The Iran deal: How far will Americans go in extending "special status" to Israel?

Obama made it clear the deal is in America's interest, and in Israel's -- despite what the "dear friend" believes

Published August 10, 2015 11:58AM (EDT)

  (AP/Charles Dharapak)
(AP/Charles Dharapak)

This past week saw the horrible murder-by-arson of 18-month-old Ali Dawabsha, killed in the middle of the night by cowardly assassins who set his home ablaze as he and his family peacefully slept.  His father died days later, and his mother’s life hangs in the balance.  Their crime?  Simply existing on their rightful land, a land that Jewish settlers and Netanyahu’s government wish to appropriate.  The very presence of Palestinians on land Israel wishes to permanently annex is an affront to these settlers.  It also saw the death of 16-year-old Shira Banki, one of six people attacked at a gay pride event. Yishai Schlissel, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, who carried out a similar attack in 2005, was arrested at the scene.  In both cases the purity of the notion of Israel as a Jewish state was at the center.

These terrible events happen to coincide with another event that is forcing Americans to reconsider just how far they will go in extending “special status” to Israel.  I am talking, of course, about the Iran deal.  Let’s return to a key moment in the debate: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appearance before Congress.

Netanyahu’s speech before Congress in March was controversial for several reasons. To get a better sense of how much it broke protocol and tradition, consider a few of the last occasions when a foreign leader has addressed Congress.

In 1985 British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used her address to back President Ronald Reagan’s space-based missile defense plan; in 1990 newly elected president of South Africa Nelson Mandela urged the U.S. to help rebuild South Africa as a multi-racial democracy; in 2006, Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister of Iraq, spoke to a joint session of Congress a day after he and President Bush announced a new security plan for Baghdad.  What we find here are instances of these leaders supporting U.S. policy or asking for support for initiatives undertaken in their own countries.  Each had been offered the opportunity to do so via the usual protocols of the White House and Congress.

What we find in Netanyahu’s case is quite different: Not only was he invited without White House involvement, but his invitation came from only one party of Congress and the invitation was meant to provide Netanyahu the occasion to admonish the United States for contemplating a nuclear deal with Iran.  In other words, in this case he made the case for Israel and for the Republicans simultaneously. The floor of Congress was used as a platform for a campaign speech by the beleaguered Netanyahu, up for election, in an effort to correct a shaky domestic political situation, and as a piece of theater for Republicans to show their support for Netanyahu and their independence from, and moreover their disrespect for, President Obama.  In other words, where the central issue was no doubt the Iran deal, a lot more was going on.  And the debates around the deal might have serious political effects well into the future, with possibly deep ramifications for the issue of the Palestinians.

The drama surrounding Netanyahu’s appearance before Congress emanated from two countries. The undisguised antipathy right-wing Republicans held for the president became evident during the whole process of the invitation, but was blindingly clear shortly after, when Sen. Tom Cotton led a campaign to independently warn Iran against believing that any deal it signed with the U.S. could stand, seemingly putting the president in his place via a civics lesson for the Iranians.

This grandstanding just showed how low Cotton and other Republicans can stoop. Even the ultra-conservative National Review criticized the letter:

There is something eyebrow-raising about a group of senators announcing, in the middle of a foreign negotiation with an adversary, that the contemplated agreement will have little force as a matter of American law. President Obama is right to be piqued. Any American president would be. Imagine 47 Democratic senators weighing in on nuclear-weapons negotiations while President Ronald Reagan prepared for the summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik in 1986, telling the Soviet leader what would or would not be acceptable terms to them.

But just as important, if not more so, is how Netanyahu’s appearance was part of an Israeli domestic political strategy. Netanyahu was facing a political crisis at home.  In December 2014 he had fired two of his ministers for insisting on opposing him on key policies, such as his efforts to declare Israel a Jewish state; he purged them and called for early elections to solidify his power:

After weeks of increasingly vociferous public sparring, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday fired the two top centrists from his cabinet, setting the stage for the dissolution of parliament and the holding of early elections, probably in March. ...

“I can no longer tolerate opposition from within the government,” he said in a televised statement, hours after ousting Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid.…

Lapid, a former TV news anchor, represents secular Israelis who have grown tired of sky-high rents and housing prices and of forking over tax dollars to support the life-long religious studies of ultra-Orthodox Jews who decline to serve in the military and do not contribute much to the gross domestic product.

