WASHINGTON, D.C. – On Tuesday, at U.S. President Barack Obama’s White House meeting with the heads of the Jewish organizations, one of them asked him about the increasingly bitter conflict between him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surrounding the nuclear agreement with Iran. “It’s not personal,” replied Obama.
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Even after the president’s tough speech the following day, in which he asserted that Netanyahu is mistaken in his approach to the nuclear agreement, and said he would not allow the Israeli prime minister to dictate U.S. foreign policy, Obama’s advisers insisted on repeating the same message. “It’s not personal.”
Obama and his staff are focused at present on the battle against opponents of the nuclear agreement, headed by Netanyahu, over confirmation of the Iran deal in Congress. The U.S. president is willing to do almost anything in order to win. At the same time, his staff explains that despite the passionate and scathing conflict, the scare tactics and the spin, he is thinking about “the day after,” especially when it comes to patching up relations with Israel.
A senior U.S. administration official, who is closely involved in Obama’s efforts to pass the nuclear agreement in Congress, noted that the president would like to contain the conflict with Netanyahu rather than allow it to get out of control and seep into other areas.
“We don’t want this dispute to redefine the nature of relations between Israel and the United States in future,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In meetings that Obama and his staff held with various groups last week, they explained that they do not intend to bear a grudge against the Israeli government’s struggle against the nuclear agreement, or to hold it against Israel. “We weren’t seeking this conflict with Israel and we don’t want it to continue,” emphasized the U.S. official. “We never thought to punish Israel or to act against it because it worked to defeat the nuclear agreement. We aren’t looking to exact a price from Israel the day after. It won’t have any influence.”
The official noted that even after the dust of battle over the nuclear agreement settles, the United States will be willing to discuss with Netanyahu an increase in security assistance, an upgrade in Israel Defense Forces capabilities, and even diplomatic and security guarantees to Israel – the discussion that the prime minister refuses to conduct at this stage.
“If there’s anything that we aren’t discussing at all it’s the question as to whether we are going to continue to stand by Israel’s side,” emphasized the official. “That’s not a question for us. U.S. policy will continue to be coordinated with Israel on many issues, and the agreement with Iran is not a signal regarding our broader approach towards Israel.”
It’s not clear when Obama and Netanyahu will meet again. A senior U.S. official noted that this may happen towards the end of the UN General Assembly in late September – shortly after it becomes clear who won the battle in Congress.
Obama and senior White House officials believe they will succeed in passing the agreement in Congress, and that on the following day Netanyahu will get off his high horse, the tension will decrease and it will be possible to return to normal work relations, if such a thing ever existed between the two leaders. The idea that this will happen seems a kind of fantasy at the moment, but a senior official said that the U.S. president hopes that if the nuclear agreement is implemented and Iran begins to fulfill its obligations, many people in Israel will see that it’s good, understand the advantages of the agreement and change their attitude towards it.
Incidentally, Netanyahu also claims to anyone willing to listen that his conflict with Obama “isn’t personal,” but totally practical. Netanyahu also believes that his war against the president and the nuclear agreement will not cause any irreversible damage to relations with the United States, and that whatever the outcome in Congress, the United States and Israel will have to work together in the future.
Obama and Netanyahu may be speaking honestly, but the more nothing is personal, in the end everything is personal. Both Obama and Netanyahu had difficulty concealing the deep disdain each feels towards the other’s views regarding the Iranian agreement. Both believe they are in the right and will do anything necessary to prevail.
Only this week both of them crossed red lines in their public battle. Obama, for his part, isolated Israel and presented it as being outside the international consensus in its attitudes towards Iran. Netanyahu, on the other hand, caused the Jewish community, against its will, to become part of the problem, while putting it in a difficult ethical dilemma by calling on its members to side with the Israeli prime minister in his fight against the nuclear agreement being promoted by the U.S. president, for whom the vast majority of U.S. Jews voted.
