Obama Can't Oust Netanyahu Like Bush Did Shamir

Netanyahu's 'mishandled' ties with Obama are unlikely to prompt voters to opt for his opponent.

Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar
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James Baker and Yitzhak Shamir after a meeting in Jerusalem, 1991.
James Baker and Yitzhak Shamir after a meeting in Jerusalem, 1991.Credit: AP
Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar

Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker did us a favor by appearing on CBS' Face the Nation to slam the "breach of protocol" in inviting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress shortly before the Israeli elections. Baker's entry into the debate can provide perspective on what is undoubtedly a more important issue in Israel's election season than bottle deposits.

Firstly because Baker inadvertently reminded us that talk of a disaster in U.S.-Israeli relations is sometimes as overblown as the recent New York City-blizzard warnings, and secondly because Baker's role as an intellectual architect of the Obama administration policy on Iran – which mistakenly believes that rogue states like Iran can buttress regional stability and obviate the need for costly U.S. military intervention – is in fact at the true heart of this debate.

In the interview, Baker suggests Netanyahu's conduct was "mistaken," and compares it to how Yitzhak Shamir "mishandled" his relationship with George H. W. Bush. In 1992, the Bush administration withheld the loan guarantees to Shamir's government – money Israel required to absorb immigrants from the former Soviet Union – unless Israel agreed to a settlement freeze. When it did this, it correctly assumed that the matter would become a campaign issue in Israel's actions that would hurt Shamir. Attempts by Jewish organizations to lobby Congress to reverse the decision triggered a heated debate that broke down along partisan lines. But, unlike today's clash between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama, the Republicans generally supported their party's administration despite the Democrats' criticism.

When George W. Bush took office in 2001, memories of the clash with his father stoked concern in Israel, but the new administration maintained extremely cordial relations with Israel and Republican support for Israel remained at stratospheric levels. This proved that the America-Israeli relationship can survive a clash with the White House over policy, and that bi-partisan support for Israel remains resilient.

Baker currently hopes that Netanyahu's attempt to lobby congress over Obama's head will cost him like it did Shamir. But the major swing vote in the 1992 elections were the new immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were convinced that the loan guarantees were essential for their successful absorption and turned against Shamir to support, instead, Yitzhak Rabin who, they felt, was a war hero that could be trusted.

Fortunately, history will not repeat itself. Bush and Baker influenced the Israeli electorate in 1992 from a position of strength fresh from their victory over Saddam Hussein and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In contrast, the Israeli electorate today is far from confident in Obama. A recent Israel Democracy Institute "Peace Index" survey found that 61 percent of Israelis polled think that Obama will sign off on a nuclear deal with Iran even if it is prejudicial to Israeli security. Zionist Camp and Meretz voters who implicitly trust Obama would not vote for a nationalist coalition in any case. The crossover voters whom Baker and the Israeli left are counting on to oust Netanyahu will stick with nationalist parties – not despite Obama, but because of him.

Although their political sympathies sharply differ, David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Policy, and Michael Doran, a senior director of the National Security Council in the Bush administration, reached the same conclusion: that the transformation of U.S.-Iranian relations was the signature issue of Obama's diplomacy. Rothkopf left it for history to decide whether Iran would cement Obama's legacy or whether he would achieve notoriety for having been played by Iran. Doran condemned the policy as morally bankrupt and strategically disastrous. However, the contours of Obama's diplomacy had already been anticipated by the 2006 Iraq Study Group headed by Baker and former Democratic representative Lee Hamilton. With an American public disillusioned by the cost of democracy building in Iraq, Baker and Hamilton offered a balance-of-power approach based on engaging two "axis of evil" members, Syria and Iran, who could be counted on to battle Al-Qaida for their own sake. Additionally, the group expected Iran "to use its influence, especially over Shia groups in Iraq, to encourage national reconciliation"

Obama has channeled Baker in his willingness to accommodate Iran, and offer major and as-yet-unrequited concessions in the nuclear file. He has acquiesced to Iraq's becoming an Iranian satellite and sectarian Shi'ite militias supplanting the armed and security forces of the Iraqi state. This is Iran's way of encouraging national reconciliation. Instead of turning Iran into a country willing to live by the rules of the international game, the nuclear negotiations have emboldened Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the head of the Revolutionary Guards' Al-Quds force, Qassem Soleimani. Iran continues to call for Israel's destruction and is encircling Israel with Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and a new front opposite the Golan Heights in Syria. This is the regime that Obama seeks to placate by recognizing its "right to enrichment" and retain its massive centrifuge infrastructure.

James Baker is correct when he argues that the executive branch leads in foreign policy, but there have been notable exceptions. This year officially marks 25 years to the mass immigration wave from the former Soviet Union to Israel. To be accurate, however, the exodus began in the mid-1970s, and was the product of a congressional challenge to then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's preference for a detente with the Soviets. Senator Henry Jackson helped pry open the closed gates with the Jackson-Vanik amendment. As was the case of Soviet Jewry, Iran's nuclear and regional ambitions are crucial issues that justify a challenge to executive policy by an appeal to Congress.

Amiel Ungar is a political scientist.

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