Livni is the frustrated former peace negotiator who spent nine months huddled with Secretary of State John F. Kerry and her Palestinian counterparts before the talks imploded in a round of bitter recriminations.…

The three have also sparred over Netanyahu’s push to pass a basic law that would officially declare Israel a “Jewish state,” in which the national aspirations and the collective and religious rights of Jews take precedence over the individual rights of Israel’s minorities, notably the 20 percent of the population that is Arab and Muslim.

Livni said the coming elections will not be about value-added taxes but about the country’s direction and whether Israel will remain both Zionist and democratic — or be run by “extreme and dangerous parties that must be prevented from taking over and destroying the country.”

Netanyahu's speech, timed to give both Netanyahu and right-wing Republicans a worldwide spotlight, and to take place precisely two weeks before the elections in Israel, artfully blended U.S. and Israeli interests -- so much so that at times his use of the collective “we” could be read either as the incorporation of the U.S. with Israel, or simply Israel, or, weirdly enough, as if Netanyahu were a member of Congress: “My friends, for over a year, we've been told that no deal is better than a bad deal. Well, this is a bad deal. It's a very bad deal. We're better off without it.”  The crux of his argument is to be found here:

Ladies and gentlemen, history has placed us at a fateful crossroads. We must now choose between two paths. One path leads to a bad deal that will at best curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions for a while, but it will inexorably lead to a nuclear-armed Iran whose unbridled aggression will inevitably lead to war.

The second path, however difficult, could lead to a much better deal, that would prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, a nuclearized Middle East and the horrific consequences of both to all of humanity.

The image he creates is of a nuclear arms race that, according to Netanyahu, this treaty would provoke. What Netanyahu wants is a “better” deal in which that will never be a possibility.  But we should pay attention to the fact that, first, as US News and World Reports notes, it was Israel that started this arms race, not Iran, and that in arguing against this deal Netanyahu places Israel’s interests in remaining the nuclear superpower in the region above American interests in negotiating peace.  A large part of his argument depends on our not recognizing that Israel is already far ahead in that nuclear arms race.

In March 2015 William Greider reported in the Nation that:

Early last month [February 2015] the Department of Defense released a secret report done in 1987 by the Pentagon-funded Institute for Defense Analysis that essentially confirms the existence of Israel’s nukes…

The confirmation of this poorly kept secret opens a troublesome can of worms for both the US government and our closest ally in the Middle East. Official acknowledgement poses questions and contradictions that cry out for closer inspection. For many years, the United States collaborated with Israel’s development of critical technology needed for advanced armaments. Yet Washington pushed other nations to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which requires international inspections to discourage the spread of nuclear arms. Israel has never signed the NPT and therefore does not have to submit to inspections. Israel’s nuclear research labs, the IDA researchers reported, “are equivalent to our Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Oak Ridge National Laboratories.” Indeed, the investigators observed that Israel’s facilities are “an almost exact parallel of the capability currently existing at our National Laboratories.”

Thus Netanyahu wishes to retain in perpetuity Israel’s dominance in nuclear weaponry, still under the protectorship of the U.S. and still receiving billions of dollars in U.S. tax money.  His notion of “stability” and “peace” is one solely under Israeli control. But more and more people—politicians as well as ordinary citizens—are beginning to seriously question the viability and the desirability of such a scenario.

It appears that Americans are split on this issue.  The Washington Post cites a recent survey:

A randomly sampled Internet panel was asked to read a detailed briefing and history of Iran's nuclear program and current policy issues. To ensure fairness and accuracy, the briefing and arguments were vetted based on conversations with Democratic and Republican staffers on the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee….

The poll found a surprisingly bipartisan result. Just over six in 10 (61 percent) favored pursuing a long-term agreement that allowed some nuclear enrichment, including 66 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Republicans. Among independents, 54 percent supported making a deal that allows limited enrichment, while 36 percent favored increasing sanctions in an effort to end the program.

In terms of how this deal is causing significant political realignments domestically that might have an impact into the future if the deal is scuttled, consider this article in Foreign Policy, written by James Traub, provocatively titled “Israel Could Lose America’s Democrats for a Generation”:

What will happen, though, if Congress overrides Obama’s veto — thus destroying the signal foreign-policy achievement of his tenure, humiliating the president before the world, and triggering a race for nuclear weapons capacity in Iran and across the Middle East — is that Democrats will blame Netanyahu and Israel. And it won’t just be the American left, which already regards Israel as an occupying power. The fraying relationship between Israel and the Democratic Party will come apart altogether. Pro-Israel Democrats like Hillary Clinton will have to begin calculating how high a price they’re prepared to pay for their continued support….

