of one. To support this notion of an impending deal, a “senior administration official” briefed the press on the outlines of the latest proposal delivered to the Iranians. But while it seems like something Tehran ought to pounce on if it really wants to “get right with the world,” in the president’s words, the details tell us more about the administration’s desperation than about progress toward an accord that would conclusively end the Iranian nuclear threat. After several previous Western retreats that had gradually ensured that Iran could keep its nuclear infrastructure, the latest concession in the form of a phased program will eventually grant the Islamist regime the freedom to do anything it wants.

The proposed terms leaked by the U.S. represent a shocking demarche from the president’s 2012 promise that any deal would mean Iran would have to give up its nuclear program. As the Associated Press reports:

The United States and Iran are working on a two-phase deal that clamps down on Tehran’s nuclear program for at least a decade before providing it leeway over the remainder of the agreement to slowly ramp up activities that could be used to make weapons. …

The U.S. initially sought restrictions lasting for up to 20 years; Iran had pushed for less than a decade. The prospective deal appears to be somewhere in the middle. One variation being discussed would place at least 10-year regime of strict controls on Iran’s uranium enrichment program. If Iran complies, the restrictions would be gradually lifted over the last five years of such an agreement.

Iran could be allowed to operate significantly more centrifuges than the U.S. administration first demanded, though at lower capacity than they currently run. Several officials spoke of 6,500 centrifuges as a potential point of compromise, with the U.S. trying to restrict them to Iran’s mainstay IR-1 model instead of more advanced machines.

While in theory this could mean that Iran would be prevented from building a bomb during the next decade, it more or less puts in place a Western acquiescence to future plans for a bomb.

But there are two clear problems with this idea.

One is that like past concessions giving Iran the right to enrich uranium, albeit at low levels and then the one authorizing the regime to hold onto thousands of centrifuges and the option to keep its nuclear stockpile in a non-active state, this latest retreat isn’t the last one Iran will expect the West to make on its way to an agreement. The dynamic of the negotiations that President Obama has authorized is clear. Whenever Iran says no to a Western demand, the U.S. simply says OK and gives in. At this stage, and with no sign that the Americans will ever walk away from talks that have already been extended three times, the Iranians clearly think they can keep negotiating indefinitely until the U.S. eventually agrees to a deal that would give Iran everything it wants, seriously endangering the security of the West but also that of Israel and moderate Arab nations.

The second problem is that, as last week’s report from the International Atomic Energy Agency stated, Iran is still stonewalling the UN body’s efforts to discover the facts about their progress toward weaponization of their nuclear research. The West simply has no idea how close the Iranians have gotten to a bomb. They also have no idea how much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is unknown to them. While Israeli and Western intelligence have openly speculated about the likelihood that much of the country’s nuclear work is being conducted at secret facilities, without a rigorous inspection regime that would give the IAEA access there is not a ghost of a chance that any regulation scheme could possibly work to restrain Iran, no matter how many carrots President Obama is offering his Islamist negotiating partners.

Under these circumstances, it’s understandable that the Israeli government is upset. While the administration is intent on using the nuclear talks as a wedge by which it can create a new détente with Iran that will ensure cooperation on a host of issues such as the fight against ISIS, in practice what it is doing is acquiescing to Tehran’s push for regional hegemony. Even in the unlikely event that Iran observes the proposed agreement, giving it this much capacity will make it a threshold nuclear power and a clear threat to the future of Israel (which it again threatened with destruction last week) as well as moderate Arab regimes.

Though the president’s apologists will, as they have with past concessions, defend this proposal as the best deal that can be made, Washington’s zeal for a deal is again the undoing of Western resolve. Kicking the can down the road for ten years may make sense to a president that has less than two more years in office. But the security of the West and its allies must be viewed with a longer perspective.

Yet what has to be most frustrating for observers who care about stopping the Iranian nuclear threat is the willingness of the administration to publicize concessions in such a way as to make them the starting point for future talks. With this ten-year pledge in their pocket, you can bet the next round of negotiations will begin with Iranian demands to lower the amount of time they will have to operate under restrictions. At this rate by 2016, Obama will have given away any shred of a deterrent to Iranian cheating or its future nuclear ambitions.

Though the administration thinks this leak will bolster its position, members of Congress who take this issue seriously should regard it as an even greater incentive for them to pass more sanctions on Iran that will attempt to restrain the desire of this president to accept any deal, even a disastrous one, rather than ever admit that his outreach to a tyrannical, anti-Semitic, terror-sponsoring Iranian regime has failed.

Read Less

An IAEA Report and Obama’s Zeal for a Deal

The decision by the Obama administration to cut Israel out of the loop when it comes to information about the secret nuclear negotiations with Iran has once again put the feud between the president and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back into the spotlight. The decision was based on White House allegations that the Israelis were distorting the facts about the generous U.S. offer to the Islamist regime. But a new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency about Iran’s refusal to allow inspectors to find out what’s really going on in their nuclear facilities puts this dispute in a very different light. With the Americans seeking to allow Iran the right to keep several thousand centrifuges and a nuclear stockpile, the stonewalling of the IAEA should cause observers to think carefully about the secrets the U.S. is keeping and whether they reflect the president’s zeal for a deal with Iran more than his past promises to stop them from gaining a nuclear weapon.

Read More

The decision by the Obama administration to cut Israel out of the loop when it comes to information about the secret nuclear negotiations with Iran has once again put the feud between the president and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back into the spotlight. The decision was based on White House allegations that the Israelis were distorting the facts about the generous U.S. offer to the Islamist regime. But a new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency about Iran’s refusal to allow inspectors to find out what’s really going on in their nuclear facilities puts this dispute in a very different light. With the Americans seeking to allow Iran the right to keep several thousand centrifuges and a nuclear stockpile, the stonewalling of the IAEA should cause observers to think carefully about the secrets the U.S. is keeping and whether they reflect the president’s zeal for a deal with Iran more than his past promises to stop them from gaining a nuclear weapon.

The IAEA reported yesterday that Iran was continuing to refuse to answer questions or allow inspections of sites that would reveal the extent of their military nuclear research. This is a crucial problem because without the UN body knowing what work Iran has done on nuclear weapons and designs, any accord based on incomplete Western intelligence or untrustworthy Iranian admissions would be meaningless. More to the point, if, as President Obama seems likely to do, the sanctions on Iran are lifted after a deal is signed, the gaps in Western knowledge of the Iranian program may allow the Islamist regime to simply proceed toward a weapon with facilities and research about which the U.S. is currently unaware.

As the New York Times notes:

The report said the agency “remains concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear-related activities involving military-related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.”

Because Iran has not provided explanations for the agency’s questions about all nuclear-related work, the report said, “the agency is not in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”

The problems with negotiating with Iran are well known.

On the one hand, their negotiating tactics have always revolved around delaying tactics that seek to draw out the talks in such a way that their Western interlocutors are enticed to make a series of concessions in the hope that the Iranians will finally agree. Running out the clock in this manner both sweetens a potential deal for them—as Obama’s shocking abandonment of his past principles illustrates—as well as allowing their program extra time in which to get closer to their nuclear goal.

These tactics have exploited President Obama’s open desire for détente with Iran. But in the absence of credible intelligence on their ability to “break out” to a bomb, Washington is negotiating in the dark.

The outline of a deal with Iran is already clear. As numerous reports have already established, the U.S. is prepared to allow Iran to keep most, if not all of its nuclear infrastructure in exchange for promises that it has no assurances will be kept. That will make Iran a threshold nuclear power even if it doesn’t violate the terms of the agreement. Once sanctions are lifted, it will be difficult, if not impossible to put them back in place. No matter how weak the deal or how unlikely Iran is to keep its word, President Obama will seize on it as a major foreign-policy achievement and not be inclined to question anything the Iranians do.

Thus, the Israeli alarm about this act of appeasement is more than justified. But even if you doubt Netanyahu’s judgment, the stonewalling of the IAEA should worry even the most ardent supporters of the president’s policy. Without firm knowledge of Iran’s capabilities and research—something that is unlikely to be obtained given the secretive nature of the regime and its extensive and widely dispersed nuclear facilities—U.S. guarantees about stopping Iran long before a bomb can be constructed seem like hollow promises. Put in this context, Netanyahu’s sniping about U.S. policy seems less like the pointless spat depicted in the U.S. press and more like reasonable complaints about a dangerous and secret initiative that deserve to be treated seriously.

Read Less

Obama’s Secret Iran Talks Deserve Scrutiny

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal reported that the exchange of secret letters between President Obama and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has resumed. The letters are believed to concern Obama’s offer of cooperation with Iran against ISIS terrorists if Tehran will agree to a deal on its nuclear program. These letters have clearly been a crucial element in the six-year administration effort to forge a new détente with the Islamist regime. But they must also be placed in the context of the ongoing dispute between the U.S. and Israel about the nuclear talks. Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chided the U.S. for attempting to hide the details about the negotiations from Israel. While the president doesn’t like or trust the prime minister, those concerned about a drift toward accommodation of Iran’s demands are not wrong to note that the secrecy about the negotiations undermines the credibility of the administration’s assurances that it can be trusted not to betray the Israelis or American security interests in a futile pursuit of good relations with Khamenei’s government.

Read More

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal reported that the exchange of secret letters between President Obama and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has resumed. The letters are believed to concern Obama’s offer of cooperation with Iran against ISIS terrorists if Tehran will agree to a deal on its nuclear program. These letters have clearly been a crucial element in the six-year administration effort to forge a new détente with the Islamist regime. But they must also be placed in the context of the ongoing dispute between the U.S. and Israel about the nuclear talks. Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chided the U.S. for attempting to hide the details about the negotiations from Israel. While the president doesn’t like or trust the prime minister, those concerned about a drift toward accommodation of Iran’s demands are not wrong to note that the secrecy about the negotiations undermines the credibility of the administration’s assurances that it can be trusted not to betray the Israelis or American security interests in a futile pursuit of good relations with Khamenei’s government.

For the past few weeks, concerns about the details of the terms the U.S. is offering to Iran in the nuclear talks have been obscured by the controversy about Netanyahu’s determination to speak to a joint session of Congress next month about Iran. As I’ve pointed out, accepting House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation was a tactical blunder on Netanyahu’s part since it allowed the president and his apologists to divert the discussion about Iran from his indefensible pursuit of an entente with a radical terror-sponsoring tyranny to one about the Israeli’s alleged breach of protocol. This was a no-win confrontation for Israel and its friends that may have made it harder for Congress to pass tougher sanctions on Iran with a veto-proof majority because of defections from Democrats concerned about not taking sides with a foreign leader against the president. But the Journal report reminds us that the stakes here involve a lot more than the personal animus between Obama and Netanyahu.

The decision of the U.S. to keep Israel out of the loop about the details of its talks with Iran makes sense only inside the White House bubble where Netanyahu—the democratically-elected leader of America’s ally—is perceived as an enemy and the theocrat tyrant Khamenei is viewed as the head of a nation that must be wooed and won over in an effort to forge an entente with Tehran. Diplomacy is always best practiced outside of public view, but the problem with the discussion about Iran is that the administration’s public stand about its desire to prevent the regime from getting a nuclear weapon is at odds with everything we know about the negotiations.

