Why is the president so enchanted with Persia, and will the prime minister negotiate with the US on the terms of the agreement, or go all out to scupper it? President Obama called Thomas Friedman, the respected New York Times columnist, to the White House last Saturday. The summons was not accidental, nor was the timing.
Obama sees before him two target groups: Democratic senators and Israeli public opinion. Friedman caught the attention of both audiences. Obama see the Israelis as important in their own right, but no less so because of their indirect effect on his Senate campaign.
As in any political process, it comes down to numbers. Of the 100 sitting senators, 54 are Republicans. They have no difficulty in passing a law that will effectively thwart any agreement with Iran. The president would then veto their move, and the law would return to the Senate. To overcome Obama’s veto, the Republicans need a two-thirds majority, in other words, the support of 13 Democratic senators. The battle is now being fought. Israeli governments have tried to enlist the Congress against the White House several times in the past. These attempts usually end in failure. But a campaign such as the one now being conducted is unprecedented, both in terms of importance of the issue for both sides, and for the depth of its impact on American politics. The US president and Israeli prime minister are each trying to pull the rug out from under the feet of the other.
The game is not symmetrical. In some ways, Netanyahu has a massive advantage: The Republican majority in Congress at his disposal; Jewish billionaires are willing to throw money at any Democratic senator who joins the campaign and to punish any who do not; Israel and Netanyahu enjoy fundamental sympathy in American public opinion, which cannot be said for the attitude of the Israelis towards Obama. But the asymmetry also works for the other side: Netanyahu heads the government of a relatively small country, one sponsored by the United States. While there are those who see his attempt to defeat an incumbent president as heroic, others see it as megalomania, chutzpah, lawlessness. The first to feel uncomfortable senators are members of the Democratic Party, the target audience of this campaign.
There is a gaping chasm between Obama and Netanyahu. What separates them on the Iranian issue is far more than the contents of the framework agreement reached in Lausanne. Obama’s recent statements, in public appearances and private conversations, paint the following picture: The possibility of reaching a compromise with Iran, a detente, has a magical effect on Obama. He has had a romantic side when it comes to Iran, an emotional side. This may sound like an odd, speculative statement, given that it relates to such a politician known for being a cold rationalist. I will try to explain.
Obama began his first term with a great approach to the Arab world, which culminated in his speech at Cairo University in June 2009. I was there, seeing the astonished faces of the guests, the excited students. Obama wanted to tell hundreds of millions in the Arab world that this was a new beginning – and this was the main focus of that speech – the start of a liberal democracy, just, fair, Western, secular. There was a great deal of romance in that speech, a lot of optimism, and very little understanding of the history of the Middle East.
What has happened since in the Arab world has brought him only disappointment. He is not impressed by General al-Sisi, who rose to power in Egypt on the bayonets of his soldiers and keeps control with their help. He despises the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, languishing in their artificial wealth and corruption.
Iran touched his heart because of its 5,000-year-long history, because of the wrong done to it by the US in 1953 when America helped oust the legally elected government and reinstall the Shah. The Iranians recognized this tendency in Obama and knew how to play on it.
Primarily, Obama is entranced by the possibility that he can make his mark on American history. In less than two years, he will leave office, and Iran is his last chance. In talks with US officials I ask if they think there is a similarity between the move Nixon made towards China in the 1970s and Obama’s move towards Iran. In one move, Nixon ended three decades of uncompromising hostility.
On the way he abandoned Taiwan, a country whose alliance to the United States was solid and provided a great deal more than our alliance, and its influence in Congress had a great many years over our own.If in this parable, Iran plays the part of Mainland China, who plays the role of Taiwan, the ally betrayed? Egypt? Saudi Arabia? Israel? All of them? You’d better take a look at the state of Taiwan today, says an American government official dryly. It is living happily ever after, with its money is invested in China and China’s money invested in Taiwan.
When Netanyahu hears Khamenei, he likens himself to Churchill dealing with Hitler; Obama writes to Khamenei and imagines himself as Nixon meeting with Mao. And this is just the first step towards the abyss. Obama is offering Netanyahu an alternative plan. He proposed that Israel begin negotiations with the US government on the day after the agreement with Iran is signed. There are many issues that need clarification, from a formal defense treaty or another guarantee ensuring American military intervention against any country attempting to attack Israel. During his interview with Friedman, Obama hinted that he was willing to give such a guarantee. Compensation for Israel includes advanced weaponry and funding for defense systems, steps that will balance out the compensation going to Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, and ensuring an Israeli military advantage. It also means a US promise to attack Iran militarily if it violates the agreement or at least an American promise to support an Israeli attack should such a situation arise.
But negotiations of this nature cannot take place when Netanyahu is simultaneously trying to muster a majority in Congress to override the president’s veto. Netanyahu cannot have it both ways. The Senate is currently in recess. When it reconvenes next Monday, the government will hold a series of briefings, in camera, listing all of the benefits for the US, both overt and covert, of an agreement with Iran. The Republicans will push for a vote, and the Democrats will push for a compromise on the wording of the law for oversight on any Iran deal: The Senate will be able to track, monitor and verify, but it will not be able to annul the agreement. The Republicans want to pass the legislation before the agreement is signed, while the Democrats would rather wait for the agreement in full.
Much will depend on statements by Netanyahu and the intensity of the pressure from pro-Israel lobby AIPAC and a group of Jewish billionaires.This is a massive risk. If Obama beats the campaign against him, Israel will face a greatly reduced ability to obtain the guarantees it needs. It will find itself outside the city gates. The US administration is wondering which way Netanyahu will tilt. The answer lies in the assessment of the power he has to sway American politics, and his willingness to commit to it. Is he going to rail against the agreement to the bitter end? Does he believe there are enough Democratic senators willing to turn their backs on their president for the sake of Israel? Is he going to jump the other way in the final hour and enter into negotiations with the White House? Is he counting on Iran to withdraw from the agreement or violate the understandings and cause an explosion? Is he preparing an Israeli move that would deliver a mortal blow to the agreement? Does Netanyahu even have a Plan B?