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The Obama-Bibi Split Is About Policy, Not Protocol—And It May Be Permanent

Why the dust-up about Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 3 speech to a joint meeting of Congress may outlast the leader

Matthew Duss
February 26, 2015
(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

The ongoing contretemps over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 3 speech to a joint meeting of Congress has once again put a spotlight on the troubled relationship between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama, with both leaders’ supporters arguing that their guy is more justifiably offended.

Analyzing the timeline of events, Tablet columnist Liel Leibovitz seemed to suggest that Netanyahu is way too smart a politician to have helped engineer such a cock-up, and therefore the controversy can be fairly laid at Obama’s doorstep. Yet, while Leibovitz mocked the idea that Netanyahu sought to achieve any domestic political benefit from the speech, a recent poll conducted by the Israeli Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University found that “a large majority (67 percent) thinks the timing of Netanyahu’s trip, right at the peak of the election campaign, was central to his decision to go to Washington and address Congress there; in other words, that he is using a speech abroad to influence the election results at home.” Also criticizing the timing of the speech, former Israeli Deputy National Security Adviser Chuck Freilich wrote that Netanyahu has “subordinated Israel’s most crucial strategic interests to election considerations.”

Leibovitz also took issue with the argument that Netanyahu’s acceptance of an invitation was not a violation of protocol, since Netanyahu notified the White House before accepting. While Leibovitz is correct that “protocol” can be a malleable concept, as Ron Kampeas of JTA and Nathan Guttman of The Forward both argue, the way the invitation was engineered clearly falls outside the bounds of normal diplomatic practice. The idea that there was nothing untoward about the Republican speaker of the House and the Israeli ambassador arranging such an invitation in secret and then springing it on the White House doesn’t really pass the laugh test. Imagine, for comparison’s sake, that congressional Democrats had, in a similar manner, arranged in 2003 for French President Jacques Chirac to deliver a speech against the Iraq invasion. Somehow I doubt we’d even be debating its propriety.

Where Leibovitz and I do agree, however, is that the current U.S.-Israel tension is more about policy than personalities. While the two men have never gotten along, it’s a mistake to treat this as a personal dispute. Treating it as such misses the important fact that the two men represent genuine constituencies who have very different views of how to advance their respective country’s security interests and the role that the other should play in helping them do that.

First off, to paraphrase John McCain, the fundamentals of the U.S.-Israel relationship remain strong. The military-to-military relationship is among the closest that the United States has with any country. The intelligence- and information-sharing between the two countries, particularly on the issue of Iran, is, as multiple Israeli security officials have told me over the past several years, “Better than ever”—or at least it was until Netanyahu decided to start selectively leaking information about Iranian nuclear talks in order to scuttle a deal.

As reported by David Ignatius, this most recent breach began days before the surprise announcement of the invitation, when Netanyahu told Obama that he could not accept a one-year breakout time for Iran and, according to Ignatius, reverted to a “hard-line insistence that Iran shouldn’t be allowed any centrifuges or enrichment,” a position that most analysts see as a non-starter for any agreement. (A good parallel here would be a Palestinian insistence for a full right of return.)

So, Liebovitz is quite right when he writes that, “Obama and Bibi radically disagree on the direction that a joint Iran policy should take.” Let’s consider how those directions differ.

Notwithstanding the pearl-clutching of some hawks—such as former Bush Administration Middle East hand Michael Doran, in a piece Leibovitz approvingly cites—about Obama’s “secret” Iran policy, Obama has in fact been fairly clear about his approach to Iran, and about the importance of cultivating and maintaining international support for that approach, since he was a Democratic primary candidate in 2007. Attacked by both Republican and Democratic opponents for his “naïve” intention to engage in direct talks without conditions, Obama took on and won an important argument about the appropriate uses of U.S. power. It was an argument that Americans were particularly ready to hear in the wake of the Iraq war (which, it should be pointed out, did far more to advance Iran’s regional influence than anything the current administration has done).

For Netanyahu, military force is the one true global currency.

Obama’s outreach to Iran was initially dismissed by critics as a useless gesture, but it proved to be an important force multiplier for sanctions pressure. As Iranian human-rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi put it, by demonstrating willingness to engage with Iran, Obama showed Iranians and the world “that it is the Iranian regime that doesn’t want to talk,” thereby strengthening an international coalition to put pressure on Iran through economic sanctions.

In a January 2014 New Yorker interview, Obama described his view of “a new geopolitical equilibrium” that could come in the wake of a nuclear deal with Iran. “It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” Obama said. “And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”

There are some tough questions to be asked about Obama’s stated approach. At the very least it does represent some measure of accommodation to the increase of Iranian influence that resulted from the Iraq war’s upending of the regional balance of power. In some ways, Iraq itself offers some demonstration of what this might look like in practice—and has since before Obama took office. Sharing an interest in an Iraq that neither threatened its neighbors nor collapsed completely, the United States and Iran were both supporters of Iraq’s post-invasion Shia-dominated governments, even as Iran continued to aid Shia militias that fought U.S. troops.