As the Washington Post’s David Ignatius pointed out yesterday, the White House continues to claim that its offers to let Iran keep much of its nuclear infrastructure are misunderstood. He writes that officials say granting Iran the right to keep several thousands centrifuges and a stockpile of nuclear fuel would actually be tougher than one that would give them only a few hundred newer machines and a larger stockpile. But this is a classic Obama false choice in which a straw man is set up for the administration to knock down. What the Israelis and concerned members of Congress who support the threat of more sanctions want is for the president to keep his 2012 campaign pledge that stated that any deal would involve the end of Iran’s nuclear program. The administration has abandoned that position in favor of one that gives Iran the ability to build a bomb but only under circumstances that would take more than a year for them to “break out” to a weapon.

The problem with the one-year breakout offer is that there is a good argument to be made by the Israelis and others that the breakout period would be much shorter. Moreover, the idea that U.S. intelligence in Iran is good enough to detect the breakout in time to do something to prevent is, to put it mildly, a dubious assumption.

American officials may be angry about the fact that the Israelis are doing their best to publicize the details about American offers to Iran that make it clear that, at best, the U.S. is prepared to acquiesce to Khamenei’s regime becoming a threshold nuclear power. But, like their much publicized hurt feelings about Netanyahu’s speech to Congress that they’ve used to pick off wavering Democrats from the ranks of supporters of more sanctions, their umbrage about the Israeli disclosures rings false. The more we know about Obama’s communications with Khamenei and the fine print in the Western offers in the nuclear negotiations, the more it seems certain that détente is the president’s goal, not putting an end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Disputes with Israel are being used as a cover to shield a diplomatic offensive aimed at allowing Iranian hegemony in the Middle East. If the president expects the country and Congress to follow his lead on Iran, it’s only fair to ask where he is leading us before, rather than after, he signs a nuclear deal that endangers U.S. allies and puts American security in the hands of the supreme leader and his terrorist auxiliaries.

Read Less

Iran Sanctions Can Change History, Not a Netanyahu Speech

The debate about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plans to speak to Congress next month continues with Democrats continuing to express dismay at what they are wrongly characterizing as an insult to President Obama. The administration’s ability to frame the issue as a conflict between the president and the prime minister has largely succeeded in marginalizing the discussion about Iran’s nuclear program and whether the current negotiations will do much to avert the threat. I have argued that in accepting House Speaker Boehner’s invitation, Netanyahu has walked into a trap and that the net effect of that decision is to lessen the chances that Congress will pass more sanctions. But his supporters and other opponents of Obama’s policies argue that the extreme nature of the danger presented by Iran and a U.S. policy of appeasement require that Netanyahu speak in spite of the controversy over his appearance. These points, made both by Rick Richman and in numerous comments from readers, deserve an answer.

Read More

The debate about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plans to speak to Congress next month continues with Democrats continuing to express dismay at what they are wrongly characterizing as an insult to President Obama. The administration’s ability to frame the issue as a conflict between the president and the prime minister has largely succeeded in marginalizing the discussion about Iran’s nuclear program and whether the current negotiations will do much to avert the threat. I have argued that in accepting House Speaker Boehner’s invitation, Netanyahu has walked into a trap and that the net effect of that decision is to lessen the chances that Congress will pass more sanctions. But his supporters and other opponents of Obama’s policies argue that the extreme nature of the danger presented by Iran and a U.S. policy of appeasement require that Netanyahu speak in spite of the controversy over his appearance. These points, made both by Rick Richman and in numerous comments from readers, deserve an answer.

Richman and other advocates for Netanyahu sticking to his plans are right when they say the peril presented by a nuclear Iran is grave. At best, President Obama’s current policies seem aimed at tolerating Iran becoming a nuclear threshold state in exchange for Tehran agreeing to some sort of détente with the United States. This is a colossal mistake. Even if Iran were to keep its promises about not building a bomb, which it almost certainly would not, it would mean a U.S. seal of approval for Iranian hegemony over the Middle East in which they could use their allies in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, and Yemen to destabilize moderate Arab regimes and conduct a two-front war against Israel. Another possible scenario is that while indefinitely dragging out the talks with the United States, Iran is able to break out to a nuclear weapon, a step that would, as the president himself has said, would be a “game changer” that could plunge the region into violent chaos as well as threatening the security of the West.

Presented with these awful choices, Richman and other supporters of the speech say that what is needed is for Netanyahu to come to Washington to warn Congress and the American people about what lies ahead. In making these arguments, there have been many comparisons between the prime minister and Winston Churchill. We are told that Netanyahu’s speech could, like Churchill’s warnings against appeasement of Nazi Germany, turn the tide against Obama’s stand. When stacked against the existential threat presented to the future of Israel, we are told that this “issue goes far beyond politics and protocol” and therefore obligates Netanyahu to go to Congress.

This is a serious argument. But as much as the dangers it speaks of are real, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a Netanyahu speech or any speech at this point will do much about it. It also ignores the fact that to dismiss the impact of politics on this effort is to engage in magical thinking.

Let’s remember that this episode began as part of an effort to rally bipartisan support for the bipartisan Iran sanctions bill proposed by Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez. Republicans’ control of the Senate meant that, unlike last year when then-Majority Leader Harry Reid had torpedoed an earlier version of this bill, chances of success were excellent. The only question was if President Obama could persuade enough Democrats to sustain the veto of the bill he threatened in his State of the Union speech, but the odds appeared to be against him as most pro-Israel members of his party were on record as supporting more sanctions.

The Kirk-Menendez bill is not a magic bullet. By itself it cannot derail Obama’s push for appeasement of Iran since the president could use the waivers in the bill to avoid enforcing it even if it became law despite his veto. But it could make it much harder for him to keep negotiating indefinitely if the Iranians do not accept the weak offer currently on the table. And it could force a congressional debate on the terms of a deal that allowed Iran to keep its nuclear infrastructure if the Islamist regime took yes for an answer and gave the president the deal he is begging them to sign.

What supporters of the Netanyahu speech steadfastly refuse to acknowledge is the fact that his intervention in the debate has had a disastrous impact on the chances of passing Kirk-Menendez. By giving the White House the distraction it needed, it changed the terms of the discussion from one over Obama’s indefensible opposition to a measure that would strengthen his hand in the negotiations to one about the questionable wisdom of having a foreign leader become a player in an American legislative debate.

That the way this was brought about as the result of underhanded administration tactics and even outright lies about the supposed breach of protocol involved in Boehner’s invitation is beside the point. It doesn’t matter that Netanyahu’s intention was to trump Obama’s stand on Iran and not to become a pawn in the endless struggle between Republicans and Democrats on the Hill. What matters is that this is how the administration and its media allies played the story and that is how a lot of Democrats, a party that has many friends of Israel in its ranks, are interpreting these events.

What the pro-Israel community was hoping to achieve this year was a bipartisan push for an Iran sanctions bill that might hobble Obama’s Iran strategy. What it got instead was something that has been, however unfairly, converted into a duel between Obama and Netanyahu in which Kirk-Menendez and Iran policy have become sidebars to a tussle that is more reminiscent of the fights between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.

Were a Netanyahu speech on Iran the sort of event that could, by itself, transcend this political mess and change the nature of the discussion about the nuclear issue, it might be justified. But despite the rather profligate comparisons between the prime minister and Churchill, that is an argument that doesn’t hold water.

Netanyahu is a fine speaker and he has the advantage of being right on the issue. But nothing he says, however eloquent, can overcome the baggage that he would be carrying with him into the House chamber. The story will not be so much about the nature of a threat, about which members of both parties are well aware, but the duel with the White House and the absent Democrats. Netanyahu may speak some great truths that may someday be looked back upon as prescient. But he is not the towering figure that his fans think he is. The record number of standing ovations he received during his 2011 speech to Congress was a product of the bipartisan support he had at the time. By allowing himself to be outmaneuvered so badly by Obama, he no longer can count on the same kind of backing. Churchillian rhetoric doesn’t make a speaker a Churchill.

Moreover, despite the obsession by many on the Zionist right with the idea that saying something true is a transcendent value, it is not as important as accomplishing something tangible. Speeches don’t always change the course of history. After all, even Churchill’s brilliant statements in the House of Commons opposing Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler did not prevent the Munich agreement from being signed. What was necessary in 1938 was not a good speech but a parliamentary majority against appeasement that might have averted World War Two and the Holocaust. The same is true today. We don’t need a great clarifying address about Iran. What we need is a coalition of Republicans and Democrats to pass a bill that will undermine Obama’s willingness to give Iran what it wants. If Netanyahu’s speech makes that harder—and that is exactly what it is doing—then friends of Israel should be urging him not to give it.

What is even more troubling about some of the comments from supporters of Netanyahu’s speech is that some of them seem to actually welcome the prospect of the splintering of the bipartisan pro-Israel coalition and view its transformation into a more cohesive and straightforward anti-Obama faction with approbation. That is neither in the interest of Israel or the alliance with the United States. Indeed, such a trend would destroy decades of hard work on the part of AIPAC and its army of activists who have striven to make the case that support for Israel transcends party allegiances.

It is understandable that the existential nature of the threat from Iran should give rise to high emotions and the need to cast anything related to the issue in apocalyptic terms. They see a decision to concentrate on the sanctions and to forget about a counterproductive tactic as surrender and weakness rather than wisdom. When faced with the horrible prospect of an Iranian bomb, some pro-Israel activists seem to embrace the emotional satisfaction of a direct rhetorical challenge to Obama rather than the hard practical political work of passing a bill that might do more to change history for the better than a speech. The prime minister should be smart enough to pass on this sort of immature and magical thinking. So should his American friends.

Read Less

Must Netanyahu Give That Speech?

With every passing day, more Democrats are claiming they will boycott Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s scheduled speech on Iran sanctions to a joint session of Congress next month. This is, as I wrote earlier, largely the result of a partisan campaign by the president and his blind partisan supporters and not because what Netanyahu is planning to do is some sort of outrageous or unprecedented stunt. But unfair or not, there is no getting around the fact that Netanyahu’s hope that he could replicate his triumphant 2011 appearance before Congress is not realistic. In response, the prime minister and his backers are saying that this is beside the point and insist that he has a duty to come to Washington to tell the truth about Iran to a Congress and an American people that are in desperate need of that message. That sounds quite noble and is, to a certain extent, true, as Americans have been getting a lot of misinformation about the issue in recent weeks. But it is also beside the point. The painful truth is that although he is in the right on the issue and Obama quite wrong, the prime minister is helping to derail the debate on Iran and will continue to do so as long as he persists in his determination to give the speech.

Read More

With every passing day, more Democrats are claiming they will boycott Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s scheduled speech on Iran sanctions to a joint session of Congress next month. This is, as I wrote earlier, largely the result of a partisan campaign by the president and his blind partisan supporters and not because what Netanyahu is planning to do is some sort of outrageous or unprecedented stunt. But unfair or not, there is no getting around the fact that Netanyahu’s hope that he could replicate his triumphant 2011 appearance before Congress is not realistic. In response, the prime minister and his backers are saying that this is beside the point and insist that he has a duty to come to Washington to tell the truth about Iran to a Congress and an American people that are in desperate need of that message. That sounds quite noble and is, to a certain extent, true, as Americans have been getting a lot of misinformation about the issue in recent weeks. But it is also beside the point. The painful truth is that although he is in the right on the issue and Obama quite wrong, the prime minister is helping to derail the debate on Iran and will continue to do so as long as he persists in his determination to give the speech.

