WASHINGTON - Some 200 people gathered at a plaza named for Saudi King Salman at American University in Washington on Wednesday and waited for U.S. President Barack Obama’s address on the nuclear deal reached last month with Iran. A greater irony would be hard to imagine, unless it were a plaza named for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama, meanwhile, seemed to have adopted at least one unpleasant habit of the prime minister’s, arriving 35 minutes late.
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Obama’s speech was detailed, orderly and articulate. For nearly an hour he laid out his doctrine on behalf of the agreement and tried to negate and undermine the arguments of those who oppose it, one by one. He was addressing two main groups: The Democratic members of Congress and their voters in the center and liberal left.
He used some scare tactics, warning against Republican lobbyists and organizations funneling tens of millions of dollars into a campaign against the agreement. At certain stages he reminded one of the video on Election Day is which Netanyahu warned of the Arabs streaming to the polls in buses funded by leftist organizations. But unlike Netanyahu, behind Obama’s rhetoric and exaggeration there was no small grain of truth.
Another demon conjured up by Obama was former President George W. Bush. He portrayed him as having created the Iranian problem when he launched the war against Iraq. When Bush took office, Obama said, Iran didn’t have a single centrifuge; when he left the White House they had thousands.
The most worrisome part of Obama’s address was his reference to the Israeli government’s opposition to the nuclear agreement. What he said is liable to be seen in the not-so-distant future as a real turning point in the strategic relations between Jerusalem and Washington.
Obama marked Netanyahu not as a major ally, but as his greatest political rival. While he noted that he understands Netanyahu’s concerns and believes his intentions are sincere, this expression of empathy was merely an introduction to a sharp attack on the prime minister. At times you could hear Obama’s disdain for Netanyahu, as when he unconsciously imitated the latter’s baritone from his speeches against the nuclear agreement. “It’s a bad deal, we need a better deal,” he said, as he deepened his voice.
Obama isolated Netanyahu, portrayed him and his government as the only ones in the world who oppose the agreement, and positioned him as the head of the warmongering camp that rejects any diplomatic compromise of any kind, under any circumstances. The attempt by Netanyahu to scuttle the nuclear agreement, Obama wanted to say, is a cousin to the campaign conducted by those who supported the war in Iraq in 2003. It’s doubtful there is any group of people more disliked by the American public.
What should disturb the sleep of every Israeli is the fact that Netanyahu’s battle against the nuclear agreement has pushed Obama into a situation in which he must distinguish between the security interests of the United States and those of Israel, and clarify that they are not necessarily the same. “As president of the United States 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 said, and thus delivered a clear message: Netanyahu crossed red lines in his battle against the Iran deal, when he grossly intervened in domestic American politics and tried to present himself as someone who knows America’s interests better that the president of the United States.
The wild applause from the audience following that sentence was just a small example of the serious problem Israel finds itself in; the alienation that entire populations in the United States feel for its government’s policies and their feeling that with regard to the nuclear deal with Iran they're a tail that’s trying to wag the dog.
The consequences of this atmosphere for Israel’s national security are liable to be disastrous. Even if the agreement passes in Congress, all the more so if Netanyahu’s campaign bears fruit and Congress overrides a presidential veto and kills the deal – the residual negativity is liable to cause a serious and dangerous rupture between the liberal public that votes Democratic – which includes most of the Jewish community – and Israel.