This gives some indication of what things could look like in the region more broadly, with the United States and Iran talking, even as our partners, such as Israel and Hezbollah, occasionally fight each other.

This is obviously not an optimal situation. But while Obama clearly recognizes that Iran is a bad actor, he also recognizes that it’s a third-rate military power with a defense budget under 2 percent of the U.S.’s and thus not even approaching an “existential” threat. The hope—and it’s still a hope—is that addressing the Iranian nuclear issue establishes some amount of trust that could create an opening to address a broader set of problems. A key challenge for the United States is to continue to make certain red lines clear—the acquisition of a nuclear weapon being one, transit through the Strait of Hormuz being another. The latter is a red line that Iran has continued to observe, having clearly understood that the United States is committed to policing it. The challenge for the Obama Administration and its successors will be to continue to make clear to Iran that it is committed to policing the former as well.

It’s also worth noting that sanctions on Iran will not simply be dropped upon the signing of a nuclear deal. There’s a whole menu of sanctions unrelated to the nuclear program—on human rights abuses, on terrorism—that should and will remain in place until Iran addresses those concerns. (Though don’t hold your breath to see if we apply similar human rights penalties to our traditional allies in the region.)

Still, many Israelis are understandably uncomfortable with the idea of this new equilibrium. “Obama is betting that, in the longer term, Iran can be a more stabilizing and constructive actor,” Brandon Friedman, a researcher in Gulf politics at Tel Aviv University, told me last fall. “That may not be a bad bet. The problem for Israelis and others in the region is that we live in the short and medium term.”

One can, of course, agree or disagree with Obama’s approach. One can call it misguided or naïve. What one cannot do is pretend it’s a secret.

As for Netanyahu, it’s an understatement to say that he has a much darker view of how the world works than Obama does, and a far more robust view of the utility of military force to create the desired outcomes.

Netanyahu views the world in stark, Manichean terms, the forces of good versus those of evil, the latter being currently represented by the Islamic State and the Islamic Republic of Iran, between whom he recognizes no meaningful distinction. Examples of this can be found throughout his career, but his 2014 speech to the U.N. General Assembly offered a very good demonstration of both his analysis of the threat faced by Israel and his own perceived role in marshaling world opinion against that threat.

“Some are radical Sunnis, some are radical Shi’ites. Some want to restore a pre-medieval caliphate from the 7th century. Others want to trigger the apocalyptic return of an imam from the 9th century,” Netanyahu said. “They operate in different lands, they target different victims and they even kill each other in their quest for supremacy. But they all share a fanatic ideology.”

“Militant Islam’s ambition to dominate the world seems mad,” he continued. “But so too did the global ambitions of another fanatic ideology that swept to power eight decades ago. The Nazis believed in a master race. The militant Islamists believe in a master faith.”

While Obama is certainly not opposed to the use of military force, as his use of drones against Islamic militants has shown, in general he believes that it’s only one tool in a toolbox, to be used sparingly, in the event that problematic regimes cannot be induced to change their behavior through political and economic pressure. For Netanyahu, military force is the one true global currency. Based in his reading of history, particularly Jewish history, the failure to aggressively confront evil regimes can only have negative consequences.

To point to another example, in his 2002 testimony before the House Government and Reform Oversight Committee, Netanyahu insisted, “I guarantee you that [regime change in Iraq] will have enormous positive reverberations on the region.” The point here isn’t simply to note that Netanyahu was wrong, or that the Iraq invasion helped spawn the ISIS threat, but to point out that his advocacy of the Iraq invasion was based in a belief, shared with the war’s American advocates, in the capacity of military force, unlike diplomacy, to create outcomes decisively.

It’s a view that many Israelis clearly share, as they may very well elect him to a historic fourth term as prime minister. Even if he isn’t re-elected, it’s not as if the Israeli electorate or its government will suddenly become enamored of the idea of Iran as a nuclear threshold state.

On the other hand, Obama was also elected and re-elected quite handily, and polls show that Americans support efforts to address the Iranian nuclear issue through diplomacy and support a deal that would leave Iran with some domestic uranium enrichment capacity.

There are a couple of ways in which this could play out over the next several years. Obama might luck out with the election of a center-left government in Israel, which could be more inclined to hash out regional policy differences behind closed doors. But it’s more likely that Netanyahu remains in power. Given how much effort he has invested in opposing the deal, in the event that one is signed he probably will focus a great deal of effort on highlighting any and all Iranian abrogation, no matter how slight, in order to vindicate that opposition. This would make for a rough next two years.

While two leaders who liked each other better might be able to avoid clashing so publicly, these differences go beyond the two men and beyond the single issue of Iran. They are differences with which future Israeli and American leaders will likely continue to contend.


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Matthew Duss is president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, based in Washington, DC.

Matthew Duss is president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, based in Washington, DC.