Let’s specify again, lest there be any confusion as to the rights and wrongs of the issue, that President Obama’s opposition to the bipartisan bill sponsored by Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Robert Menendez is utterly illogical if his goal is to actually pressure Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. If, however, as seems more than evident, the president’s objective is détente with Iran, then his opposition to Kirk-Menendez makes perfect sense. And that is why the bipartisan majority that already existed within both houses of Congress for sanctions should persist in their plans to pass a bill and, if necessary, override Obama’s threatened veto.

But the idea that the factor that will ensure such a vote is a speech by Netanyahu is farcical.

Though he and his supporters speak as if members of Congress need to hear a speech from him in order to understand the issue, this is an issue that Congress has been debating for years. Interested members have gotten regular briefings and know very well Israel’s cogent argument in favor of more pressure on the Iranians. The only difference between last year when large majorities backed an earlier version of Kirk-Menendez and now is that Harry Reid is no longer in a position to prevent a vote on it in the Senate.

Despite the talk of a Netanyahu speech as indispensable, the chances of amassing a veto-proof majority were actually better before the announcement of House Speaker Boehner’s invitation than now. Weeks ago, the administration was resigned to a veto fight that they knew they stood a good chance of losing. But thanks to Netanyahu’s foolish decision to walk into the trap that Obama laid for him, they seem confident that they can, at worst, sustain the veto.

Netanyahu provided Obama and his allies with the perfect distraction from his Iran policy and the president has made the most of it. Democrats speak of the invitation as an underhanded plot even if we now know that the White House was informed of the plan before Netanyahu accepted the invite. And many of them have bought the White House’s argument that his trip is an insult to the first African-American president. They have deftly exploited partisan tensions between the parties on the Hill and even played the race card in a despicable effort to get the Congressional Black Caucus to give momentum to the boycott of Netanyahu.

This is terrible, but it is now a political fact that Netanyahu and his backers must acknowledge. The longer Washington is discussing whether the prime minister should come to Congress, the lower the chances of passing sanctions.

It’s time for Netanyahu to come to grips with the question of what his real goal is here. If it’s to help the Republicans and Democrats who are working hard to pass this bill, he should know it’s time for him to find an excuse to back down and not give the speech. His is a powerful and eloquent voice, but what Congress needs to hear now is the sound of Democrats like Menendez and his colleagues making the case for sanctions, not a foreign leader, albeit from a country that most members of the House and the Senate regard with affection. It is only when he removes himself as a distraction from this debate that sanctions advocates will have a chance to get the focus back on Obama’s indefensible policies rather than Netanyahu’s supposed chutzpah.

I know admitting this goes against the grain for many in the pro-Israel community who want the satisfaction of seeing Netanyahu openly challenge Obama. But their emotional gratification from having the prime minister proudly stand up for his country’s interests again on the big stage of Capitol Hill is nothing beside the damage this discussion is doing to the chances for passage of Kirk-Menendez.

On the other hand, if Netanyahu’s agenda here is more about providing a compelling visual in the weeks before Israeli voters go to the polls to elect a new Knesset, he’s not only undermining the cause he says he values, he’s also rolling the dice with the Israeli voters. It may be that they will like the imagery of Netanyahu speaking truth to Congress. After all, Obama has alienated Israelis for years with his decisions and, as polls continue to show, they don’t trust him. But Israelis may also note the absence of many Democrats and draw some negative conclusions.

In 2011, members of both parties gave him dozens of standing ovations while he spoke to Congress. The demonstration was not only reminiscent of a previous Congress’ embrace of Winston Churchill, it was also a direct rebuke of Obama for seeking to ambush Netanyahu and to tilt the diplomatic playing field against Israel. Though the White House hasn’t played fair, there will be no such triumph this time. More to the point, no matter how well he speaks, his message will be obscured by the controversy over his invitation. He may say it is his duty to give the speech, but if his objective is to help pass Kirk-Menendez, there is a better argument to be made that it is his duty not to give it.

Read Less

Obama and the Jewish Left Politicizing Iran

One of the main talking points of those criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plan to speak to Congress on the question of Iran sanctions is that by opposing President Obama’s stand on the issue, he is turning support for Israel into a partisan question. This would be a grievous fault if he were guilty of doing that, but while Netanyahu’s decision to stick with his planned address is a mistake, those who are characterizing the debate on Iran as one in which the prime minister has undermined bipartisan support for measures that are important to Israel couldn’t be more wrong. And there is no better example of why this interpretation is wrong than the battle being waged to influence Senator Cory Booker. Though support for more pressure on Iran has always had broad bipartisan support, it is the Jewish left and their allies who are doing everything possible to frame the issue as one on which Democrats must blindly follow the lead of the head of their party, principle and the security of Israel be damned.

Read More

One of the main talking points of those criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plan to speak to Congress on the question of Iran sanctions is that by opposing President Obama’s stand on the issue, he is turning support for Israel into a partisan question. This would be a grievous fault if he were guilty of doing that, but while Netanyahu’s decision to stick with his planned address is a mistake, those who are characterizing the debate on Iran as one in which the prime minister has undermined bipartisan support for measures that are important to Israel couldn’t be more wrong. And there is no better example of why this interpretation is wrong than the battle being waged to influence Senator Cory Booker. Though support for more pressure on Iran has always had broad bipartisan support, it is the Jewish left and their allies who are doing everything possible to frame the issue as one on which Democrats must blindly follow the lead of the head of their party, principle and the security of Israel be damned.

As NJ.com reports, Booker has always been considered a stalwart supporter of Israel but he is under intense pressure from Democratic partisans to bail on the bipartisan Iran sanctions bill being co-sponsored by Robert Menendez, the senior senator from his state and a fellow Democrat.

Booker received massive Jewish and pro-Israel support in his bid for the Senate but he is nowhere to be seen on the issue of Iran right now. Though the only real chance to get Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions is to place additional pressure on the Islamist regime by warning it that more sanctions will be imposed if they continue to stall the negotiations, Booker has been mute on the issue and refused to sign on as one of the numerous co-sponsors of the bill proposed by Republican Mark Kirk and Menendez.

What could be preventing him from taking a stand on which there is a broad pro-Israel consensus? The answer is obvious. It is pressure from the White House and partisan Democrats who are seeking to prey on the blind partisan loyalties of Democrats in an effort to derail the sanctions effort. The president sees the sanctions bill as a threat to his policy because it is precisely aimed at strengthening his hand in the talks with Iran. That’s because he sees the talks as not so much a tool in order to force Tehran to dismantle their nuclear program, as he promised in his 2012 foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney, but a means by which to advance a new détente with the Islamist regime. And in order to keep this dubious goal on track, he is calling in all of his political markers with fellow Democrats. Since he and Booker have been political allies, he is seeking to use his leverage with the senator in order to get him to toe the White House’s agenda rather than the one followed by Menendez, Charles Schumer, and many other pro-Israel Democrats.

That this effort is being backed by the National Jewish Democratic Council is particularly troubling since it shows just how far partisan fronts will go in terms of discarding their pro-Israel principles in order to do the bidding of their party masters. This is also the case with the left-wing J Street lobby, whose behavior has often given the lie to its claim to be both “pro-Israel” as well as “pro-peace.”

J Street is leading the charge against Netanyahu with a web campaign against the prime minister and Iran sanctions that the Anti-Defamation League has denounced as “inflammatory and repugnant.” In it, J Street has denounced the prime minister claiming, “Netanyahu does not speak for me.” To claim, as they do, that the prime minister’s stand on Iran is “hardline” and therefore out of touch with American Jews is nothing short of astonishing since it assumes that there is some kind of debate about the virtues of détente with Iran within American Jewry or even Americans in general. The ADL has called on Netanyahu to postpone his speech, but even they realize that the tone of the J Street attack on the Israeli is redolent of the sort of dual-loyalty arguments used by anti-Zionists.

It must be understood that the reason why Obama and his Jewish apologists are focusing on Netanyahu’s speech is because they wish to obscure or to downplay the merits of the debate on Iran sanctions. The president and J Street have always taken it as an article of faith that pressure on Israel is a necessary component to the Middle East peace process. This is a fallacy, but they seem to think that support for pressure on Iran is somehow a function of “hardline” Israeli ideology or Republican politics. Nothing could be farther from the truth, as Menendez and other pro-Israel Democrats have continually pointed out. It is only by treating Netanyahu’s foolish but entirely appropriate efforts to influence the sanctions debate as something that is beyond the pale can they avoid having to defend treating Iran with kid gloves. That the NJDC would choose Obama over Israel is disappointing but perhaps understandable give that it is nothing but a partisan front. But for a group that claims to be pro-Israel to be conducting a campaign that can only be described as incitement against the democratically elected leader of the State of Israel illustrates just how disingenuous their “pro-Israel” tag has become.

It is worth noting that Booker co-sponsored a similar bill sponsored by Kirk and Menendez last year that former Majority Leader Harry Reid torpedoed at the behest of Obama. So Booker can’t be opposed to the bill on principle. The only reason for him or anyone else on both sides of the aisle to oppose more sanctions on Iran is pure political partisanship. And it is the Democrats and their spear-carriers like the NJDC and J Street that have divided the pro-Israel community on these narrow grounds purely to advance the agenda of President Obama. Say what you will about Netanyahu’s tactics, but there is no doubt that the people who are trying to turn Israel into a partisan issue are left-wing Democrats, not Netanyahu and the Republicans.

Read Less

The Race Non Sequitur, Iran and Netanyahu

After two weeks of watching the debate over his proposed plans to speak to a joint session of Congress on Iran sanctions next month become increasingly bitter, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be thinking he has no choice but to give the speech. A “senior government official” told the Jerusalem Post today that the prime minister had no plans to back down and postpone the speech until after the Knesset elections later in March. Apparently, Netanyahu thinks waiting until later in the spring to speak would be too late. With reports surfacing that the president has sought to persuade the Congressional Black Caucus to boycott his speech, the willingness of the administration sink so low as to play the race card against Israel illustrates that it no longer matters how right Netanyahu might be. Though his message about the danger from Iran is one that Congress and the American public need to hear, what he and his advisors seem not to understand is that the politics of the controversy have outstripped its content.

Read More

After two weeks of watching the debate over his proposed plans to speak to a joint session of Congress on Iran sanctions next month become increasingly bitter, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be thinking he has no choice but to give the speech. A “senior government official” told the Jerusalem Post today that the prime minister had no plans to back down and postpone the speech until after the Knesset elections later in March. Apparently, Netanyahu thinks waiting until later in the spring to speak would be too late. With reports surfacing that the president has sought to persuade the Congressional Black Caucus to boycott his speech, the willingness of the administration sink so low as to play the race card against Israel illustrates that it no longer matters how right Netanyahu might be. Though his message about the danger from Iran is one that Congress and the American public need to hear, what he and his advisors seem not to understand is that the politics of the controversy have outstripped its content.

The reports about the White House signaling the Black Caucus that the speech should be seen as a domestic political issue rather than one about a difference of opinion over foreign policy is particularly ominous. It was bad enough that Democrats construed the decision to accept the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner as a partisan intrusion into an American policy dispute. But if African-American politicians and even ordinary citizens are being told that Netanyahu’s appearance at a joint session is motivated out of disrespect to the first black president of the United States rather than a belief that the administration’s opposition to more sanctions on Iran is bad policy, then the problem Israel is facing is far worse than even some of the prime minister’s critics had thought.

