Netanyahu's Remains of the Day

Sunday, March 1, 2015

(photo credit: AFP/POOL/GALI TIBBON)
For all his protestations that he arrives today in Washington on a grave mission vital to Israel's national security, Benjamin "Mr. Security" Netanyahu has more on his mind than merely scuttling President Obama's incubating nuclear agreement with Iran. Latest Israeli election polls show Netanyahu is in a neck-and-neck race for an unprecedented fourth term, so not a shoo-in for reelection.

Politically wounded from a series of self-inflicted scandals (one being an eye-opening, taxpayer-funded, late night Chinese carry-out bill!) and the sheer longevity of his rule, Israelis have grown weary of Netanyahu and his incessant "sky is falling" declarations.  Netanyahu's headaches are compounding by the day -- his government was just taken to the woodshed by Israel's State Comptroller for condoning a "let em eat cake" housing crisis that is fueling an Israeli have/have not society.  Israelis consider the housing crisis the number one issue in the country... not Iran... not Hamas... not Obama.

To add to his travails Netanyahu's vaunted security record is under domestic assault from unimpeachable sources.

On Thursday, a highly-distinguished group of over 200 former distinguished Israeli military leaders with unimpeachable security credentials organized under the mantle "Commanders of Israel's Security" issued a blistering critique of Netanyahu's record.  In their video, they asserted that under Netanyahu's leadership Israel is in the worst security posture it has ever been:  Hamas is stronger, another terror front has exposed Israel's Golan Heights border with Syria, Israel's ties with the U.S. are severely damaged -- all in Netanyahu's cynical policy to keep Israel on a perpetual war footing to mask his domestic failures... so they ask; "You call that security?!"  

None of these respected defenders of Israel's security are politicians running for office, and have nothing to gain by their act other than hoping to waken Israelis to the perils Netanyahu has placed Israel into, including his mismanagement of the Iran nuclear portfolio.

To add heft to the generals' assertions, Meir Dagan, who is the "Mr. Security" in Israel, and served as the head of the Mossad (Israel's external intelligence service) under three Likud prime ministers: Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Netanyahu himself, just issued a devastating condemnation of Netanyahu on the eve of his departure to the U.S.: "The person who has caused Israel the most strategic damage when it comes to the Iranian issue is the prime minister."  That is quite an indictment. The cacophony of criticism emanating from Israel's non-partisan security establishment against Netanyahu is unprecedented in Israel's history.

So like many a calculating pol determined to stack the deck in his favor, better to avert the voters' glaze away from the growing crescendo of domestic criticism.

That's where Speaker Boehner and Netanyahu's GOP-trained ambassador to Washington -- Ron Dermer -- conveniently come in stage right to Netanyahu's rescue to help him play up his checkered security credentials.

What manna from heaven!  How better to burnish his tarnished security credentials at home than by stage-managing a revival of his "Only I Can Save Israel" production with Speaker Boehner -- a performance he hopes worthy of the Great White Way.  By playing anti-Iran nuclear agreement footsy with Congressional Republicans he is certain the razzle-dazzle and political hoopla on Tuesday from the House chamber will give him a much needed boost in the polls at home, and help galvanize Congress to block a potential nuclear agreement.  Netanyahu is convinced he can pull wool over the eyes of Israeli voters and camouflage the damaging flop about to unfold on Tuesday.

Israelis have seen previews.  They know that Netanyahu has placed at serious risk the bipartisan foundation of Israel's alliance with the U.S., and has turned the White House into a scarcely-concealed hostile redoubt.  And they know that Netanyahu has serially overplayed his Iran hand -- more bluster than ballast.

Of course, Mr. Netanyahu protests he is on a solemn, sacred mission to convince the U.S. government not to give the away the nuclear store to Iran.  He asserts his timing is a merely coincidental that Israel's national elections are a little over two weeks away.  Really?

In the face of an avalanche of Israeli and American criticism he is placing personal ambition above Israel's legitimate security concerns, he brushed aside sound advice from his own generals, ministers, and American allies to postpone his address until after Israel's elections.   Better, prominent Israelis asserted, to avoid a serious rupture in U.S. -- Israel relations and reserve whatever remains of his waning influence over the emerging Iran agreement.  He was going to have nothing of it.  Not even from himself.

