Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu views Iran as an incorrigible Great Satan hell-bent on regional hegemony and the destruction of Israel. President Barack Obama sees Tehran as a malevolent Little Satan, but one that can still be redeemed. This – rather than the timing of sanctions, the quantity of centrifuges or the quality of inspections – is the main reason for the impending apocalyptic political war that is destined to break out between Israel and the United States now that the Iran deal has been signed.
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The fighting is supposed to be restrained: Both sides seem to have too much to lose. Netanyahu cannot afford a total rupture of his ties to an American administration that still has 18 months in power. Obama has no wish to risk an unprecedented breach, not only with Jerusalem, but with many American Jews who support the Democrats as well. But as the cliché has it, one knows how a war starts but not how it ends, especially for two leaders for whom failure is not an option.
Of course, Netanyahu honestly believes that the nuclear deal reportedly being concluded in Vienna strengthens Iran, brings it closer to a nuclear bomb, rewards terror and destabilizes the Middle East. But he also knows that after being denied influence on the content of the nuclear deal and failing to block it, after poisoning relations with Obama and the American left and putting all his money on Republicans and Evangelicals, losing in the expected campaign in Congress could be one flop too many, even for supporters at home. As he proved with his incendiary exhortations against Israeli Arabs on Election Day, Netanyahu’s self-control tends to dissipate when defeat stares him in the face.
Obama is just as genuinely convinced that an agreement with Iran will contribute to world peace, serve American interests and even strengthen Israel’s security. But he knows full well that his international stature, his personal prestige and his historical legacy will be severely tarnished if Congress rejects his Iran deal. After six years of acrimony, tension and a dangerous accumulation of bad blood, Obama and his advisers would probably rather die than see Netanyahu and his allies in Congress and Las Vegas emerge victorious with wide smiles on their faces.
The 2016 presidential campaign pours tons of highly flammable enriched fuel on this already simmering core. The Republican candidates – all 15 of them, with the possible exception of Rand Paul – may disagree on many issues, but they are united in their admiration for Netanyahu and their disdain for Obama. They will no doubt use the Iran deal in their campaign speeches and in the upcoming GOP presidential debates to bash Obama and, through him, Hillary Clinton as well, during the 60 days now allotted to Congress to reject it. Republicans might even view such a rebuke as a potential game-winning grand slam on their way to the White House.
The problem is that, just like Netanyahu, Republicans often allow their antipathy towards Obama to cloud their judgment, causing them to bite off more than they can chew. Just as Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in March brought many straying Democrats back to the fold, a coordinated GOP onslaught on Iran could backfire, uniting the party behind Obama and deterring even those Democrats who don’t like the Iran deal or are wary of their pro-Israeli donors. The last thing they will want to face is angry primary voters from the newly militant Democratic left who may not take kindly to Democratic lawmakers seen as sabotaging their chances of keeping the White House in 2016.
Of course, it’s hard to forecast the aftermath of such a total and divisive confrontation. Will things quickly go back to normal – or will the earth remain scorched for many years to come? Netanyahu tends to forget, unfortunately, that the two sides to this conflict aren’t equal: the U.S. will ultimately shrug off any setback. Israel, on the other hand, could come up empty: It could lose the campaign in Congress and alienate half of America at the very time that it has to deal with a resurgent Iran fortified by what Jerusalem considers to be a dangerous agreement.
The only thing that seems even scarier is for Israel to emerge victorious. If Congress stops the deal, humiliating the president while alienating the Democrats, the international coalition that stood up to Iran will fall apart and Tehran will get a carte blanche to race towards a bomb, this time with many frustrated onlookers silently applauding.