Benjamin Netanyahu’s go-for-broke onslaught in Congress against the Iran nuclear deal has been described as a lose-lose situation that would leave Israel worse off, no matter what happens. One of the most oft-asked questions in recent weeks in Jerusalem and Washington, therefore, is this: “What is he thinking?” According to several sources who are privy to Netanyahu’s most recent discussions with American interlocutors, and based on what they have heard and how they interpret the prime minister’s words, the answer is this:
Netanyahu is under no illusion about the ultimate outcome of the campaign. He accepts the prognosis that there won’t be enough Democratic votes in Congress to override a presidential veto. He is getting used to the idea that the Iran nuclear deal, which he has described as a “stunning mistake,” is already a fait accompli.
Nonetheless, Netanyahu has refused to engage President Obama or the administration in talks about what the media describes as security “compensation” for the Iran deal. Obama has said that Netanyahu believes that this would signal acceptance of the Iran accord and would weaken the resolve of its potential opponents in Congress. Obama told Jewish leaders that Netanyahu is wasting precious time in which Israel’s defense capabilities against Iran and Hezbollah could have been upgraded.
Analysts maintain that Netanyahu would be able to secure higher rewards for Israel now, when his implied acquiescence to a deal is valuable to the Obama administration, rather than later, when the deal is either done or undone and Netanyahu’s attitude is far less important.
Netanyahu sees things differently. He believes that passage of the Iran accord by virtue of a Democratic bloc that supports the president will strengthen his hand, not weaken it. According to his view, after the dust settles in Congress, Democrats will be desperate to mend fences with Jewish voters and donors in advance of the 2016 elections and will be pressing the administration to mollify Netanyahu, who will continue to wax indignant for as long as possible. His leverage against an administration that has gotten its way will be far greater than it is against a president who is pulling out all stops to achieve victory, he believes.
Netanyahu also sees fringe benefits in his strategy, according to people who have heard him. He believes that the fight over the Iran deal will weaken the Democrats not only with Jews but also with the American public overall. Win or lose in Congress, Americans view the agreement with Tehran’s ayatollahs as an accord with terrorists if not a deal with the devil. For those who aren’t convinced, Netanyahu will gladly provide both proof and argumentation.
This could be Netanyahu’s contribution to a Republican victory in November 2016. He would then gain a grateful GOP President who may not scuttle the deal overnight, as he or she now promises, but would certainly adopt a tougher attitude on its implementation, Netanyahu believes.
From Netanyahu’s point of view, this could be a win-win rather than a lose-lose situation: he would take credit for extracting the best possible security compensation for Israel’s defense. He would weaken Democrats and in effect punish them for supporting Obama and his terrible deal, and could see a pro-Israel Republican administration taking power to boot. In addition, he would confound all of his critics, detractors and naysayers in Israel and America who have accused him of making the wrong decisions at every turn.
Of course, skeptics might think that Netanyahu is being too clever by half. That he is ignoring the effects of lingering resentments in the White House and pent up anger among Democrats, especially moderate ones, who have been caught between a rock and a hard place in recent weeks. Netanyahu is also overlooking the long lasting damage to the American Jewish community, which is now splitting between pro and anti-deal factions, between those who see anti-Semitic motives in the administration’s battle for its policy and others who are outraged by the accusations of Jew-hatred leveled against the U.S. President. And that it is reckless of Netanyahu to wreak all this havoc on Israel-US relations and on American Jews on a campaign that was doomed from the outset.
And then there is the issue of Netanyahu banking on a Republican victory in 2016, a subject on which he’s already on record as erring badly, you will recall, the last time around. Netanyahu has surrounded himself with likeminded conservatives to the extent that he is blind to the rest of America, one source told me. He is increasingly out of touch with minorities, millennials and liberals, Jewish and otherwise, the source added, which is why it’s so easy for him to discount their influence and to write them off, with potentially disastrous results.
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