It was Elie Wiesel, one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s great admirers, who once said, in another context: “The opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s indifference”. This is the emerging nature of the prime minister’s current relations with the Obama administration and with liberal public opinion in America: instead of sparking anger, Netanyahu is being increasingly ignored. Netanyahu claims the new Iran agreement is “a threat to the survival of Israel?” Nu, shoyn, as they say in Yiddish: “Hot er gezogt.” So he said.
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Netanyahu used his doomsday weapon a month too early, when he preferred to reap immediate electoral gains rather than wait for the ripe diplomatic moment: He spoke to Congress in early March, when the Iran deal was still a theoretical flight of fancy, instead of waiting for it to become a clear and present target, which is what happened in Lausanne on Thursday. The impact of his speech, such as it was, is long gone with the wind and even House Speaker John Boehner can’t book a return engagement for his good friend Bibi - which is why Netanyahu now finds himself firing blanks.
Add to this the serious damage that Netanyahu brought on himself with his election-eve statements on Palestinian statehood and Israeli Arabs voting – and the possibly cynical decision by the administration to amplify them in order to further erode Netanyahu’s credibility. Netanyahu hasn’t reached the level of hyperbolic hysteria of right-wing polemicist Thomas Sowell – who labelled a deal with Iran “the most catastrophic decision in human history”, no less – but he seems to be closing in fast. His new demand from deep left field to stipulate that Iran recognize Israel as a precondition to any nuclear accord was summarily dismissed in public by the State Department, but in private the officials’ reactions went from ridiculous to pathetic.
Even if we assume that Netanyahu is right in his criticism of the Lausanne understandings, he is being all thumbs when it comes to shooting them down. In the P5+1 forum that agreed to the Lausanne framework by consensus, there is only one country that genuinely cares for Israel’s security - but it is also the only one that Netanyahu has chosen to combat. Despite all the reports of outrage in Sunni Arab countries at Washington in the wake of the Iran deal, their leaders have reacted with polite restraint, leaving Netanyahu as a solitary prophet of doom railing against the world. This posture might serve the narrative of Netanyahu as a Churchill warning against the Nazi menace, with one important distinction: It was Churchill who coined the term “special relationship” between the United Kingdom and America and nurtured them, and it was Churchill who made sure that there was never a sliver of doubt about his admiration and appreciation for the President.
Netanyahu still enjoys the unequivocal support of Republicans in Congress, though many of them have issued reactions that are more restrained than those emanating from Jerusalem. Illinois’ Mark Kirk did say that “Neville Chamberlain got a lot of more out of Hitler than Wendy Sherman got out of Iran,” a reference to a top State Department negotiator on the deal, but maybe that was to camouflage the demise of the sanctions bill that he co-sponsored with the now-indicted Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey. The main remaining battleground is over the bill that Menendez initiated with Bob Corker from Tennessee, which would impose Senate supervision over the continuation of the talks and any future accords. Ostensibly at least, the Corker bill, which has been publicly backed by AIPAC and other Jewish organizations, enjoys solid support from all Republicans and enough Democrats to potentially render it immune from a Presidential veto.
In order to derail the Corker bill, or to postpone or dilute it at the very least, Obama has launched a wide ranging PR offensive that included his Rose Garden speech on Thursday as well as his weekly radio address on Saturday, which was unusually devoted to something other than domestic affairs. White House officials can be heartened by reactions, which have ranged from hearty approval to a skeptical wait and see attitude in most of the media, excluding the far right. But even in the bastion of Obama-loathing Fox News there appear to be some wide cracks, as evidenced by the shock suggestion of Bill O’Reilly that the Iran deal should be given a chance, because the alternative is a “world war that nobody wants.”
To which the immediate historical association for Netanyahu would have to be the famous saying rightly or wrongly attributed to Lyndon Johnson when he saw Walter Cronkite’s pessimistic reports from Vietnam following the Tet Offensive in 1968: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the American people.”