Love or Loathe Netanyahu, Obama’s Payback Speech on Iran Was Unsettling

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U.S. President Barack Obama pauses while speaking at American University's School of International Service in Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2015.Credit: Bloomberg

Benjamin Netanyahu sowed the wind in recent weeks with his absolute rejection of the Iran nuclear deal, and on Wednesday he reaped a whirlwind. The Israeli prime minister was one of the focal points of President Obama’s tough and even borderline belligerent speech at the American University in Washington D.C.  Explicitly, Netanyahu was just plain wrong; implicitly, with or without others, he was ignorant, a fantasist, an alarmist, a saber-rattler and a potential warmonger.

It was an uncomforting speech for Israelis, even if they believe their prime minister erred all along the way. It was an unsettling address for American Jews, even if they object to the relentless anti-deal campaign being waged in their name. They may have welcome sobering effects in the long term, but for now Obama’s words were disturbing, even if you think that Netanyahu deserved them all.

Of course, it was a historic speech by any measure: for U.S. foreign relations, for America’s ties with Iran and the Middle East, for Washington’s non-proliferation policies and for the future legacy of the current president. But in the annals of the special relationship between Israel and the United States, it might merit its own separate chapter: not since the 1957 standoff between President Eisenhower and David Ben Gurion during the Sinai campaign has Israel been portrayed as such a major obstacle to regional American designs; it has certainly never been singled out so bluntly as the sole rejectionist country in the world. And there is no precedent for the bitter personal tone of the ideological standoff between Obama and Netanyahu or to casting an Israeli leader as a prime punching bag in such a pivotal presidential speech.

Just as Netanyahu said on Tuesday that their clash wasn’t personal, Obama declared a day later that he believes Netanyahu is completely sincere: both of them do protest too much, methinks. Netanyahu has broken every rule in the book that should have regulated relations between such close allies: on Wednesday, for Obama, it was Hasta La Vista, Baby payback time.

Obama needled, ridiculed, criticized and castigated those who cite Munich (originally Netanyahu); those who described the November 2013 interim agreement as a “historic mistake” (only Netanyahu); those who claim there is a better deal to be had (also Netanyahu); those who proclaim that the current sanctions regime can be salvaged (Netanyahu, of course) and even strengthened if Congress nixes the deal (steadfastly Netanyahu); those who advocated for war in Iraq (Netanyahu, among many others) and those who claim that Iran wants to take over the world (Netanyahu, all by himself).

In the short term, Obama may have done Netanyahu a favor. His speech could cement Israeli sentiments that the whole world is against us and you can’t trust anyone and we can only rely on ourselves and our Father in Heaven, which is the basis, after all, for much of the strong support that Netanyahu currently commands.

Obama may have also solidified Netanyahu’s stature in the eyes of many Republicans as the sole superhero capable of getting under the president’s skin, especially at a time when the party is overwhelmed by hordes of presidential candidates who can’t even shake off a supposedly laughable Donald Trump.

But Obama may have also sent some shivers down the spines of many Jewish leaders and activists by reopening old scars and reviving past traumas. Obama’s call on American citizens to counteract the “lobbyists” who are “backed by tens of millions of dollars in advertising” was reminiscent of the September 12, 1991 press conference in which George Bush Sr. famously portrayed himself as “only a lonely little guy” pitted against “a thousand lobbyists on the Hill working the other side of the question”. And when Obama said “it would be an abrogation of my constitutional duty to act against my best judgment simply because it causes temporary friction with a dear friend and ally” he evoked Ronald Reagan’s saying in 1981 during the battle of the sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia “it is not the business of other countries to make America’s foreign policy.”

Neither the loan guarantees nor the AWACS sale played such a pivotal role in the strategic vision, the diplomatic activity or the personal ideology of either Bush or Reagan as the Iran deal does for Obama. When you vote against the deal, he told Democratic lawmakers in effect, you are not only voting against me: you are joining the “Republican caucus” which, Obama maintained, is somehow in cahoots with Iranian chanters of “death to America.”

Then Obama deployed his ultimate doomsday weapon: he reminded Americans of his opposition to the war in Iraq, which played a major role in his 2008 election, and he identified his critics with those who pushed America go launch that disastrous war. “Those calling for war labeled themselves strong and decisive while dismissing those who disagreed as weak, even appeasers of a malevolent adversary.” No he wasn’t talking only about Netanyahu, but he certainly wasn’t excluding him.

He did not back down from his claim that ultimately, the alternative to approval of the nuclear deal is an inevitable descent to war. The Iranians will renew their race to get a bomb, and the only way to prevent them will be to use force. “And after six or eight months,” Obama told Jewish leaders with whom he met this week, “”the first one who will shout that I must launch a military operation will be Netanyahu.” His tone left no doubt what he thought of the scenario or its main protagonist.

Obama’s speech wasn’t meant to escalate his clash with Netanyahu: it was aimed at reminding Democratic lawmakers what side they are supposed to be on. And whatever short-term sympathy he may have aroused for Netanyahu will soon dissipate: the prime minister has jumped headlong into a pool devoid of water, and the ground is approaching. If the bid to undermine the Iran deal fails, as seems more likely than not, Netanyahu will have to explain why he launched a mission that seemed impossible from the start, just as American Jewish leaders will need to justify their unquestioning enlistment by his side.

Obama expressed his sincere and abiding commitment to Israel’s security and to preventing a nuclear Iran, which many doubt but I, for one, believe. If you want to remain optimistic you can hope that Obama’s speech was the low point of the crisis, and that from here on out things can only look up. Optimistic, I said, not realistic.

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