At this point, the informal movement to boycott Netanyahu’s appearance is gaining the sort of momentum that gives it a life of its own. Republicans and Netanyahu’s supporters both here and in Israel may think most congressional Democrats are bluffing and some might be. But even a partial boycott would undo any good that the speech might have done in the first place.

Netanyahu needs to recall that the reason his May 2011 speech to Congress was such a triumph was that the cheers and the dozens of standing ovations he received were bipartisan. It was a humiliation for Obama, who never before and never since has been given such a reception in the Congress, because the thunderous applause demonstrated that the pro-Israel coalition was genuinely bipartisan. The cheers from both sides of the aisle were a sign that both congressional parties rejected Obama’s ambush of Netanyahu on that trip and backed the Israeli’s stand. Perhaps Netanyahu and his advisors believed they could replicate that triumph now when the stakes are even higher with the administration pursuing détente with Iran and seeking a deal that would allow it to become a nuclear threshold power. But with Democrats and blacks now perceiving the speech to be a partisan ploy, any chance of that is gone.

Let’s concede again that this situation is not so much the product of a Netanyahu blunder as it is of a cynical political strategy employed by the administration. There was no breach of protocol in the invitation, as we now know that Boehner’s office informed the White House of the plan before Netanyahu accepted it. Nor was this a matter of the Israelis favoring the GOP over the Democrats, as the Israeli government rightly understood that a majority of the president’s party supported more sanctions. Indeed, the bill Netanyahu favors is co-sponsored by as many Democrats as Republicans and Senator Robert Menendez has publicly and personally challenged the president on the issue without anyone accusing him of being against his own party or showing disrespect to the first African-American president. (In fact, it was Obama who showed disrespect to Menendez and other Democrats by speciously claiming that the only reason they opposed him on the issue was to please donors—a code word for supporters of Israel). Those who are piling on Netanyahu with such criticisms, like Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Reform movement, are saying more about their own partisan loyalties than telling us anything about Netanyahu.

Netanyahu deserves criticism for not anticipating that a speech during a congressional debate on the issue would be perceived as maladroit. But it is Obama who has politicized Israel and sought to make it a partisan issue, not Netanyahu or the GOP. Even worse, by injecting the non sequitur of race into this mess, Obama seems to be employing the sort of tactics we’d expect from his friend, race hustler Al Sharpton, not the leader of the free world. This is the worst sort of divisive politics that pits not only the two parties against each other but also two minority groups. Historically, most members of the Congressional Black Caucus have followed the example of Martin Luther King Jr. and been strong supporters of the State of Israel. Though many Democrats have drifted away from Israel in recent years, for Obama to play the race card in this way so as to buttress a policy that has nothing to do with the interests of African-Americans is disgraceful.

It is more than obvious that the smartest thing Netanyahu can do is to cease walking into the trap that Obama has laid for him. That this trap is to the president’s discredit, rather than that of Netanyahu, is irrelevant to the question of whether he should change his plans. The race non sequitur and the partisan issue are real even if they shouldn’t be. A veto-proof majority of both houses of Congress in favor of more pressure on Iran and against acceptance of it as a nuclear threshold power exists. Netanyahu needs to take himself out of the debate now so that majority can be re-assembled and that more sanctions can be passed.

Read Less

Can Iran Be Trusted On Nukes? Can Obama?

Though a vote won’t be held on a new Iran sanctions bill until late March, the question of what is exactly going on in the talks between the West and Tehran deserves more attention. The chattering classes have focused largely on a pointless dispute about whether Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will speak to Congress in March about Iran. But the real issue is the substance of the current negotiations. As a Washington Post editorial noted yesterday, the clear intent of the Obama administration is to acquiesce to Iran’s demands to be allowed to keep its nuclear infrastructure as well as treat the regime, as a legitimate regional power in the Middle East is no longer in much doubt. That leaves observers asking two very important questions. One is whether Iran can be trusted to keep the terms of any nuclear deal it signs. The other is whether the Obama administration can be trusted to hold the Iranians accountable.

Read More

Though a vote won’t be held on a new Iran sanctions bill until late March, the question of what is exactly going on in the talks between the West and Tehran deserves more attention. The chattering classes have focused largely on a pointless dispute about whether Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will speak to Congress in March about Iran. But the real issue is the substance of the current negotiations. As a Washington Post editorial noted yesterday, the clear intent of the Obama administration is to acquiesce to Iran’s demands to be allowed to keep its nuclear infrastructure as well as treat the regime, as a legitimate regional power in the Middle East is no longer in much doubt. That leaves observers asking two very important questions. One is whether Iran can be trusted to keep the terms of any nuclear deal it signs. The other is whether the Obama administration can be trusted to hold the Iranians accountable.

As the Post points out, the danger inherent in the administration’s Iran policy is that by letting them keep thousands of centrifuges and a nuclear stockpile that could be quickly re-activated to allow it to build a weapon, the terms currently being discussed will, at the very least, allow the Islamist regime to become a threshold nuclear power. Though he continues to insist, as he has since he first started running for president in 2007, that he won’t let Iran get a nuclear weapon, the president doesn’t seem to have a problem with that. Why? The answer is that Obama believes that the U.S. and Iran have common interests that will allow them to cooperate together in the region and that the ayatollahs have too much to gain from a reconciliation with the West in terms of their nation’s economy to want to risk it all by building a bomb.

But the problem with that formulation is that it is fundamentally mistaken. Iran has no interest in America’s need for regional stability and preserving moderate Arab regimes allied with the West, let alone protecting the existence of the state of Israel. To the contrary, it hopes to threaten both the Arab states and Israel via the threat of a nuclear weapon as well as keeping the pressure on them through the use of its Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries and allied terror groups like Hamas. Yet Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon as well as its progress on ballistic missiles means that this is a problem that concerns the entire West and not just Israel and the Arabs.

That is why the bipartisan sanctions bill proposed by Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez is so important. It provides at least a measure of accountability to the process since it raises the price for Iran for dragging out negotiations or for continuing to refuse to accept even another weak deal with the West like the interim agreement signed in November 2013.

Even more to the point, is the question of whether even a weak deal, such as the one Obama and Kerry embraced in 2013 can be enforced by this or subsequent administrations. To date, the administration has refused to take seriously charges that the Iranians are already cheating on the interim deal. The dynamic of the process is such that the president views any such questions or even threats of more sanctions with hostility because he sees them as a threat to his goal of a rapprochement with Iran.

This is problematic because so long as Iran believes that Washington won’t take violations of a nuclear deal seriously, it will feel free to push the envelope on more cheating. Since the president has already conceded that, as the Post wrote, “a process that began with the goal of eliminating Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons has evolved into a plan to tolerate and restrict that capability,” it is difficult to believe the Islamist regime will think it need worry about the president abandoning a process to which he has become so devoted no matter what they do.

That brings us back to the question of the sanctions bill. Realists must understand that even if the bill is passed and then a threatened presidential veto is overridden, Congress can’t stop Obama from negotiating with Iran and coming up with a bad deal. Nor is it likely that it will be able to force him to put such a treaty to a vote as the Constitution demands since the president will seek to evade that requirement.

Indeed, even if the bill were to become law, the president could also use waivers in the legislation to prevent its enforcement. This is something of a poison pill that was forced on its sponsors by both political expediency (getting more Democratic votes) and legal technicalities (existing sanctions laws also have waivers that could be used by Obama to thwart this bill). But to the credit of both Kirk and Menendez, they have attempted to write their waivers in such a way as to constrict the president from wantonly ignoring the intent of Congress. Though this and other administrations have used waivers to flout the meaning of laws, doing so in this case will involve not merely a desire on the part of the president to ignore Congress but a willingness to lie about Iran’s conduct.

This is a president who has already demonstrated on a host of issues but most notably on immigration that he is not constrained by the normal Constitutional order or even the rule of law. That means that it is difficult to have confidence that any waiver, no matter how carefully it is drafted, will be able to force the president to hold Iran accountable.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem with the Iran talks. It’s not just that given its record as well as its regional and nuclear ambitions, Iran is not to be trusted. It’s that President Obama can also not be trusted to pursue a policy that is aimed at stopping Iran from becoming a threshold nuclear power. Without such accountability, there is no reason for Congress or the American people to trust the outcome of the negotiations.

Read Less

Can Bibi Play Chicken with the Democrats?

The last week has been a good one for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Polls testing opinion prior to Israel’s March Knesset elections showed that he had not only made up the 2-3 seat advantage that his Labor Party rivals held a couple of weeks ago but that his Likud Party was now firmly in the lead by the same margin. But while Netanyahu’s chances for reelection to a third term are looking up, his stock in Washington remains down. With Democrats threatening to boycott the speech, it’s clear that what is going on now is game of chicken in which the stakes are getting higher than Netanyahu or his nation can afford to play with. While it is possible that members of Obama’s party are bluffing about having the prime minister speak to a half-empty chamber filled only with Republicans, the question now facing Israel’s government is whether winning this point is worth the damage that the controversy is doing to the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Read More

The last week has been a good one for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Polls testing opinion prior to Israel’s March Knesset elections showed that he had not only made up the 2-3 seat advantage that his Labor Party rivals held a couple of weeks ago but that his Likud Party was now firmly in the lead by the same margin. But while Netanyahu’s chances for reelection to a third term are looking up, his stock in Washington remains down. With Democrats threatening to boycott the speech, it’s clear that what is going on now is game of chicken in which the stakes are getting higher than Netanyahu or his nation can afford to play with. While it is possible that members of Obama’s party are bluffing about having the prime minister speak to a half-empty chamber filled only with Republicans, the question now facing Israel’s government is whether winning this point is worth the damage that the controversy is doing to the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Netanyahu sent Ambassador Ron Dermer and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to the Hill yesterday to make peace with prominent Democrats upset about the prime minister’s acceptance of an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress on Iran sanctions. But apparently, members of President Obama’s party were not buying what Dermer was selling and Politico described the exchange as having not only failed to resolve the dispute but also perhaps even made it worse. Some Democrats described Dermer’s surprise at the political furor the Boehner invitation caused as insincere. That’s a bit unfair, since had the ambassador understood what would happen it’s doubtful the plan would have proceeded. But their willingness to attack him in this manner demonstrates just how wrongheaded the scheme was since it has turned Iran from an issue on which there was a bipartisan consensus in Congress into a partisan football.

Let’s specify that this is far more the fault of the administration than that of Israel. The White House has deftly used the issue of Netanyahu’s speech as a wedge by which it sought to force Democrats to take sides in a feud they wanted no part of. But the Israelis must also be judged guilty of misjudging the way Netanyahu’s intervention on sanctions would be perceived. Had he come either before or after the resolution of a debate on which he is arrayed against the president, Netanyahu would have been cheered to the echo as he was in May 2011 after Obama had ambushed him with a peace proposal that tilted the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians. But with the White House threatening to have Vice President Biden boycott the speech and with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (who was inexplicably snubbed when invitations were sent out for a meeting between Edelstein and House leaders) also making noises about members staying away, it’s time for Netanyahu to stop pretending he can brazen this affair out.

