Ahead of Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to a joint meeting of Congress next week, which will outline the case against a nuclear deal with Iran, White House officials are stepping up their criticism of the Israeli prime minister. National Security Adviser Susan Rice said Netanyahu’s planned visit is “destructive of the fabric of the relationship” between the United States and Israel, while Secretary of State John Kerry added that Netanyahu “may not be correct” on his approach to Iran. As Washington prepares for the prime minister’s address, Moment‘s Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil talked to Emanuele Ottolenghi, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, about the growing rift between the White House and Israel, the nuclear talks with Iran, and how this will affect the future of the American Jewish community. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
What do you make of all the criticism Netanyahu has received so far, particularly from Susan Rice and John Kerry?
I found it amusing that John Kerry would wag his finger at Netanyahu using the Iraq War example because John Kerry voted for it and even wrote extensively in the public domain supporting the war effort. Bibi could be wrong, so could John Kerry, as both were back then. By the way, back then John Kerry was a senator voting for it, while Bibi was just a private citizen arguing for it. So the weight of their mistakes back then is different.
I don’t see how the language of the White House, which is becoming more and more threatening in the last few days, is in any way less destructive than what they’re accusing Netanyahu of doing. If they’re so concerned with the future of the bi-lateral relationship, I think they’re going to have their fair share of destroying it.
The bottom line is that there is a significant and widening disagreement on an important policy issue, one that all Israelis—not just Netanyahu, but pretty much the entire political system there—consider to be of vital strategic importance to the future of their country. It’s a disagreement that is compounded by the fact that the relationship is unbalanced; it’s not a relationship between equals. The Israelis, who are more vulnerable to the consequences of a mistake in this policy, feel like they’ve been both cornered and kept in the dark by their stronger ally, who’s doing the negotiation. And the Obama administration, it seems to me, is trying to make it look like this is just a personal squabble in which the junior partner is being rude.
Whether Netanyahu was wise to accept the invitation, whether the protocol was violated or disregarded, seems to me, misses the point of what they’re squabbling about. The Israelis are accusing the U.S. of selling them down the river in the name of an agreement that is a far cry from what the White House promised—that the diplomatic compromise that would prevent Iran from ever having a nuclear weapon. It is increasingly looking like a nuclear arms control agreement that will restrict Iran from having nuclear weapons for a few years, at most. With all that in mind, maybe Netanyahu could have made his point by not speaking to Congress, but it looks like he’s feeling that this is the last chance he has to appeal to the American people and their representatives. And I think that’s why the Obama administration is so resentful—they haven’t accepted any scrutiny or criticism on this policy for the last 15 months or so that they’ve been negotiating. He hasn’t made public any of the documents so Congress or the public can make an informed judgment. They don’t want to bring disagreement to Congress before approval. They have their share of blame in creating this situation. At any rate, we’re talking about a strategic disagreement; it’s not just an issue of rudeness.
Can you outline the two different approaches to Iran—what the White House is doing, and what Netanyahu hopes the White House will do?
There are three issues where there is profound disagreement. The first is that the Israelis disagreed with the wisdom of the interim agreement, which basically conceded Iran’s right to enrich. Although the agreement says nothing is agreed until everything is agreed upon, it basically says if we reach an agreement, Iran will be able to enrich. The Israelis view that as a concession, and it is similarly viewed as recognition of that right in Iran. Israelis feel that the U.S. has backed that concession, which should have been left for the end game. They are concerned that this agreement has given way too much way too soon.
The second area where they disagree is that they feel that the American approach to that interim agreement grossly underestimated the economic relief, that they’re giving so much on the economic side that they’re losing their leverage on the other things. And two, Israelis feel that there are many areas where Iranians have eroded the substance of the agreement on the margins. They have taken advantage of it, and they have not fully implemented it. So they said too much at the beginning, they underestimated the benefits of what they’re giving them and underestimated the full amount of Iranian violations.
Number three is that Israelis feel that on every single important long-term issue that needs to be negotiated, the Americans haven’t stood behind their self-declared red lines that were given to Israelis as a guarantee that Americans wouldn’t negotiate a bad deal. The missile issue isn’t being negotiated and won’t be negotiated, and also the size of enrichment. The Israeli position is zero enrichment, which people, certainly in Europe, would find a little extreme, but the United States’ initial position was maybe at most to retain a symbolic, very small enrichment program of a few hundred centrifuges, just to give them the feeling that they have not capitulated entirely. Today, based on what you see in the press, it seems that the U.S. has pretty much conceded that Iran will have over 6,000 centrifuges under the final agreement.
