Netanyahu's Congress Dilemma: Low Profile or Aggressive Campaign Against Iran Deal?

Will Netanyahu personally lobby American lawmakers, making phone calls, private briefings and maybe even flying to Washington to convince them in person?

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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Netanyahu poses with U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D) and other committee members at the Capitol. September 30, 2013.
Netanyahu poses with U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D) and other committee members at the Capitol. September 30, 2013.Credit: AFP
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

A few days ago, Science and Technology Minister Danny Danon was preparing for an interview with Fox News. Before going on the air, he contacted the Prime Minister’s Office to double-check that he was sticking to Benjamin Netanyahu’s talking points on the Iranian issue. A few minutes later, one of Netanyahu’s aides got back to him with a single request: “Don’t say anything about Congress.”

This anecdote encapsulates the dilemma Netanyahu faces regarding his effort to block the nuclear deal with Iran via the U.S. Congress. The key decision Netanyahu must make is whether to engage in low-profile diplomatic maneuvering or embark on a loud and aggressive campaign that will once again insert Israel deep into America’s domestic political debate.

In another 60 days, at the end of the legally mandated period Congress has to review the nuclear deal, it will vote on whether to lift the sanctions on Iran. The hope in Netanyahu’s office is that if Congress doesn’t remove the sanctions, the Iranians will withdraw from their commitments under the agreement and the whole deal will collapse.

In the first vote on the issue, opponents of the deal are expected to win a majority, but President Barack Obama will veto that decision. To realize his hope of getting that veto overturned, Netanyahu will have to persuade 13 Democratic senators and a few dozen Democratic representatives to vote not just against ending the sanctions, but against the president who leads their party.

Netanyahu hasn’t yet decided on his best course of action for trying to achieve this almost impossible mission. On Sunday, the diplomatic-security cabinet discussed the issue, but no decision was made. In the meantime, he is being relatively cautious. In line with his instructions to Danon, Netanyahu also eschewed the word “Congress” in his interviews with the U.S. media Sunday, despite being asked about it several times.

On Monday, Netanyahu raised the volume a bit. At the opening of the weekly Likud meeting in the Knesset, he said that if Congress didn’t lift its sanctions — which deny Iran virtually all access, either direct or indirect, to the U.S. economy — this might serve as a lever for pressuring Tehran to make additional concessions on its nuclear program.

Netanyahu’s representative in Washington, Ambassador Ron Dermer, has also kept a relatively low profile. Dermer is holding meetings with Democratic legislators and voicing Israel’s opposition to the agreement, but unlike his past approach, he hasn’t intervened too overtly in the political debate between the Republicans and Democrats.

Israel’s embassy in Washington is preparing to shift to a more aggressive strategy and has thus cut short summer vacations for a number of diplomats, though for now they’re still sitting idle. “We are preparing for war, but in the meantime we have yet to hear the call to charge ahead,” an Israel diplomat said.

This “charge” is exactly the cause for concern for plenty of Foreign Ministry and defense officials who fear that a full-on confrontation with Washington could further expand the schism between Israel and the United States. Such voices were heard Sunday in a meeting with Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely.

An official at the meeting said Foreign Ministry officials had warned Hotovely about such a scenario. The main message “was that we must tread carefully and think how far we want to go in Congress,” the official said. “This is a battle that we know how to enter but not how to leave. Every action we take is likely to have a cost.”

Senior Foreign Ministry officials are concerned about the “day after” — regardless of whether the attempt to stop the nuclear deal dead in its tracks in Congress is unsuccessful. Even more so, they’re concerned about it succeeding, dealing Obama a painful and embarrassing political blow. The officials fear that the blowback from the administration could hit the UN Security Council, with Washington not vetoing resolutions on the Palestinian issue.

A senior Foreign Ministry officials told Hotovely that along with the efforts against the nuclear deal, it was imperative to shift to a “discourse of compensation” with the Americans and discuss their offer for a new defense aid package. “Maybe the day after the vote in Congress, this will no longer be,” the official said. Netanyahu believes that Israeli diplomats are wrong and that in every scenario the struggle against the nuclear deal trumps the importance of a few more F-35 fighter jets.

The big question is if in the coming weeks Netanyahu will continue his direct campaign against the accord. Will he personally lobby American lawmakers with phone calls, private briefings and maybe even a flight to Washington to convince them in person? Judging by his behavior in the past six years, such a scenario isn’t so far-fetched.

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