There are voices within the pro-Israel community that are still calling on the prime minister to show up in Washington and to unleash his rhetorical genius on Congress in an effort to rally Americans behind the common cause of resisting Iran. Netanyahu has an excellent case to make on this issue and President Obama’s opposition to more sanctions is not only wrongheaded, it is indefensible since he is seeking to thwart perhaps the one thing that might force Iran to yield to his demands. But for Netanyahu to play chicken with Democrats in this manner is as shortsighted as it is reckless. Even if Biden, Pelosi, and the rest of the Democrats show up for the speech, it will be no triumph for Netanyahu as he will not be applauded as he has been in the past. If they don’t, he will blamed for having turned Israel into a partisan issue even if many (though not all) in the Democratic Party’s left wing drifted away from Israel long before this dustup.

Let’s also remember that as important as the issue of Iran may be, the current sanctions bill should not be considered a matter of life or death. As I pointed out last week, the bill put forward by Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez already contains a poison pill that undermines its purpose. Since it allows the president to waive enforcement of the new sanctions if he wishes, that is a virtual guarantee that President Obama will not only go on negotiating indefinitely with Iran as he vainly seeks détente with the Islamist regime, but will also continue to thwart any effort to pressure it.

If he is reelected Netanyahu will have some hard decisions to make about whether to simply stand by and let Obama allow Iran to become a nuclear threshold state. It may be that the chance to use force against Iran was lost a few years ago or perhaps Israel still has a military option. But either way, the vote over this sanctions bill will not decide the issue. At this point, Netanyahu has not much to gain and much to lose by stubbornly sticking with his plan. He may fear that backing down will hurt his image at home on the eve of the elections, but I imagine most Israelis are smart enough to recognize that such a decision would be the better part of valor.

Playing chicken with a congressional caucus that has many ardent friends of Israel is a foolish business that needs to stop now. It is long past time for the debate about the wisdom of his original plan to conclude. Netanyahu has long excelled at playing the long game in terms of the strategic interests of his nation. With his reelection looking more secure, he needs to start planning for life after Obama with either a Republican or a Democrat in the White House. It’s time for him to remember that and find a way to back out of a speech that is no longer worth the trouble that it is causing him and the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Read Less

The Obama-Bibi Speech Row: Enough Blame to Go Around

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s high-profile speech before Congress has already backfired even before it was delivered. It is designed to rally support in Congress for extra sanctions on Iran in case nuclear talks fall through. But instead the controversy over the speech is driving Democrats to embrace President Obama’s soft-on-Iran position out of party loyalty if nothing else. Some are even talking about boycotting the speech. In a U.S.-Israel relationship that has already been deeply troubled during the Obama administration, this is another low point.

Read More

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s high-profile speech before Congress has already backfired even before it was delivered. It is designed to rally support in Congress for extra sanctions on Iran in case nuclear talks fall through. But instead the controversy over the speech is driving Democrats to embrace President Obama’s soft-on-Iran position out of party loyalty if nothing else. Some are even talking about boycotting the speech. In a U.S.-Israel relationship that has already been deeply troubled during the Obama administration, this is another low point.

Who’s fault is that? I would ascribe blame both to Netanyahu and Obama.

Start with the prime minister: As Jonathan and others have argued, his decision to accept a speaking invitation from Speaker Boehner without consulting with the administration first was a diplomatic and political blunder. It upset the normal protocol and allowed Obama’s aides to claim that Bibi is (a) posturing for political advantage in Israel just prior to an election and (b) interfering in American domestic politics–even if British Prime Minister David Cameron just did the same thing by lobbying lawmakers, at White House request, against imposing additional sanctions now.

Bibi would have been smart to emulate the Cameron example and limit his own actions and those of his representatives to quiet conversations with senators and representatives–there is no need for a high-profile address to a joint session of Congress when the Israeli government’s views are already known. Bibi has always prided himself on an insider’s knowledge of American politics and a sure touch in getting Israel’s message out. But in this case his political judgment deserted him.

However I believe that Obama also deserves a fair amount of opprobrium for turning this into such a high-profile blowup–indeed Bibi would never have been tempted to do an end-run around the president if didn’t feel that this particular president was inveterately hostile to Israel. The proper reaction for the president, when he found out about the address, would have been to call up Bibi privately and ream him out–while at the same time instructing his aides to leak word that he was perfectly supportive of the speech. That is how allies treat one another: confine differences of opinion to private communications while making a front of unity for public consumption.

But that’s not how Obama and his crew operate. These are, after all, the same folks who last year were quoted calling Netanyahu “chickenshit.” The same folks who are never satisfied with any concession that Bibi makes–whether a freeze on settlements or an apology to Turkey for the Israeli raid on the Gaza Flotilla. The same folks who perpetually apply pressure to Bibi while letting Abu Mazen, the Palestinian president, slide by for all his actions undermining the “peace process.”

So it is no surprise that the administration has been leaking word that Israel will pay a “price” for the speech and openly campaigning for the recall of Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer who is accused of being a Republican apparatchik.

As numerous commentators have noted, it would be nice if the famously cool Obama ever showed half the level of anger against Syria, Iran, North Korea, ISIS, or Russia that he routinely displays against Israel.

So I blame Obama for escalating this crisis–and I blame Netanyahu for playing into his hands.

Israel’s close relationship with the U.S. will survive this crisis and will, I predict, become much warmer under whoever succeeds Obama. Even under Obama, the U.S. remains the most pro-Israel country in the world simply because the American people are the most pro-Israel in the world. But there is no question that damage has been done to this “special relationship” and it could turn out to be long-lasting damage if this spat drives more Democratic politicians to become as critical of the Jewish state as many grass-roots leftist activists already are.

Read Less

Friedman Spreads Anti-Semitic Libels About Netanyahu Speech

The stakes are growing in the debate about the wisdom of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to accept an invitation to address a joint session of Congress about sanctions on Iran. Though the argument can be viewed as just one more spat promoted by an administration with an axe to grind against Netanyahu, with the talk of Democrats, even Vice President Biden, prepared to boycott the event because they see it an as an effort to aid Republican efforts to discredit President Obama’s foreign policy, the potential for real damage is no longer theoretical. But the most troubling development is not the ongoing arguments about whether the prime minister has committed a blunder. Rather, it is the willingness by some to use it to stoke anti-Israel libels. That’s the upshot of the latest column from the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman who claims Netanyahu’s speech will be seen as an attempt to force the U.S. into a war with Iran. That is not only a gross distortion of the truth but also a not-so-subtle effort to plant the seeds of an anti-Semitic libel.

Read More

The stakes are growing in the debate about the wisdom of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to accept an invitation to address a joint session of Congress about sanctions on Iran. Though the argument can be viewed as just one more spat promoted by an administration with an axe to grind against Netanyahu, with the talk of Democrats, even Vice President Biden, prepared to boycott the event because they see it an as an effort to aid Republican efforts to discredit President Obama’s foreign policy, the potential for real damage is no longer theoretical. But the most troubling development is not the ongoing arguments about whether the prime minister has committed a blunder. Rather, it is the willingness by some to use it to stoke anti-Israel libels. That’s the upshot of the latest column from the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman who claims Netanyahu’s speech will be seen as an attempt to force the U.S. into a war with Iran. That is not only a gross distortion of the truth but also a not-so-subtle effort to plant the seeds of an anti-Semitic libel.

Supporters of the speech, such as Wall Street Journal columnist and COMMENTARY contributor Bret Stephens, argue that Congress needs an “unvarnished account of the choice to which Mr. Obama proposes to put Israel: either accede to continued diplomacy with Iran, and therefore its de facto nuclearization; or strike Iran militarily in defiance of the U.S. and Mr. Obama’s concordat with Tehran.” I don’t disagree, but as I have written in the last two weeks, I think the decision to give the speech was a grave tactical error on Netanyahu’s part. Congress was in no doubt about Israel’s position and the prime minister could have reached out to members in the same way that British Prime Minister David Cameron has used to back up the president. But by parachuting directly into the debate on Iran sanctions that is taking place in Congress, he ran the risk of being seen as trying to upstage the president in a way that was bound to ruffle the feathers of many pro-Israel Democrats, even those that agree with Netanyahu on the issue. The proposed speech also provided Obama with a heaven-sent chance to divert attention from the administration’s indefensible opposition to strengthening their hand in the nuclear talks with Iran. The prime minister’s alleged chutzpah became the focus of the discussion instead of the president’s clear desire for détente with the Islamist regime, dealing sanctions proponents a clear setback.

But Friedman, who is at least smart enough to seem to harbor some doubts about whether Obama’s diplomacy can succeed, isn’t satisfied with asserting that Netanyahu is making the mistake. Instead, he uses this controversy to return to one of his favorite hobbyhorses: the way pro-Israel political donors, such as billionaire Sheldon Adelson, are trying to buy Congress in a way that runs contrary to U.S. interests. Claiming, without backing the charge up with reporting, that Adelson hatched the idea is one thing. He even says someone should have told Netanyahu and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer “anti-Semites, who claim Israel controls Washington, will have a field day.” The fact that it is Friedman who has floated this charge in the Times when he complained about the ovations Netanyahu earned the last time he addressed Congress is unmentioned in the column.

Even worse, Friedman then goes on to write that if diplomacy fails and the U.S. is forced to use force to address the Iranian threat, the Netanyahu speech will serve as a smoking gun proving that it was Israel that manipulated America into what might prove to be another disastrous war.

Of course, Friedman frames this as helpful advice intended as advocacy for what is in Israel’s best interests. But by raising the specter of anti-Semitism as well as of what must be considered nothing short of a potential blood libel, Friedman is tipping his own hand.

One can agree with President Obama’s absurd belief that Iran must be appeased on the nuclear issue in order to help it “get right with the world” without raising the specious charge that opponents of this policy who think it will endanger the West as well as Israel are being bought by Jewish money. One can also envision what is at this late date a highly unlikely scenario in which Iran’s refusal to accept Obama’s offers—which would effectively give a Western seal of approval to the Islamist regime becoming a nuclear threshold state—might lead to armed conflict without dropping the hint that the Jews will be the ones who started it.

Yet Friedman can’t avoid those temptations and injects the virus of anti-Semitism into a debate about whether the president is really interested in carrying out his 2012 campaign promise to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program. By writing of anti-Semitism when virtually no one outside of the fever swamps of the far left and far right are doing so, Friedman is, once again, seeking to tilt the discussion in ways that do exactly what he claims he wishes to avoid.

Though President Obama has sought to paint advocates of more sanctions as warmongers, the truth is just the opposite. More sanctions that would actually press Iran to give up its nuclear toys are, in fact, the only path to successful effort to halt the threat from Tehran by measures short of war. Though it is hard to imagine a president so intent on normalizing relations with Iran ever considering the use of force, if that ever happened in this administration or his successor, it would be the result of the Islamists courting such a conflict, not Israeli political maneuvering. Iran’s ballistic missile program also means stopping it from going nuclear is as much a matter of U.S. security as the safety of Israel.

Anti-Semites need no prompting from Tom Friedman to promote libels against the Jewish state. But by seeking to frame the argument about Netanyahu as one that would justify their ravings, Friedman has crossed a line that no responsible journalist should even approach. Neither Netanyahu nor the pro-Israel community should hesitate to speak up for fear of giving anti-Semites ammunition. The prime minister’s plan to speak may be a tactical blunder but it is the willingness of Friedman to engage in this sort of incitement that is the real disgrace.

Read Less

Will Obama Give In to Iran? He Already Has.

