10 Comments on Lonely Israel, a Done Iranian Deal and Obama’s Nobel Prize

Will American business leaders allow European and Asian companies get a head start in exploiting a lucrative, sanction-free Iran?

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10, 2009.
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10, 2009.Credit: Bloomberg
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

1. Israel has rarely seemed lonelier in the international arena, or more despondent. Along with the GOP and some mealy-mouthed Gulf officials, it is the only country in the world so far to utterly reject the nuclear deal concluded in Vienna on Tuesday. “Look: a people that dwells alone, Not reckoned among the nations,” as the gentile prophet Bilam said in the Book of Numbers 3300 years ago. Religious Jews have counted the prophecy as a divine blessing that safeguards a distinct Jewish identity. In modern diplomatic terms, however, it is only a curse, as Bilam’s procurer, the Moabite king Balak, originally intended.

2. The nuclear agreement between the P5+1 countries is a done deal, even if it does turn out to be a “stunning historic mistake” as an ashen-faced Prime Minister Netanyahu said on Tuesday. Within the next two weeks, the accord will be given an international stamp of approval by the UN Security Council. There is nothing that Netanyahu or the Republican-led U.S. Congress can do to change that. Under these circumstances, a wise Israel would consider how much more credit and energy and goodwill it should waste and how much more friction with the Obama administration it can afford in trying to reverse what is essentially a fait accompli.

3. The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 that Congress approved and President Obama signed in May after months of bitter confrontation will have no bearing on the legal standing of the nuclear accord: it only applies to Obama’s authority to lift U.S. sanctions. Even on the dubious assumption that enough Democrats will defect to the Republican side to form the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto, the rest of the world will not feel itself bound to the decisions of the American legislature.

Such a situation, however, could create a legal maze of Talmudic complexity: current American law requires punitive measures against international companies that violate the sanctions regime, though that will have been revoked by the Security Council. And the enforcer of these punitive steps would be the administration, which opposes them.

4. The chances for a two-thirds majority, however, are slim indeed. Whatever their misgivings about the deal and their inherent mistrust of Tehran, US public opinion and Democratic Congressman will be loathe supporting a move that would pit the U.S. against the rest of the world and undermine the stature and authority of the President. This is doubly true in light of the fact that most Democratic voters are likely to solidly support the deal, a trend already attested to on Tuesday in Bernie Sanders warm embrace and Hillary Clinton’s cooler but nonetheless positive reaction to the accord. Under these circumstances, and in a primaries season yet, it will be difficult if not impossible to find the 13 Democratic naysayers needed to form an anti-veto bloc in the Senate.

5. The Republicans, on the other hand, seem to be steadfastly and uniformly opposed to the deal: support for Netanyahu and vocal criticism of Obama are GOP gospel. The only hitherto silent force that might come into play to crack the solid wall of Republican hostility is big business and the oil industry, the titans of which are surely waking up to the possibility that Asian and European companies will be chomping at the bit to exploit the new business opportunities that would be created by the lifting of sanctions. According to most estimates, U.S. companies could export an annual $20-40 billion within a few short years, never mind the windfalls to be made from the world’s third largest producer of natural gas and fifth largest producer of oil.

6. The same business-oil lobby played a prominent role in persuading some Republican lawmakers not to block another major administration outreach to a Middle Eastern country that Israel vehemently opposed: the 1981 sale of AWACS early warning aircraft to Saudi Arabia. Riyadh, however, is on the other side of the fence now, upset by the Iran deal, though not as strident as Israel in voicing its objections. And the U.S. is in no way dependent on Iran now as it was on Saudi oil then, though what it lacks in energy addition it makes up for with Obama’s enthusiasm to see the Iran deal go through.

7. Nonetheless, the AWACS sale, along with the 1991-2 confrontation over loan guarantees, stand out as the most dramatic direct clashes between Israel and American presidents during the past 35 years. Both face-offs ostensibly proved that even a determined pro-Israel lobby backed by Congress cannot withstand a determined enough American president. In other ways, however, Israel and its lobby may have lost the battles but won the war. AIPAC’s impressive performance in rustling up Congressional opposition to the AWACS sale is considered by many to be the turning point that made it into the Washington DC juggernaut that it is today. And President George Bush’s defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton a few short months after his confrontation with then-PM Yitzhak Shamir cemented the deterrent legacy by which even presidents should think twice before messing with AIPAC.

8. Many people remember Bush’s controversial statements at a September 12, 1991 White House press conference about how he was facing “powerful political forces.” I’m just a “lonely little guy” fighting “something like a thousand lobbyists on the Hill,” the president said, sparking howls of protests from Jewish leaders that he was enforcing anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Reagan made an even harsher statement at the time, though it has receded in public memory because Reagan’s fierce clashes with Israel have been whitewashed to conform to his subsequent conservative beatification. “It is not the business of other nations to make foreign policy,” Reagan said in October 1981, referring to Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s efforts to persuade Congressmen to oppose the AWACS sale. In his memoirs, Reagan recalled that he had asked the State Department to tell Begin that his private meetings with American lawmakers “jeopardize the close relations between the two countries.” Just imagine if Obama did that, or what hell would break loose if he would make a public statement that comes close to the rebukes of his two Republican predecessors.

9. It is obvious, of course, that party politics and personal antipathies play a major role in forming the political sentiments and statements on the Iran deal. “Where you sit depends on where you stand,” as Rufus E. Miles, Jr. who served in various U.S. administration famously said, based on his “memorable encounters with reality.”

Would the GOP be so uniformly opposed to the Iran deal were it not for its hostility to Obama and the fact that it has to face angry pro-Israel voters in the primaries? Would Netanyahu have pushed himself into the deep and isolated corner he now finds himself in had he not adopted the right wing Republican view of Obama as “naive” and inherently anti-Israel? Would Israeli public opinion be so uniformly opposed to the deal were it not for the years of anti-Obama indoctrination by the government? Possibly: Israelis have deeply rooted and largely justified contemporary suspicions of Iran as well as centuries of historical persecution. Netanyahu’s role has been to elevate the walls of fear and apprehension that Israelis would have erected by themselves as well.

10. Skeptics will scoff now as they did then, but Obama supporters can justly claim that after six years years he has finally vindicated the Nobel Peace Prize he received in 2009. At his acceptance speech, Obama pledged to work towards nuclear non-proliferation, though he added “it is also incumbent upon all of us to insist that nations like Iran and North Korea do not game the system.”

Israelis believe the Iranians have already taken Obama for a ride; the rest of the Western world will wait to see if Obama is as good as his word.

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