If 13 Democrats heed the Israeli siren song and the nuclear deal collapses, only a fantasist can believe that Iran will come back for a new and harsher deal or that the United Nations and the European Union will hang tough on sanctions. Instead, Iranian centrifuges will start spinning once again, while Pakistani scientists carrying nuclear blueprints will make clandestine visits to Saudi Arabia. Netanyahu will then take the game one step further by calling for airstrikes against Iranian facilities. If he succeeds — which I doubt — Americans will never forgive Israel for its role in a catastrophic decision.

The following editorial in Ha’aretz by Reza Marashi, research director of the National Iran American Council, represents the thought that if the deal falls through, largely due to Israel’s lobbying, it will only serve to isolate Israel further:

By trying to prevent such cooperation through a zero-sum approach to regional security, the Israeli government has left itself in a worse strategic position. If it does not adjust, Israel’s own actions may gradually turn its fear of abandonment into a self-fulfilling prophecy. No regional power — Israel included — can balance and contain Iran without U.S. support, and America is no longer willing to pay the increasingly costly price that is required to keep Israel’s preferred policy of containment in place.

The clearest and most powerful indication that the Iran deal is creating a fissure in U.S.-Israel relations is, of course, the hour-long speech President Obama gave at American University, on Aug. 5.  After spending all but about 10 minutes on laying out the case for the deal, Obama chose to close out the speech by addressing the leader of the one country that has energetically opposed the deal—Israel:

I recognize that prime minister Netanyahu disagrees, disagrees strongly. I do not doubt his sincerity, but I believe he is wrong. I believe the facts support this deal. I believe they are in America's interests and Israel's interests, and as president of the United States it would be an abrogation of my constitutional duty to act against my best judgment simply because it causes temporary friction with a dear friend and ally.

Obama could not have made things any more clear: This deal is in American interests, and in fact in Israel’s interests as well if they are primarily concerned about disarming Iran of a nuclear weapon and establishing peace in the region.  And if Netanyahu does not see things that way, Obama will do what he must to protect American interests. This clear delineation of interests should be welcomed by Americans. It should also be seized by those who are advocating for Palestinian rights and have been stymied by the U.S.’s “special relationship” with Israel. It is not at all clear if this “special relationship” will continue to restrain the U.S. government’s actions to end the Occupation, for instance. But with both American public opinion shifting and now an American president for the first time in memory making a major speech that shows a clear separation of interests, we are at a historical moment.

What might these new perceptions about the U.S.-Israel relationship have to do with the debates around Palestinian rights?  Two experts--Diana Buttu, a Ramallah-based analyst, former adviser to Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian negotiators, policy adviser to Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, and citizen of Israel; and Mouin Rabbani, senior fellow with the Institute for Palestine Studies, policy adviser to Al-Shabaka, contributing editor with Middle East Report and co-editor of the e-zine Jadaliyya and former senior Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group, engaged in a conversation with the Institute for Middle East Understanding, and later spoke with me as well:

IMEU:  There has been speculation that the nuclear deal might be followed quickly by a renewed international push for Israelis and Palestinians to resume the negotiations process. What do you think the nuclear deal's impact will be on the diplomatic situation in Palestine-Israel in the near term?

DB: This government is not interested in ending its military rule and the Iran deal will not change this. Netanyahu will continue expanding illegal settlements, maintain Israel’s siege on the Gaza Strip and continue killing with impunity. Moreover, while Netanyahu keeps espousing that he wants a resumption in negotiations, his actions demonstrate that he simply wants negotiations for the sake of negotiations — a fig leaf — and not because he is interested in ending Israel’s apartheid. His repeated statements that he does not believe in Palestinian freedom and the continued demolition of Palestinian homes while expanding Israeli illegal settlements are indicative of his overall leanings. For their part, Palestinians are well aware that negotiations are a sham. Unless an international push is backed by sanctions for Israel’s continued illegal settlement expansion and home demolitions, any diplomatic push will be as weak as the pushes that preceded this deal.

MR: While not losing sleep over the prospects of a speedy resumption of the self-proclaimed peace process, I would nevertheless offer several caveats. Unlikely as it seems, if Netanyahu succeeds in mobilizing his American constituents — primarily, but by no means exclusively, the congressional Likud faction — sufficiently to derail this agreement, there will be hell to pay. And Washington knows there is no better way to retaliate against Israel and particularly its politicians than to remove American protection from its insatiable appetite for Arab land.