Almost all of the coverage about the ongoing controversy about plans for Prime Minister Netanyahu to address Congress next month about sanctions on Iran has focused on allegations regarding inappropriate behavior from an ally and breaches of protocol. But an exchange of anonymous quotes from administration and Netanyahu government sources in the Israeli press this weekend should serve as a reminder of what is really at stake in the dispute. Israeli sources said the problem was that the deal that President Obama was working to conclude with Iran would allow it to keep several thousand of its centrifuges and allow it to “breakout” to a nuclear weapon in a matter of months. Anonymous American government sources replied that this was nonsense. But anyone who has been closely following informed coverage of the negotiations knows that far from being misleading, the Israelis are doing nothing but stating the obvious about an American willingness to let Iran become a nuclear threshold state. Rather than discussing Netanyahu’s chutzpah, Americans should be asking some of the same questions as the Israelis.

Read More

Almost all of the coverage about the ongoing controversy about plans for Prime Minister Netanyahu to address Congress next month about sanctions on Iran has focused on allegations regarding inappropriate behavior from an ally and breaches of protocol. But an exchange of anonymous quotes from administration and Netanyahu government sources in the Israeli press this weekend should serve as a reminder of what is really at stake in the dispute. Israeli sources said the problem was that the deal that President Obama was working to conclude with Iran would allow it to keep several thousand of its centrifuges and allow it to “breakout” to a nuclear weapon in a matter of months. Anonymous American government sources replied that this was nonsense. But anyone who has been closely following informed coverage of the negotiations knows that far from being misleading, the Israelis are doing nothing but stating the obvious about an American willingness to let Iran become a nuclear threshold state. Rather than discussing Netanyahu’s chutzpah, Americans should be asking some of the same questions as the Israelis.

Though Netanyahu’s fans in the United States and his supporters at home continue to engage in denial about the invitation from House Speaker John Boehner, the longer this debate continues, the more it has become obvious that the prime minister blundered. With even reliably pro-Israel Democrats openly discussing boycotts of the speech and others backing away from support for sanctions, the speech has become a dangerous distraction that has served to rally members of the president’s party to back his position even if many are dubious about its merits.

That’s why it’s vital that we stop talking about protocol and return to the core question at the heart of the debate: whether the president’s efforts will redeem his campaign promise that any deal would result in the end of Iran’s nuclear program.

The answer is, unfortunately, that they won’t and that ought to put Netanyahu’s worries in perspective.

We know that this is no longer the objective of American diplomacy because the terms of the interim nuclear deal agreed to by the United States in November 2013 made it clear that Iran was going to be able to keep its infrastructure. That agreement tacitly recognized Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium even though its terms slowed down their rate of progress. But as even administration defenders acknowledged, the restrictions on the Iranians’ efforts could be easily reversed in any breakout scenario.

The subsequent negotiations for a final deal were supposed to last only six months, but are now in their third overtime with administration sources acting as if a fourth such extension would not be unthinkable if a deal isn’t reached by July. That’s bad enough. But far worse are the terms currently under discussion. What is the Western offer on the table that the Iranians are rejecting? If you want to know, don’t take the word of official Israeli sources; try reading one of the most sympathetic forums for the administration, the AL Monitor website. Back in November when the Iranians wouldn’t accept President Obama’s proposed deal forcing the U.S. to accept another breach of the deadline, here’s what it reported:

The agreement allows Iran to continue researching its most advanced centrifuges. Israeli sources estimate that this research will be completed within two years. Then, within another six months, the Iranians will be able to install an enormous number of new enrichment centrifuges, which operate at six times the speed of the current batch. This capacity will seriously expedite the potential Iranian “breakout to a bomb.”

Under such circumstances, the Israelis explained to their colleagues, the West will be convinced that it stopped Iran one year before it can build a bomb, when the true amount of time needed will be just two months. Two months, the Israelis told anyone who was willing to listen, is not enough time for the world to respond and block Iran should it decide to proceed at full steam. In other words, the agreement that everyone is talking about is one that would turn Iran into a nuclear threshold state in a very brief amount of time, and immediately enable it to make the quick leap forward to nuclear capabilities, before the world can even respond.

As much as the interim deal had been a far cry from the positions that the president had articulated when running for reelection, this potential deal was even worse in that it would allow the Iranians to keep everything they would need to make a bomb but rely on their promises and the West’s shaky intelligence and restricted United Nations inspections to ensure that they wouldn’t do so. But, AL Monitor noted, that wasn’t the extent of the problem:

Iran is not obligated to dismantle its centrifuge infrastructure, but only to disable the centrifuges. Under those circumstances, in any situation in which the Iranians decide to withdraw from the agreement or violate it, they can get the centrifuge system that they ”neutralized” working again within two weeks. All of this proves that Iran will continue to maintain expansive enrichment capabilities, which can easily be restored to previous capacity and even beyond that within just a few weeks.

Seen from that perspective, the Israeli allegations about the direction of U.S. diplomacy seem very much to the point.

How do we explain the discrepancy between what Obama promised and the sort of agreement he seems to be aiming toward?

The first answer is that the Iranians are much tougher negotiators than the Western team that has been trying to get them to give the president a much-needed foreign-policy triumph. Whenever the Iranians have said no to a demand, the Americans have simply given up and moved on to other points. Secretary of State Kerry even defended this practice after the interim deal by saying that it was better to give in and keep talking than to ask for the impossible. But in practice that has meant that years of talks have now taken the U.S. to a point where they are actually disputing how many hundreds of centrifuges the Iranians will be able to keep, a stance that merely reduces the issue to how long it will take for the Islamists to get their bomb.

But even more to the point is the fact that, as President Obama’s comments about the negotiations have made clear, the goal is not so much to end the nuclear threat as it is to work toward a sort of reconciliation with Tehran without requiring it to halt their support for terrorist groups and cease working toward production of ballistic missiles, let alone give up their nuclear ambitions. Though the president wants to help Iran “get right with the world,” what his efforts are really doing is to advance their efforts toward regional hegemony. This position has influenced the U.S. to form an informal alliance with Iran in Iraq and Syria and frightened and alienated moderate Arab nations as well as the Israelis.

So far from being “nonsense,” Netanyahu’s concerns about the president’s diplomatic goals are very much to the point in the debate about sanctions. With the president showing no sign that he will ever admit that the negotiations have failed, the need to toughen the American position has now become imperative. Democrats might be forgiven for rallying around their leader when they perceive he is under attack. But those who care about nuclear proliferation and a potentially genocidal Iranian threat to both Israel and the West need to forget about protocol and start asking tough questions about what kind of a deal the administration is trying to conclude. Unless something drastic happens to change the American position, the problem isn’t that Obama might adopt a position that will let Iran become a nuclear threshold state. It’s that he has already done so.

Read Less

Obama Politicized Iran Sanctions; Not Israel’s Ambassador

Ron Dermer came to Washington in 2013 with a target on his back. Israel’s ambassador to the United States was a close associate of Prime Minister Netanyahu and lambasted as not only the “brain” of a leader widely disliked by liberal Jews but also tainted because of his former close ties with American conservatives. So it is not exactly a surprise that much of the criticism that has been focused on Netanyahu’s acceptance of an invitation to address a joint session of Congress on the issue of Iran sanctions is being directed at Dermer. But even if you think, as I do, that the decision to give the speech at this time is a mistake, it’s important to recognize that much of the opprobrium being hurled at the ambassador is deeply unfair. While Dermer is being accused of undiplomatic interference in U.S. politics and flouting protocol, it is the White House that has politicized an issue that would otherwise be a matter of bipartisan consensus, not the Israeli Embassy or even House Speaker John Boehner.

Read More

Ron Dermer came to Washington in 2013 with a target on his back. Israel’s ambassador to the United States was a close associate of Prime Minister Netanyahu and lambasted as not only the “brain” of a leader widely disliked by liberal Jews but also tainted because of his former close ties with American conservatives. So it is not exactly a surprise that much of the criticism that has been focused on Netanyahu’s acceptance of an invitation to address a joint session of Congress on the issue of Iran sanctions is being directed at Dermer. But even if you think, as I do, that the decision to give the speech at this time is a mistake, it’s important to recognize that much of the opprobrium being hurled at the ambassador is deeply unfair. While Dermer is being accused of undiplomatic interference in U.S. politics and flouting protocol, it is the White House that has politicized an issue that would otherwise be a matter of bipartisan consensus, not the Israeli Embassy or even House Speaker John Boehner.

Even Dermer’s predecessor Michael Oren–whose background was as a historian, not a political adviser like Dermer, and was therefore a less polarizing figure–learned that being the ambassador from a Netanyahu-led government was no easy task in Obama’s Washington. But Dermer was doubly handicapped because of his close ties with the prime minister. That’s ironic because being his confidant made him an ideal person to serve as an envoy to his country’s sole superpower ally.

Dermer is resented by the left-leaning figures that dominate Israel’s foreign ministry as well as by most of the members of Israel’s press corps in Washington, who lean left just like most of their American colleagues. If that didn’t place him behind the 8-ball, Dermer also had been involved in a memorable spat with the editors of the New York Times in 2011 when he publicly turned down their offer—on behalf of Netanyahu—of space on their op-ed pages because he rightly said the avalanche of anti-Israel pieces they publish made such a piece mere tokenism designed to cover up their bias.

So Dermer can hardly be surprised that the Times devoted a piece in today’s paper to piling on the ambassador.

Let’s acknowledge, as I have written a few times over the past week, that accepting Boehner’s invitation to address Congress on the issue of Iran sanctions was a blunder. Such a flamboyant intervention by an Israeli leader into a congressional debate in which the White House was on the other side was asking for trouble. It diverted attention from the president’s indefensible opposition to strengthening his hand in negotiations with Iran by making it clear that the Islamist regime would pay a high price for further delay and refusal to give up their nuclear ambitions. It allowed the administration to change the subject from its pursuit of détente with Iran to Netanyahu and undermined efforts to rally Democratic support for sanctions.

But even if we accept that Dermer and Netanyahu were wrong, it wasn’t the Israelis who politicized the sanctions debate. That was the fault of the White House.

Up until Obama entered the White House, opposition to Iran and support for sanctions was a matter of bipartisan consensus. Though his rhetoric about stopping Iran has always been good, the president has opposed virtually every sanctions bill that has been proposed, including some that he now brags about having brought Iran to the table. An overwhelming majority of both Houses of Congress comprising members of both parties have supported increased sanctions on Iran for the past two years. The only consistent opponent has been the president. It is he who has sought to make sanctions a partisan issue by leaning on Democrats to oppose the measure out of loyalty to him. He has also stooped to exploit the resentment many Democrats feel toward Speaker Boehner as a reason to back his stand on Iran. Though Dermer may have erred by not consulting with the White House about Boehner’s invitation, the decision to turn this into a major kerfuffle is purely a product of administration politics, not an understandable desire on the part of the Israelis to aid those backing sanctions.

Let’s also note the hypocrisy of many of his critics. The same people crying foul about Dermer and Netanyahu didn’t protest when British Prime Minister David Cameron lobbied members of the Senate on behalf of Obama’s stand on Iran. Some of those veteran American diplomats who are piling on are also guilty of having very short memories. One of the key witnesses against Dermer in the Times article is former State Department official Daniel Kurtzer who said it was unheard of for a diplomat to go behind the back of a country’s government and work with its domestic opponents. But Kurtzer and the rest of the peace processers who worked for a number of administrations over the last 25 years have been guilty of doing just that whenever a Likud prime minister was in power. Both Presidents Clinton and Obama have worked tirelessly to undermine and defeat Netanyahu throughout his three terms in office in ways that Dermer and his boss would never dream of trying to do to Obama.

