With Obama’s Eyes on Iran, Netanyahu Needs Only Lip Service for Palestinians

GOP Senator Marco Rubio’s amendments to Congressional review of Iran deal seen through prism of his reported endorsement by Sheldon Adelson.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Despite the anger at Netanyahu’s on-again, off-again support for Palestinian statehood, Obama is in no hurry to punish the Israeli PM.
Despite the anger at Netanyahu’s on-again, off-again support for Palestinian statehood, Obama is in no hurry to punish the Israeli PM.Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

When Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman told a gathering of Reform Jews in Washington this week that the administration will find it more difficult to defend Israel in international forums if the new government in Jerusalem “is seen as stepping back from its commitment to a two-state solution”, many interpreted the statement as a veiled threat. But it could also be seen something completely different: as an open plea.

Because U.S. President Barack Obama, it seems, is hardly eager to face the “moment of truth” that will emerge in the UN Security Council when France and other countries submit their long-awaited proposal detailing the parameters and methodology for creating an independent Palestinian state. Foreign Policy reported this week that the administration has asked France to postpone tabling its proposal until the talks with Iran over a nuclear agreement are concluded: Obama fears that a decision to refrain from vetoing such a proposal would anger both Jewish leaders and Democratic lawmakers and could have a negative impact on their already skeptical attitude towards an Iran agreement as well.

Hence, the operative word in Sherman’s warning might very well have been “seen”: after all, no one rationally expects Benjamin Netanyahu’s potential right-wing coalition of 67 Members of Knesset to seriously negotiate an agreement based on the 67 borders, but that doesn’t mean that one can’t keep up appearances. Despite the anger and bluster of the administration’s post-election response to Netanyahu’s on-again, off-again support for Palestinian statehood, Obama is in no hurry to punish the Israeli prime minister or his new government: the only thing he is asking for in return, it seems, is a modest Israeli contribution in the form of lip service.

According to some participants in his meetings with Jewish leaders two weeks ago, Obama said that the Palestinians cannot be left with no hope whatsoever for the future: even the semblance of a peace process is better than none. The implicit message heard by some of his listeners was that if Netanyahu would only go through the motions, that might suffice to justify a U.S. veto of a French motion at the Security Council, at least for the time being.

Obama does not seem to share some of his advisers’ zeal to “get even” with Netanyahu for what they view as years of unseemly slights and inexcusable insults: he also acknowledges, as he told his Jewish audience, that a Palestinian deal won’t be concluded during the remainder of his time in office. Obama is completely focused on the far more realistic objective of a nuclear deal with Tehran and on safeguarding it from the malevolent plans of the contrarian Republican Congress. Obama will dedicate himself in the upcoming months to achieving both objectives: he does not want to relinquish what now seems to many in the White House as his significant achievements in the ongoing confrontation with the GOP over Congressional supervision of an Iran accord.

Because notwithstanding the cries of victory that emanated from the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem and triumphant Republican Senators in Washington following the unanimous 19-0 vote on April 14 in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in favor of Senator Bob Corker’s Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Bill of 2015, many observers now believe that it was Obama who emerged with the upper hand. Obama did concede a perfunctory Congressional role in affirming an Iran agreement as well as a 30-day suspension of his authority to lift sanctions, but in the end he will need to muster only 34 Democratic senators who will refuse to override his veto in order to ensure that a nuclear deal goes through. Even Republicans are now conceding that given the domestic and international earthquake that would ensue from a Congressional decision to overturn a done deal, the odds lean heavily in Obama’s favor.

Perhaps this is one of the factors spurring Florida Senator and GOP presidential hopeful Marco Rubio to submit a series of controversial amendments to the Corker bill, over the objections voiced by the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC and despite the certainty that their adoption would shatter bipartisan support for the bill and ensure a presidential veto that the Democrats wouldn’t dare vote to overturn. Rubio even improved on the demand made by Netanyahu in early April that Iran recognize Israel’s right to exist as part of any nuclear deal, insisting that Tehran would need to recognize it as a “Jewish state”, no less.

There are few senators on either side of the aisle who would be keen to oppose such a measure, which, in today’s political atmosphere, is almost on par with American motherhood and apple pie. Rubio has angered Democrats for putting them on the spot and for ignoring the understandings reached between Corker and Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, but he has also irked stalwart Republican hawks such as South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, who said he would oppose Rubio’s amendments. Here’s another Obama achievement: instead of Democrats bickering over supporting the Iran deal, Republicans are now going at each other about opposing it.

Rubio isn’t the only Republican submitting amendments to the Corker bill – Texas’ Ted Cruz and others are also doing their bit: they all know that the GOP’s conservative base will jeer at any compromise with the Democrats, no matter how constructive, and cheer for any expression of support for Israel, no matter how destructive. But it was Rubio who stood in the media’s limelight this week, because of the reports, neither confirmed nor denied, that he was the frontrunner in the contest to secure Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s generous financial backing in the upcoming presidential campaign.

According to the reports, Rubio had been chosen after Adelson was disappointed by Jeb Bush’s lackluster repudiation of Bush family confidante and former Secretary of State James Baker, who had had the gall to address last month’s J Street conference. Some observers see a direct link between Adelson’s favorable reviews of Rubio and the Florida Senator’s enhanced militancy as well as his willingness to confront both his GOP colleagues as well as AIPAC, which Adelson has reportedly viewed as being too wishy-washy if not downright defeatist in some of its positions in recent years.

With Adelson backing Rubio, New York hedge fund wizard Robert Mercer preferring Cruz, Texas and old GOP money going to Bush and the Koch brothers reportedly opting for Wisconsin’s Scott Walker – who will visit Israel in May – the upcoming Republican presidential race promises to be the greatest and best financed political show on earth, bar none, with support for Israel and opposition to Iran taking center stage. As Republicans try to outdo each other in grandstanding up to Obama, however, the president might actually find it easier to ram through his agreement with Iran, provided he can persuade the ayatollahs in Tehran to sign it.

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