Here is Netanyahu in 1996 speaking about a planned pre-election trip by then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres:

I can't find an example of any previous Israeli government whose prime minister on the eve of elections made a cynical attempt to use relations between Israel and the United States as a party advertisement.

So it is appalling that Netanyahu is subordinating Israel's legitimate fears to this political charade -- which are grave.  After all, the Obama administration is leap years away from earning the benefit of the doubt on an Iran deal given its gusto to treat these negotiations as the Holy Grail -- critics be damned.  So I fall squarely on the side that neither the United States or Israel can afford to be sold down the river by an agreement zealously negotiated by U.S. officials hypnotized by the sudden appearance of moderate mullahs.    

Netanyahu already knows whatever he says about Iran is old wine in old bottles and borders on rampant unreality.  He realizes Iran's nuclear genie cannot be put back in the bottle yet insists anything less is a monumental capitulation -- and the ink is not even dry on the negotiations.  So unless he reveals explosively unknown information on Iran's nuclear sites there is nothing he is going to say that has not been disclosed by others more credible than he on the threat Iran poses.  This is a mission to kill the baby in the crib.

Accordingly, Netanyahu has one goal: use House Republicans to deny President Obama a level playing field in his uphill effort to sell an Iran nuclear framework agreement, and then return to Israel proclaiming himself as the only Israeli leader who can save Israel from Iran.  But he has no alternative to a negotiation except putting the U.S. on a war footing, as well.

The harsh reality is if Netanyahu were truly interested placing Israel's legitimate concerns over his own political fortunes he would not be taking to the House podium on Tuesday.  This is the difference between an Israeli statesman and Mr. Netanyahu.

An Israeli statesman would have:

1.   Waited until after Israel's elections to avoid even the appearance of partisan impropriety.
2.   Declined the invitation in favor of a closed-door Congressional briefing where sensitive, confidential information could have been discussed and Israel's concerns given a bipartisan airing.
3.   Not placed Israel's bipartisan cause in jeopardy by overtly playing to the GOP.
4.   Removed himself as a lightning rod vis a vis President Obama and appointed highly-respected former Israeli President Shimon Peres as Israel's nuclear emissary to the P5+1 to ensure Israel's interests were not subordinated to partisan politics.  Peres commands universal respect on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue.
5.   Proffered new bilateral defense agreements for U.S. consideration to provide binding security support in the event Iran breaches its agreement.
6.   Requested meetings with each P5+1 leader to ensure a framework agreement did not cross certain red lines inimical to Israel's legitimate security interests -- not just a meeting with House Republicans (Netanyahu turned down an invitation to meet with Senate Democrats!).

I know Israeli statesmen; Netanyahu is no Israeli statesman.

If he were he would have done everything possible to minimize the unfolding adverse consequences in order to earn the hearing Israel deserves and garner the support essential to Israel's security and rebuild some level of trust with the parties actually doing the negotiating -- the U.S. and its partners.

The day after Netanyahu's speech will toll a mere two weeks before Israelis go to the polls. Israeli voters must ask themselves whether their prime minister's gambit was worth the price of a likely-to-fail frontal assault on President Obama's signature foreign policy goal.  They may have to confront a new reality that the United States may no longer wield its veto against United Nations Security Council resolutions inimical to Israel, or that Israel's military quantitative superiority maintained by a generous, judicious American government may be a victim of politics rather than policy.

Some argue this too shall pass; that the U.S.-Israeli partnership is "too big to fail." Papering over what Netanyahu has wrought is so, so convenient because the relationship does indeed goes beyond Bibi -- and he may be a goner after the election, after all.  I hope they are right.  No self-respecting ally of the relationship, of which I consider myself a charter member, finds any satisfaction from this sorry state of affairs.

Israelis go to great lengths to remind us that the relationship is a two way street: Israel is a dependable, democratic ally and partner that shares our values and our interests.

That is irrefutably true and it is one reason why Americans value the bond.

But what is also true is that there is no substitute for Israel's long-term security if Americans grow wary of an Israel that is perceived as a manipulative, disrespectful, unappreciative ally.   With clumsy help from a jayvee national security team in the White House, Mr. Netanyahu has joined Speaker Boehner to drive the U.S.-Israel relationship into a deep ditch.  I don't know where the tow truck is going to come from to pull it out -- perhaps by another Israeli driver?  We will know in a few weeks.
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