Say what you will about the mess that Dermer and Netanyahu find themselves in and for which they bear some responsibility. But the prime minister’s scheduled speech has become a diplomatic cause célèbre due to the partisan political games being played by the White House, not the Israelis. It is Obama that is undermining the U.S.-Israel alliance by seeking to appease Iran, not the efforts of Dermer to rally Americans behind a stand that is in the best interests of both countries.

Read Less

Obama Isn’t Worried About Iran Sanctions Vote Delay

Both sides of the debate about the nuclear talks with Iran are interpreting the letter from ten Senate Democrats sent to President Obama yesterday about holding back on a vote on increased sanctions as a victory for their position. Sanctions advocates believe the delay will enable wavering Democrats to join with Republicans and produce, once the March 24 deadline for an agreement with Iran stated in the letter passes, a veto-proof majority for a measure that will increase pressure on the Islamist regime to surrender its nuclear ambition. The administration, however, begs to differ. The president’s apologists think the willingness of Senator Robert Menendez to back off, even for only two months, on passing sanctions shows that the administration’s efforts to pressure members of Obama’s party into falling in line behind him are succeeding. We won’t know who is right until the end of March. But no one should scoff at the White House’s confidence that the stall will only strengthen their ability to find enough Democratic support to sustain a policy of Iran appeasement.

Read More

Both sides of the debate about the nuclear talks with Iran are interpreting the letter from ten Senate Democrats sent to President Obama yesterday about holding back on a vote on increased sanctions as a victory for their position. Sanctions advocates believe the delay will enable wavering Democrats to join with Republicans and produce, once the March 24 deadline for an agreement with Iran stated in the letter passes, a veto-proof majority for a measure that will increase pressure on the Islamist regime to surrender its nuclear ambition. The administration, however, begs to differ. The president’s apologists think the willingness of Senator Robert Menendez to back off, even for only two months, on passing sanctions shows that the administration’s efforts to pressure members of Obama’s party into falling in line behind him are succeeding. We won’t know who is right until the end of March. But no one should scoff at the White House’s confidence that the stall will only strengthen their ability to find enough Democratic support to sustain a policy of Iran appeasement.

On the surface, sanctions advocates look to be in a strong position. The proposed legislation, dubbed the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015, which was filed Tuesday night, is co-sponsored by Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Robert Menendez and also has 14 other co-sponsors including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and six Democrats. The bill will close loopholes in existing sanctions as well as make it even more difficult for Iran to go on selling oil. It will require any deal with Tehran to be submitted to Congress for review before the president can waive sanctions. However, the increased sanctions would not go into effect until July 6, five days after the current deadline for the talks passes, allowing plenty of time for diplomacy. Even more importantly, it includes provisions for a presidential waiver of sanctions on Iran if the White House is willing to claim it is in the national-security interest of the nation or if it would make a resolution of the issue more likely.

The extra two months of debate gives the administration several weeks to prove that Iran is serious about negotiating a deal that would truly end the nuclear threat rather than merely using the talks to stall the West. Moreover, the extra time can allow Democrats to say that they have given the president the opportunity to prove his point that diplomacy must be allowed to continue undisturbed by the possibility of more sanctions. If, as is almost certainly the case, the Iranians continue to stonewall Western negotiators, advocates of increased sanctions will be able to assert that the only thing that will prompt them to budge from their positions is the threat of even tougher sanctions on their economy. That should, at least in theory, be enough to motivate a considerable portion of the Democratic caucus as well as what it expected to be a near-unanimous Republican majority to pass a bill that would have more than enough votes to override a threatened presidential veto.

But no one should think the president is intimidated by any of this.

First, the delay until late March gives the White House plenty of time to work on Democrats to defect from the sanctions camp. As he showed us last year when a similarly overwhelming pro-sanctions majority was defeated by both former Majority Leader Harry Reid’s tactics and an administration disinformation campaign, the president is quite adept at marginalizing his foes and branding them as warmongers. He may be a lame duck, but he remains someone that most Democratic senators, with the possible exception of Menendez, don’t want to tangle with. Given enough time, Obama may be able to amass enough votes to sustain his veto.

But for all the tough talk emanating from Congress, it must be conceded that Obama has already won even before the debate really starts.

By changing the topic from his indefensible position opposing more pressure on an obdurate Iran to whether it was appropriate for the House to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress, the president subtly changed the dynamic of the debate in a way that gave him a clear advantage.

Moreover, by forcing sanctions advocates to include the presidential waiver in their bill, the White House has included a poison pill that will, even if it survives his veto, enable Obama to ensure that its provisions never go into effect. As we have seen with the issue of immigration where he resorted to executive orders unilaterally granting amnesty to millions of illegal aliens to bypass the authority of Congress to change the law, this president has no compunction about governing on his own. Even if more than two-thirds of both the Senate and the House wish to impose tougher sanctions on Iran, the president is perfectly comfortably ignoring the will of Congress and allowing the nuclear talks to go on with Iran indefinitely.

The president’s unwillingness to countenance any additional pressure on Iran, even if such pressure is the only conceivable measure that might induce it to actually give up its nuclear infrastructure, has signaled again that his goal here is détente with Tehran, not an end to their nuclear program as he pledged in his 2012 foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney. As with other issues that he considers important, he will not listen to Congress. The delay might produce a veto-proof majority for sanctions. But President Obama isn’t wrong if he thinks that none of this will halt his push to appease Iran even if the talks continue to go on indefinitely without a resolution.

Read Less

Is Obama Winning the Fight Against More Iran Sanctions?

Yesterday, backers of increased sanctions on Iran scored an important victory when Senator Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate pledged that he would back the bill being circulated by Republican Mark Kirk. The bill, which would effectively shut down Iran’s oil trade if the current nuclear negotiations fail, already has enough votes to pass in the Senate as well as in the House of Representatives. But it needs significant Democratic support in order to override President Obama’s threatened veto of the legislation. But, as Politico reports, the full-court press against the bill being carried out by the White House is having an impact on the Democratic caucus, even among those who backed the same bill last year. Though the GOP’s gain of nine seats last November should have improved the chances of success, it appears that pressure from Obama is causing even some stalwart friends of Israel to drop out or to express reluctance to vote against the administration. If this trend continues, the president may get the blank congressional check he needs to pursue a policy of détente with Tehran that will effectively allow it to become a threshold nuclear power.

Read More

Yesterday, backers of increased sanctions on Iran scored an important victory when Senator Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate pledged that he would back the bill being circulated by Republican Mark Kirk. The bill, which would effectively shut down Iran’s oil trade if the current nuclear negotiations fail, already has enough votes to pass in the Senate as well as in the House of Representatives. But it needs significant Democratic support in order to override President Obama’s threatened veto of the legislation. But, as Politico reports, the full-court press against the bill being carried out by the White House is having an impact on the Democratic caucus, even among those who backed the same bill last year. Though the GOP’s gain of nine seats last November should have improved the chances of success, it appears that pressure from Obama is causing even some stalwart friends of Israel to drop out or to express reluctance to vote against the administration. If this trend continues, the president may get the blank congressional check he needs to pursue a policy of détente with Tehran that will effectively allow it to become a threshold nuclear power.

Part of the problem that Kirk is encountering is a rival, much weaker Iran bill proposed by Senate Foreign Relations chair Bob Corker. The Tennessee Republican is actually far less eager for a confrontation with Obama than his Democratic predecessor, Robert Menendez, who challenged the president face to face on the issue two weeks ago. His bill would rightly demand that Congress be allowed a vote on any nuclear deal with Iran. But it would do nothing to increase sanctions, as the Kirk bill would, if the talks collapsed. The Kirk bill would increase pressure on the Iranians to make a deal rather than letting them continue to prevaricate and wait out the West while it moved closer to its nuclear goal.

The overwhelming majority of both Houses back the concept of tougher sanctions, but a bill sponsored by Kirk and Menendez died last year because of procedural tactics by former Majority Leader Harry Reid and efforts by Obama to label its advocates as warmongers. Reid can no longer bury bills the president doesn’t like, but his efforts to persuade Democrats to stick with him seem to be working. As Politico notes, former supporters like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin are backing away from the Kirk bill. Others, like Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey, who has always promoted himself as an ardent backer of Israel—whose existence is threatened by an Iranian nuke—is making noises about his need to think about it rather than jumping in to support the bill. Indeed, even Schumer says his backing for Kirk is contingent on other Democrats joining him to provide cover for his stand. Menendez, though he said earlier this week that administration arguments against sanctions sounded like they were “talking points” from Iran, is also reportedly not yet committed to co-sponsoring the Kirk bill.

Nevertheless, there was some encouraging news today when it was learned that ten Democrats, including Schumer, Casey and Manchin, sent a letter to the president stating they would vote for Kirk’s sanctions if a satisfactory nuclear isn’t reached by March 24. Since the odds of that happening are slim, that will set the stage for a climactic fight the outcome of which is hard to predict.

But while most Democrats are trying to avoid being pinned down on the question of sanctions, the stakes involved in this question couldn’t be higher.

President Obama was able to fend off more sanctions a year ago by claiming that he needed time to follow up on the interim deal he had signed in November 2013 and persuade the Iranians to give up their nuclear ambitions. That negotiating period was supposed to be limited to six months to prevent the Iranians from playing their usual delaying games. But instead of pressuring Tehran to give up its nukes, the president allowed that deadline to pass without consequences to the Islamist regime. Two extensions have been granted for the talks to continue and it appears that the White House is on track to ask for a third after the current period expires in June. Indeed, it is not clear if even another year of fruitless negotiations passed without result that Obama would concede that the process had failed.

The Iranians are being obdurate because the president has clearly signaled in the interim agreement and the subsequent talks that he won’t insist on them giving up their nuclear infrastructure. Thus emboldened, they feel free to stand their ground and to insist on a Western surrender. Since Obama’s purpose is more to bring about a doubtful reconciliation between Washington and Tehran rather than a halt to their nuclear work, the Islamists think they can stall until he gives up or they arrive at a point where it is clear that they can build a bomb if they want one.

That’s why Obama is so worried about spooking the Iranians by threats of future sanctions that would only strengthen his hands in the talks. His opposition to more sanctions is illogical unless you realize that his purpose is very different from that of sanctions advocates. Though he and his apologists in the media claim sanctions advocates want diplomacy to fail, in fact it is just the opposite. His Senate opponents want diplomacy to succeed in ending the Iranian nuclear threat. The president wants diplomacy to effectively table Western and Israeli concerns about Iran’s nuclear goal as well as its role as a state sponsor of terrorism in order to bring about an entente which will relieve Obama of the obligation to resist Tehran’s drive for regional hegemony.

Thus, the analogy drawn between sanctions opponents and Iranian hardliners who are opposing the talks because they don’t want any limitations on their nuclear program—as a New York Times article falsely attempts to assert—is as absurd as it is misleading.

This crisis in the push for sanctions may motivate some to think that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plans to speak to Congress in March is even more necessary than many thought. But diverting the discussion from Iran’s nuclear threat to Netanyahu’s personal challenge to Obama has only made it easier for the president to pick off wavering Democrats who don’t want to be caught between the two world leaders.