Obama and Netanyahu are playing a dangerous game. With all their nice words about the day after, it’s hard to see how it will be possible to isolate the events of recent weeks and of the coming weeks from any relationship between Israel and the United States. Whether the nuclear agreement passes or whether Congress “kills” it, there will be irreversible damage. The only question is how great.
U.S. administration officials claim Obama was not surprised by the magnitude and nature of Netanyahu’s battle against the deal. For example, this is how one of those closest to the president described Netanyahu’s conduct on the Iranian nuclear issue in the past two years:
“When we reached the interim agreement with Iran in Geneva, in November 2013, Netanyahu called it a historic mistake. Already then we understood that there was little chance that he would support any kind of overall nuclear agreement we would achieve with Iran. We assumed that strong opposition from the Israeli government would be an integral part of the negotiations and the process.
“In March, when Netanyahu came to speak in Congress, we once again assumed that he would not come with any new proposal, and that’s what happened. The debate in the United States regarding the nuclear agreement has a political dimension. It’s also part of the 2016 presidential race. The Republicans oppose the agreement. Many of them promised to oppose the agreement even before they had seen it. What Netanyahu is doing is simply part of the political atmosphere surrounding the issue here. Netanyahu has turned himself into the chief spokesman of opponents of the deal, so it’s only natural that he’s becoming a key factor in our dispute on this matter.”
Another key factor is Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer. Much has been written about the activity of the man who is considered Netanyahu’s long arm in Washington, the political adviser of the Republican Congressional Speaker John Boehner, and a persona non grata in the White House.
This week in a meeting with a delegation of Israeli diplomatic correspondents in Washington, three senior American officials writhed as they tried to describe the White House’s relationship with Dermer and his activity in Congress on the nuclear agreement. The officials admitted that since Dermer assumed his position almost two years ago, he has not conducted a single work meeting with National Security Adviser Susan Rice. They tried to explain that the situation is not all that bad, that Dermer speaks by phone with Obama’s chief of staff Denis McDonough whenever necessary, and meets with advisers more junior than Rice, but their body language made it clearer than any words how serious the situation is.
Dermer, who, unlike most senior U.S. administration officials, refused to meet with the diplomatic correspondents from 12 Israeli media outlets, spends most of his time in the corridors of the Senate and the House of Representatives trying to convince Democratic legislators to oppose the nuclear agreement. “He’s particularly active in his lobbying attempts on Capitol Hill against the deal with Iran,” said a U.S. official with a bitter smile. But at the White House they know that in his case they can’t come to anyone with complaints. After all, they’re the ones who sent the ambassadors of Germany, Great Britain and France in Washington to Congress to present an alternative to the messages of the Israeli ambassador.
The White House, the Republican Party leadership, and the embassies of Israel, France, Germany and Great Britain are all keeping track of the views of those Democratic legislators who have yet to formulate a position on the deal. Marie Harf, Secretary of State John Kerry’s media adviser, in recent days tweeted the name of a senator or a member of the House who declared support for the agreement every few hours. The White House hopes that the more legislators declare their support for the agreement at an early stage, the more momentum there will be to mobilize the required number of votes.
The battle is far from over and will apparently be decided only at the last moment, somewhere prior to the vote that will take place on September 17 at the latest. Senior Republican Senator John McCain told the diplomatic correspondents this week that at this stage, opponents of the agreement don’t have enough votes to defeat it. On the other hand, the trend in public opinion points to a certain majority among the American public opposing the agreement.
In the coming month, when Congress is in recess, public opinion trends will be of unique importance. During the recess the legislators travel to the states and districts they represent, meet with their voters and hear their opinions. There, at popular assemblies, in small towns in Arkansas, Montana, Florida and Pennsylvania, the battle will be decided. “My fellow Americans, contact your representatives in Congress,” urged Obama at the end of his address to the nation yesterday. He knows very well what’s at stake.