With AIPAC Fete as Backdrop, the Obama-Netanyahu Faceoff Begins

The pro-Israel lobby tried to pretend that bipartisan business is as usual, until Dianne Feinstein dispelled the Kumbaya atmosphere.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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U.S. President Barack Obama and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in New York September 21, 2011.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in New York September 21, 2011.Credit: Reuters
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

In the game of poker, there’s something called the “sandwich effect.” It’s when the player before you has raised the stakes, so you know his move, but there’s another player after you whose move remains unknown. The professional advice in these circumstances is to risk your money only if your hand is stronger than usual: that’s the thing that should worry Benjamin Netanyahu and his advisers now, because Barack Obama considers himself a “pretty good” poker player.

This is now the state of play in Washington: Obama intends to grant an interview to Reuters on Monday afternoon, after he’s already heard what Netanyahu tells the pro—Israel lobby AIPAC in the morning, but before he knows anything about what Netanyahu will tell a joint session of Congress the following day. If Obama follows the “sandwich effect" guidelines, with which he is probably familiar, he will come to the interview with a resolute and effective message that may not completely neutralize Netanyahu’s address, but could at least blunt its impact.

The White House announcement of the planned interview is part of the 48 hour war of nerves that was launched in Washington on Sunday morning with the arrival of 16,000 AIPAC delegates to the city’s Convention Centre, a few hours before Netanyahu’s arrival. The lobby’s annual conference, impressive and well-organized and accompanied, as usual, by small protests outside, is seen as a show of force in support of the prime minister’s positions, if not of his latest moves. The leaders of the lobby did try to maintain a façade of bipartisan support and business as usual – there are “strains” on the relationship but no “crisis”, according to Executive Director Howard Kohr – but beneath the surface and behind the scenes it’s clear that things are not as they were, and perhaps they’ll never be again.

Ben Cardin, the staunchly pro-Israel Democratic Senator from Maryland who agreed to postpone any vote on a new Iran sanctions following the Netanyahu speech debacle - though he denies any link between the two - told Haaretz on Sunday that “the manner in which Netanyahu was invited was wrong” – but that does not detract from Congress’ need to hear Netanyahu’s views on the Iran nuclear agreement. “We shouldn’t forget who the bad guy is – Iran,” Cardin told the AIPAC assembly, and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who sat by his side, concurred. Graham, who usually lambasts Obama’s administration even at such supposedly bipartisan Jewish events, refrained from exacerbating tensions and devoted his fire and brimstone to external enemies such as Russia, Iran and Islamic State.

But the contrived Kumbaya atmosphere was spoiled by the Sunday morning interview of California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who exposed the degree of resentment that Netanyahu has sparked in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, even among those who consider themselves strong Israel supporters.

Two or three weeks ago Feinstein would not have described Netanyahu’s pre-departure statement in Israel that he was going to address Congress in the name of the Jewish people “arrogant,” nor would she say with undisguised irritation that Netanyahu “does not speak for me.”

Two or three weeks ago Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and his supporters might not have considered publishing such a repugnant ad as they did on Saturday in the New York Times, in which they accused National Security Adviser Susan Rice of being “blind” to a genocide of the Jewish people, but perhaps they assumed that the right wing is agitated enough to accept it, despite the ensuing chorus of condemnations. And they may not have been wrong.

But beyond the tense atmosphere, Kohr made clear on Sunday that a nuclear deal with Iran or even the improving prospects that it could be signed will set Israel and its lobby on a mighty collision course with the Obama administration.

He acknowledged that the “way Netanyahu’s speech was set up upset some people, including some people in this room” but nonetheless proceeded to blast the administration’s positions on Iran while proclaiming “Thank God for Congress.” Kohr rejected administration claims that new sanctions would drive Iran away from the bargaining table or erode the international sanctions regime, reiterated AIPAC support for new sanctions and for greater Congressional supervision over the talks and, for dessert, also backed cutting off U.S. funds for the Palestinian Authority, a move the administration also opposes.

Nonetheless, senior figures in and out of the Jewish establishment believe that if a deal is signed in the near future between Washington and Tehran, the lobby and Congress and Netanyahu together will ultimately fail to scuttle it. “In matters of national security, facing a resolute president, the lobby will fail, as they have in the past in similar circumstances,” according to one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “And I’m saying this even if Netanyahu delivers the speech of his life to Congress on Tuesday: the president can give a hundred speeches, and he’s no less an accomplished orator than Bibi.”

So why is Obama giving this interview on Monday, I asked. “He doesn’t want to abandon the stage to Netanyahu,” he answered. Will he intervene in the elections? “I would be very surprised,” he responded, “but maybe he wants Netanyahu to think so. He’s probably messing with Bibi, which, in times like these, might be quite tempting for him.”

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