But whatever Netanyahu decides to do, this is the moment when pro-Israel Democrats need to step up and show members of the Senate that more sanctions are not an issue on which they will be given a pass. Neither the Corker bill nor the president’s calls for party loyalty should be allowed to divert the Senate from its duty to increase pressure on Iran before it is too late to save the diplomatic option. If the Kirk bill stalls or it fails to receive enough Democratic support to override Obama’s veto threat, the only winners will be in Tehran.

Read Less

Obama’s Hollow Threats of Revenge on Bibi

The latest twist in the long-running feud between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu has reached a new stage. After days of ill-concealed umbrage about the prime minister accepting an invitation to speech to a joint session of Congress about Iran sanctions without so much as a by your leave from the administration, the White House decided to fire its own shot across the bow of Israel’s government. A “senior U.S. official” told Haaretz that the president and his staff think Netanyahu “spat” in the president’s face with his actions and vowed “there would be a price” to be paid for his effrontery. But whatever one may think about the decision to accept the invitation — and I think it was a mistake — Obama’s threats shouldn’t impress anyone in either country. After six years of insults, provocations and staged spats aimed at Israel by the Obama administration that did nothing to advance U.S. interests or the cause of Middle East peace, it’s not clear that they can do much to hurt Netanyahu that would not hurt the president more.

Read More

The latest twist in the long-running feud between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu has reached a new stage. After days of ill-concealed umbrage about the prime minister accepting an invitation to speech to a joint session of Congress about Iran sanctions without so much as a by your leave from the administration, the White House decided to fire its own shot across the bow of Israel’s government. A “senior U.S. official” told Haaretz that the president and his staff think Netanyahu “spat” in the president’s face with his actions and vowed “there would be a price” to be paid for his effrontery. But whatever one may think about the decision to accept the invitation — and I think it was a mistake — Obama’s threats shouldn’t impress anyone in either country. After six years of insults, provocations and staged spats aimed at Israel by the Obama administration that did nothing to advance U.S. interests or the cause of Middle East peace, it’s not clear that they can do much to hurt Netanyahu that would not hurt the president more.

Though his American fans are thrilled with the idea of Netanyahu addressing Congress and rallying it to the cause of stopping Iran, the prime minister did the White House a favor by accepting Boehner’s invitation without going through the normal protocol of consulting with the State Department and/or the White House. Instead of the focus being on Obama’s illogical opposition to any pressure on an Iranian regime that has been stonewalling him and running out the clock in nuclear negotiations, attention has been focused on the prime minister’s chutzpah. There is already a strong majority in both Houses of Congress for more sanctions on Iran, a step that would strengthen Obama’s hand in negotiations, and the controversy over Netanyahu’s appearance gives some weak-willed Democrats an excuse to do the president’s bidding and sink the proposed legislation.

Obama’s claim that he is willing to impose more sanctions if diplomacy fails, as he supposedly told Netanyahu, rings false. This administration opposed every major piece of sanctions legislation against Iran including the ones that it now boasts of having brought Iran to the table. Nor is there much chance that Obama would ever admit failure. The rumors that the current talks will be extended for a third time in June, despite the president’s promises a year ago that the negotiations would be finite in length so as to prevent the Iranians from playing their favorite delaying games, gives the lie to the administration’s credibility on this issue. Obama’s goal in the talks is not so much preventing the Islamist regime from becoming a threshold nuclear power — an objective that went out the window with the signing of the interim pact in November 2013 — as it is to create an entente with Tehran that would give a U.S. seal of approval to Iran’s ambition for regional hegemony while ending 35 years of confrontation between the two countries.

But Obama’s dire threats of revenge on Israel are just as insubstantial as his promises about Iran.

The talk of Netanyahu and his country paying a “price” is mere administration bluster whose purpose is to cover up their own agenda of détente with a nation that has repeatedly threatened Israel with annihilation. As he has shown over the last six years, the White House has the power to poison relations with its sole democratic ally in the Middle East if it so chooses. This is the same White House, after all, that just a couple of months ago used journalist Jeffrey Goldberg to hurt insults like “coward” and “chickenshit” at Netanyahu. Obama has consistently tilted the diplomatic playing field in favor of the Palestinians (though without it being enough to get them to actually negotiate in good faith, let alone make peace), undermined Israel’s position in Jerusalem in a way no predecessor had dared, wrongly blamed Netanyahu for the collapse of peace talks although it was the Palestinian Authority that torpedoed them and even cut off the flow of ammunition resupply during the war with Hamas last summer.

It is true that the U.S. could do far worse than that. Obama could seek to hold up all military aid despite Congressional protests. It could also cease opposing Palestinian attempts to use the United Nations to make an end run around the peace process, further isolating the Israelis. Administration sources speak of Secretary of State John Kerry’s hurt feelings after doing so much to protect Israel’s interests around the world leaving open the possibility that he won’t be so eager to play that role in the future.

But as Obama has already concluded prior to the current Palestinian campaign at the United Nations, any abandonment of Israel in international forums will hurt the U.S. as much as the Jewish state. Obama and Kerry aren’t opposing the Palestinian attempt to gain UN recognition without first making with Israel to be nice to the Israelis. They’re doing it because they rightly concluded that ending the peace process would damage U.S. interests and prestige and lead to further instability and violence in the region. Obama would, in effect, be cutting off his nose to spite his face if he were to allow his feud with Netanyahu to go that far. Although his antipathy for Israel and its government is no secret, he has already shown that he’s not interested in going down that path.

So what can we expect over the next two years if Netanyahu is re-elected? It was already a given that there would be plenty of tension and conflict between the two allies. If, as is almost certain, Obama signs a weak nuclear deal with Iran or allows the talks to go on indefinitely, they were bound to be worse anyway. There will be more insults lobbed at Jerusalem and attempts will be made to squeeze the Israelis at every turn. But any revenge from Obama over Netanyahu’s speech will do more to create the impression that his foreign policy is a failure than real damage to Israel’s strategic position. The prime minister would do well to stay home and to lobby quietly and effectively for Congress to raise the pressure on Iran. But even if he does give the speech, the U.S.-Israel alliance is sufficiently strong to withstand Obama’s assault on it. Blowing smoke about revenge is as close to a real rupture in relations with Israel as Obama and his staff will get.

Read Less

Boehner’s Invite: To Bibi or Not to Bibi

The drama surrounding House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress about sanctions on Iran got a little more complicated today. But while the timing of the event was moved, the controversy over the visit continued to obscure the debate over the real issue: the president’s antipathy to any actions that might upset Iran. Thus, rather than put the White House on the defensive as Boehner hoped it would, the announcement about Netanyahu served to distract the media from what otherwise might have been the story of the day: the fact that Democratic Senator Robert Menendez aptly characterized the administration’s position on sanctions as something that “sounds like talking points coming out of Tehran.”

Read More

The drama surrounding House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress about sanctions on Iran got a little more complicated today. But while the timing of the event was moved, the controversy over the visit continued to obscure the debate over the real issue: the president’s antipathy to any actions that might upset Iran. Thus, rather than put the White House on the defensive as Boehner hoped it would, the announcement about Netanyahu served to distract the media from what otherwise might have been the story of the day: the fact that Democratic Senator Robert Menendez aptly characterized the administration’s position on sanctions as something that “sounds like talking points coming out of Tehran.”

Faced with criticism for accepting the invite without consulting with the administration, the date of the event was pushed back from February 11 to early March when it will coincide with the annual AIPAC Conference in Washington. But anyone who thinks that this will cool down the tensions that had arisen between the President Obama and the Israeli government is wrong. The White House made a point of saying today that the president would not meet with Netanyahu while he was on this visit to the United States. This is a snub that is consistent with past practices about foreign leaders on the eve of their own elections (as Netanyahu will be prior to the March Knesset election) but also one that sent a clear message about Obama’s disdain for the prime minister.

Meanwhile, the debate over whether it was appropriate for Boehner to bring in Netanyahu and wise for the Israeli to accept the invite continues.

In defense of Boehner, the idea that he is the first speaker of the house to conduct his own foreign policy doesn’t hold water. His predecessor Nancy Pelosi visited Syria despite the opposition of the Bush administration and sent an unfortunate signal of congressional indifference the crimes of the Assad regime.

Nor is it fair to treat Netanyahu’s apparent desire to intervene in an internal American debate about sanctions as a unique event. After all, just last week British Prime Minister David Cameron said he had called several U.S. senators to lobby them to vote against more sanctions. If Cameron can try to persuade senators to back the president’s stand against pressure on Iran, it is not reasonable to pretend that it is a major breach of protocol for Netanyahu to give Congress his opinions on the issue when they have invited him to address a joint session.

Nevertheless, one has to question whether it is wise for Netanyahu to accept an invitation that clearly involves him in a tug-of-war between the GOP leadership and the president.

It is true that Iran is not, strictly speaking, a partisan issue. Large numbers of Democrats, in both the House and the Senate, lined up to support increased sanctions last year before they were torpedoed by then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Moreover, Menendez’s decision to directly challenge Obama on Iran in a face-to-face confrontation last week at a Senate Democratic conference shows that there are a lot of Democrats who are appalled by the president’s clear preference for détente with Iran instead of pressuring it to give up its nukes.

Boehner and others might have hoped that Netanyahu’s eloquence on the issue and deft American political touch would help turn the tide on the sanctions debate and help bring in large numbers of Democrats to build a veto-proof majority for the bill co-sponsored by Menendez and Republican Mark Kirk.

But unfortunately Boehner’s invitation has made Netanyahu the issue rather than Obama’s indefensible stance against a measure that would aid rather than hurt diplomacy. Leaving aside the uncertain political implications of yet another spat with the White House on Netanyahu’s reelection prospects, unlike almost every previous conflict between the two leaders, this one cannot be described as one that Obama picked. Though it is in the best interests of Israel, its moderate Arab neighbors, and the world for Congress to act to give Iran a reason to avoid stonewalling the West in the nuclear talks, this move can be represented, fairly or unfairly, as going beyond the normal behind-the-scenes lobbying that Israel and other allied countries always do.

Netanyahu has often been unfairly criticized for stoking conflict with Obama when, in fact, most of the time he has been on the receiving end of provocations and cheap shots from an administration bent on undermining him as well as downgrading the alliance with Israel. But in this case, Netanyahu has stepped into something that will do him and his cause very little good.

Foes of Israel have often sought to cast conflicts between Washington and Jerusalem as personal feuds between presidents and prime ministers, something that dates back to the effort to get the Senate to choose “Reagan or Begin” in the debate over the sale of AWACS airplanes to Saudi Arabia. In this case, that’s a crude distortion of clear differences between an administration that has abandoned its principles on Iran and Israeli government that is trying to remind Congress of its duty to act to safeguard the security of the Middle East. But if the perception that Netanyahu is allying himself with Boehner allows Obama to peel off a few weak-willed pro-Israel but partisan Democrats, that will be enough to sustain the president’s veto– especially when sanctions advocates might have had the votes anyway. Though pro-Israel activists are celebrating Netanyahu’s decision to accept the invitation in the belief that his rhetoric will turn the tide on sanctions, this was an unforced error on Israel’s part. If they are to prevail, they need to change the conversation from one about an Obama-Netanyahu feud to the facts about the sanctions debate that Menendez is trying to bring to the public’s attention.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.