IMEU:  How do you think a broader rapprochement between Iran and the U.S. might impact the political situation in Palestine-Israel in the longer term?

DB: A sane person would put an end to Israel’s military rule and denial of freedom to the Palestinians. Unfortunately, Israeli leaders are not driven by sanity and American leaders lack the courage to finally demand that Israel abide by international rules. As a result, this agreement will not change much but will serve to highlight that Israel is not an ally to the U.S. but merely a burden. An ally would not oppose this deal, nor demand that traitors and spies be released in order to make an agreement more palatable.

MR: I can't answer that question because, again, I simply don't see such a rapprochement happening except on the bilateral issues resolved in their agreement and specific other issues — the question of Palestine not among them. The United States is not going to negotiate with Hamas or suddenly discover Palestinian self-determination, and Iran is not going to recognize Israel next week and support the disarmament of Hizbollah.

DP-L:  Do you have any thoughts about how this issue might affect the way one goes about advocating for the Palestinians?  Have possible changes in the ways many Americans view Israel created a new set of conditions for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, for example?

MR: While this may be no more than a crisis in relations between this particular U.S. presidency and this particular Israeli prime minister, and therefore not develop into a broader and more pervasive crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations, the discord it creates in the public realm creates important opportunities for Palestinian advocacy in the United States. Since these opportunities may prove to be of a temporary nature, it is vitally important that pro-Palestinian advocates act quickly, and effectively, and pursue objectives that are both meaningful and achievable in the current U.S. context.

DB: Seeing this deal from the Middle East, it’s very interesting for a few reasons.  First, because Israel has been obsessed with Iran, and if you look at any of the Israeli media, they never seem to cover what Israel’s doing to Palestinians, Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinians who are living under Israeli military rule, but they are obsessed with covering Iran and what’s going on with the Iranian nuclear program.

So looking at it from this perspective, what’s become really clear for me is that there is finally a reality that is beginning to sink in with many Israelis that the United States and Israel are not on the same page.  And I think it’s the same realization that is starting to hit the United States as well—that as much as they may talk about a special relationship and the fact that they are allies, at the end of the day you’ve got an ally who is actively working to undermine an agreement rather than actively working to promote an agreement.

And so it’s turning into a very interesting rift.  I don’t think this is just about one president and one prime minister. I think this is turning into a bigger issue of considering whether Israel really is a special ally of the United States or whether it’s actually something a little less than that, or actually much less than that.

In the U.S. people have always been fed this line that there’s a special relationship with Israel, but what’s become very clear now is that there really isn’t a special relationship, Israel really isn’t an American ally, but actually an American liability.  We saw this in the first Gulf war, we saw this during the attack on Iraq in 2003, and now we are beginning to see it again.  What has become clear is that all that Israel seeks is perpetual war.  It doesn’t seek to avoid war it seeks to maintain war and conflict rather than end war and end conflict.  So that’s become a very interesting dynamic that has become apparent to everybody.

If Israel were really so threatened by Iran, then it would want to come to some solution regarding Israel’s nuclear program.  But it’s clear it doesn’t—it wants to maintain this situation, it wants to maintain its role as a superpower in the Middle East, possessing nuclear weapons and without having to submit to any inspections or sign nuclear treaties.  Perpetual conflict is the only way that Israel thrives: Through perpetual conflict Israel is allowed to evade its international obligations as special dispensation is given to it.

And now I’ll bring it back full circle—what I was saying initially was that even though the Palestinians are its neighbors and living inside the country, Israel would not exist except for what it did and what it does to the Palestinians.  You don’t see any of that being covered in the Israeli news media because they like to maintain this fiction that there is a bogeyman out there and that is what the world needs to pay attention to.  Israel perpetuates a climate of fear by claiming that it is facing a perpetual threat.  To do so, it lies about or excuses the crimes it commits and pretends that it is fending off this threat, rather than admit that its actions are actually the source of a real threat to peace in the region.

Both Buttu and Rabbani, to varying degrees, see the discussions we are having about the Iran deal as presenting a unique moment for critical reevaluation of how far we will go in bending our national interests to meet those of Israel. And that brings with it a moment when we, in light of the recent violence against Palestinians, as well as the vivid memories of the violence we saw last summer in Gaza and in many instances prior, reconsider how far we will go in allowing the situation in Israel with regard to the Palestinians, as well as to Christians and other minorities,  to continue.

By David Palumbo-Liu

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter at @palumboliu.

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Barack Obama Benjamin Netanyahu Iran Iran Nuclear Deal Israel