There has been the issue of the sunset clause. If you restrain Iran’s nuclear program and you impose various implementation mechanisms, how long does that go on before Iran’s nuclear program become like every other nuclear program? Initially, the Israeli understanding from the Americans was that it would be decades, but now it looks to be anywhere between 10 and 15 years. Ten years may be a long time for a president who’s about to leave office, but it’s the blink of an eye in history. If the Iranians comply and behave for the next 10 years, then they’ll have no restrictions on building a nuclear weapon. The Israelis think it’s naïve to assume that in 10 years the Iranian regime will have changed to the point where it’s not the aggressive, expansionist, revolutionary power that it is today.
When you take all of these things together, the Israelis are saying, “We restrained from launching a military attack, we restrained from sabotaging your interim agreement, we took your word that you would stand on all of these red lines and not cross them and force the Iranians to accept the deal. And you kept saying that no deal was better than a bad deal.” And now, from the Israeli point of view, it looks like it’s going to be a very bad deal, because it looks like the administration prefers a bad deal to no deal at all. And you can see how this issue has become so bitter, and I’m not so sure that it would have not been the case without this speech. The speech may have created a nice public excuse for a showdown, but you could sense this tension coming all along as negotiations progressed.
Do you think this issue will alter the relationship with the United States and Israel in some significant way?
To some extent this depends on whether this this marriage is consummated, if you will, between Iran and the United States. It is entirely possible that the Iranians will say no. Even though it would be, in my view, an absolute folly for them to do so, it’s not inconceivable. Right now, it seems to me, that the relationship between the administration and the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu cannot be fixed. There have been too many crises on important policy issues that you can patch it back together. But President Obama will be out of office in 22 months, and Netanyahu might be out of office in less than 2 months. Or if he stays in office, he has another 20 or so months to survive with President Obama, and then there will be a new president.
The question, if this deal goes through, is what the next administration will do with it. Will the deal hold? Will the Israelis be proven wrong, or will the Americans be proven wrong? Is President Obama’s desire to somehow change the whole regional dynamic, renewing the alliance with Iran, something that will work out? There’s a lot of factors that can give different answers. But I think that the relationship between the United States and Israel is so profoundly rooted that even this very significant crisis will not throw the relationship overboard.
The more interesting question, though, is the following. Let us say that the Israelis are right in the way that they assess Obama’s overtures to Iran. And let us say that the Israelis are right in defining Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon as an existential threat. How does this play out in the American Jewish community? Let us not forget, the American Jewish community is by and large very liberal in its worldview and behavior. The American Jewish community voted disproportionately for Barack Obama compared to any other ethnic or religious minority in the United States. A lot of these same voters who are affiliated with the Jewish community, who have a liberal worldview, or have been very loyal supporters of Barack Obama in two elections, are committed to the bi-lateral relations and Israel’s survival, and thinks that Iran poses a threat to Israel’s survival. Up until now, they’ve been able to say that Barack Obama is on the same page on Iran as us and Israel. That is no longer so. How is that going to play out in the American Jewish community is the more interesting question.
So do you think this could be an opening for the Republicans?
I don’t think American Jews will suddenly consider themselves conservatives on a whole host of social and economic issues. But even as concern for Israel is a high priority in their voting patterns, those who are lifelong voters for the Democratic Party—against the death penalty, for health care, all these issues that define the liberal/conservative divide—they will be faced with a new, unpleasant reality. The party that they voted for and supported has turned their backs to Israel on such a vital issue. And how do we cope with this? How do we explain that we financed, supported, backed this guy who the Israelis are accusing now of selling them down the river? Are we going to tell the Israelis that they’re nuts and we’re going to close ranks around the president and the Democratic Party? Or, are we going to say—forgive my French—screw you and our previous loyalties in 2016? I think it is going to be a genuine, and a very painful dilemma for a lot of people. This will be a very interesting new chapter.
It will be much more difficult for American Jews if this split is more permanent, if Barack Obama is succeeded by another Democratic president who will honor the agreement and pursue the same type of foreign policy. So one important element of the answer is: Will Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy endure the test of time and be embraced by his successors in the Democratic Party, or not? If the answer is yes, then the gulf on real policy issues between Israel and the U.S. will increase.