It took only one round of preliminary nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries for a trans-Atlantic ruckus to break out between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and US President Obama over whether Tehran had or hadn’t been given a “freebie." One can only imagine the open hostilities that might break out between the two leaders if, contrary to expectations, the talks begin to yield real results.
“My initial impression is that Iran has been given a ‘freebie,’” Netanyahu said on Sunday in regard to the five-week hiatus before the next round of talks with Tehran, scheduled to be held on May 23 in Baghdad. With U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman as a character witness by his side, Netanyahu was pointedly showing off his ease and familiarity not only with American vernacular but with American politics as well, and the point was not lost on Obama’s White House advisers. The Israeli shot across the bow travelled all the way to Cartagena, Colombia, where the visiting Obama took the trouble to reject Netanyahu’s charge verbatim, saying that Iran had gained nothing from the first round of talks, certainly not a “freebie."
The early timing of this undiplomatic exchange surprised even some seasoned observers of the troublesome relationship between the two leaders. During his relatively amicable visit to Washington last month, Netanyahu and Obama had reached broad understandings, if not total agreement, on the ways to move forward over the coming weeks. And the dynamics of the negotiating process are such that the decision to convene a second round of talks is insignificant in and of itself, Netanyahu knows full well, and the crunch time will come, if at all, only if a third and decisive round of talks is convened. Thus, the logic behind Netanyahu’s early broadside against the talks remains unclear, though it clearly angered Obama.
Israelis, of course, are axiomatically skeptical of the talks with Tehran and view them as an Iranian diversionary tactic aimed at gaining time, weakening international sanctions and enhancing Iran’s legitimacy in the Arab and Muslim world. Israeli officials are under no illusions that Tehran would ever accept Jerusalem’s two main demands of a total ban on uranium enrichment or the dismantling of the Fordow underground facility near Qom. Under normal circumstances, however, Israel would be expected to understand the need to go through the motions of exhausting the diplomatic options and to trust the U.S. to call the Iranian bluff in order to show the world that Tehran’s intentions are far from benign.
But the circumstances are far from normal. Rumors of White House attempts to broker backdoor deals that are completely unacceptable to Israel – including those that would allow the Iranians to continue low-grade enrichment - have been swirling in Washington and reaching the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem for several weeks now, gnawing away at the tentative sense of understanding created during Netanyahu’s recent visit. These reports, together with the deep skepticism about Obama’s attitude to Israel, rife among many of Netanyahu’s confidantes and advisers, and the widely held suspicion that the president’s overriding goal is to achieve an arrangement that would avert a crisis and keep oil prices low in advance of the November elections all make for a toxic mix that could very well induce increasingly scathing outbursts from Jerusalem.
The same is conversely true, perhaps even doubly so, from the point of view of the White House. Netanyahu’s critiques of Administration positions towards Iran provide valuable ammunition for the presumptive presidential candidate Mitt Romney to attack Obama for “throwing Israel under the bus." Given his well-known ties with Romney and other Republicans, only recently highlighted in a front-page New York Times report, the White House will be hard pressed not to suspect Netanyahu that his vocal objections to any hint of progress is aimed at giving crucial aid and succor to his conservative ideological allies in their bid to unseat Obama.
At the same time, both leaders realize full well that they are inexorably bound to each other in what might be termed “a balance of terror.” Obama, after all, will most likely fail to convince the American public that he hasn’t sold out Israel if the Israeli prime minister claims otherwise. Netanyahu, for his part, will need Obama’s stamp of approval for any attack on Iran not only to prevent international isolation but also to convince the Israeli public that there was no other choice.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. If the current talks collapse, the stage will be set, theoretically at least, for an Israeli attack that could ignite the Middle East, rattle the world’s economy and possibly derail Obama’s chances of victory. If, contrary to current expectations, progress is achieved in the talks – or at least if the U.S. decides to call it progress – the threat of war might be averted but the danger of a rupture between Israel and the US would become clear and present indeed.
And if Israel decides to go it alone despite international agreement with Tehran, it would be jeopardizing the very foundations of its diplomatic standing around the world and much of its political support in the U.S. as well.
Israel and America are not one and the same, of course, and may have found themselves at cross purposes over the Iranian nuclear challenge under different leaders as well, but the troubled history, the divergent ideology and the bad chemistry between Obama and Netanyahu dramatically complicate and exacerbate a situation which is of existential importance to Israel, and of strategic significance, at the very least, to the U.S. as well.
The willingness of the two leaders to believe the worst of each other places the Iranians in a unique position, if they play their cards right, to drive a serious wedge between “the Great Satan” and the “Small Satan,” and whether they do so for rational or for irrational reasons is largely irrelevant.
It is a unique set of circumstances worthy of close examination in the specialized academic field of foreign policy analysis, which, among other things, analyzes the effect of personalities and the interaction between them on international relations and crises. The troubled interactions between Netanyahu and Obama and their potential ramifications would be fascinating in theory, of course, if they weren’t so frightening in reality.
Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev
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