OWL’S HEAD, Maine — What does Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu know that US President Barack Obama doesn't?
For the last two weeks, Netanyahu has been preemptively attacking the president over a deal with Iran that is still being negotiated. As Iran and the US and its allies in the venture resumed negotiations in Geneva this week, Netanyahu continued his attack.
The Wall Street Journal said the strain in US-Israeli ties is worse than they've been "in decades." And a Financial Times article referred to the "unprecedented public sniping" by Israel, which it called "a strident voice on the sidelines." The New York Times added its two cents in a story headlined "Split on Accord on Iran Strains US-Israeli Ties." And Leslie Gelb, a former head of the Council on Foreign Relations and a Washington insider for decades, called it "the worst I've ever seen."
Netanyahu has never been a shy hawk; he hardly hid his preference for Romney over Obama in last year's presidential elections. But in recent weeks, he has made his distaste for the American president undiplomatically obvious. In risking a rupture with a president who, regardless of his failings, still has three more years in the White House, it's clear Netanyahu believes he's going to win this battle.
French President Francois Hollande, whose last-minute opposition sidelined Secretary of State John Kerry's tentative agreement with Iran in the initial Geneva meetings, was greeted upon his arrival for a state visit to Israel with the kind of welcome that was once reserved only for American presidents.
Netanyahu's public attacks against the American-sponsored deal were unremitting. In a CNN interview the same day his newfound French friend arrived in Tel Aviv, he called the American proposal "an exceedingly bad deal," elaborating further that Iran is "getting just an enormous deal" and "giving practically nothing in return."
At the same time, and clearly not coincidentally, Israel's former national security advisor, Yaakov Amidror, who was one of Netanyahu's closest aides until he stepped down last month, stated unequivocally that Israel was prepared to take unilateral military action against Iran: "We don't need permission from anyone. We are an independent state."
A pretty obvious form of blackmail. Were Israel to attack Iran, today's unstable Middle East would really explode. Regardless of how far the US tried to distance itself from Israel's actions, US credibility in the region would take another hit, Iran would accelerate its enrichment activities with a nuclear weapon its undeniable goal, and the Syrian civil war would expand ever more rapidly beyond its borders.
While both Israel and the US are in agreement that Iran should not have nuclear weapons — though at this point you'd hardly realize that — the problem is how that should be accomplished.
The Israelis insist that Iran essentially eradicate its entire nuclear infrastructure, a demand that US officials know is a non-starter. The more realistic US approach is to get the Iranians to accept a series of constraints that would make an Iranian nuclear weapon impossible in the short run. Should they change their mind down the road and restart operations with a nuclear weapon as the goal, it would be quickly apparent, and the US and its allies would have plenty of time to take the necessary military action to prevent it.
Almost all Iranian experts believe that attempted enforcement of Netanyahu's demands for zero enrichment would lead inexorably to war. Iran has made it abundantly clear it believes it has a sovereign right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. If the newly elected moderate President Hassan Rouhani were to backtrack on this, the hard-liners, supported by most of the population, would probably push him out.
What's now making the situation even more tense is how openly Netanyahu is working with our Congress to get its support in tightening sanctions against Iran at the very moment it is willing to make a deal. Republican Congressmen — and unfortunately even some Democrats — are siding with Israel against their own country.
Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois is a case in point: "The administration is very disappointingly said to discount what the Israelis say, and I think that was wrong as a policy matter. I think the Israelis have a very good intelligence service." When in doubt, trust the Israelis, not your own government?
Meanwhile, in a bipartisan effort, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, proponents of a centrist foreign policy that has held sway since Eisenhower was in the White House, issued a statement Monday supporting Obama. If the US fails "to take this historic opportunity, we risk failing to achieve our non-proliferation goal and losing the support of allies and friends, which increases the probability of war."
Additional sanctions at this time, they added, "will risk undermining or even shutting down the negotiations."
A Financial Times editorial echoed the Brzezinski/Scowcroft line: Were Congress to pile on more sanctions, it "would scupper the entire negotiations and probably return Iran to a belligerent path." It concluded that Israel's demand for sanctions to be “ramped up to new heights so Iran is forced to halt enrichment capability" is "unrealistic."
Netanyahu watches, happily, as the self-inflicted wounds of the Obamacare rollout weaken Obama's credibility and threaten to turn him into a virtual lame duck. With his well-financed ties in Congress on both sides of the aisle, a suddenly revitalized French Middle East foreign policy, and support from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arabs, Netanyahu thinks that now is the time when he can overwhelm this weakened American president and force him to retreat from what could be his singular foreign policy achievement.
Let's hope that Netanyahu has miscalculated, that Obama — because of, not despite, the many failures that blot both his domestic and foreign policy record — will hold tight and maintain America's interests ahead of Israel's.
Regardless of the outcome of this particular Obama-Netanyahu set-to, one clear result will be the collapse of any hope for Kerry's successful revival of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But then, that was a long shot anyway.
Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives in Owl's Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.