Israel Rejects Obama's Olive Branch, for Now
The Obama administration wants its relationship with Israel to move past the Iran deal, to start talks on how to counter Iran's influence in the region. But the Israeli government won't have that discussion while there is still a slim chance Congress can kill the deal.
Israeli and U.S. officials tell us that this was the message delivered last week from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the U.S. secretary of defense. Ash Carter was in Israel hoping to begin a dialogue on how the U.S. and Israel can mitigate risks of the international accord intended to limit Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons and to lift many economic sanctions. But Carter didn’t even get to begin that beginning. Netanyahu is said to have insisted on talking only about how the Israeli government would work against the deal while Congress is reviewing the accord for 60 days, a period mandated by recent legislation.
An Israeli official familiar with the conversations told us this week that Israel is for now trying to thwart the deal. But that could change on Day 61, the official said.
Carter confirmed on Wednesday that in the meeting, Netanyahu "was very clear as he has been publicly in his opposition to the deal." And a U.S. defense official told us that in the meeting, Netanyahu didn’t explicitly rebuke the defense secretary. In fact, at other meetings in the trip, Carter discussed expanded security cooperation with Israel, and the official said Carter left optimistic despite tension on Iran.
For Israel the issue is tricky. Its officials acknowledge that Iran -- with tens of billions of dollars unfrozen from its overseas accounts -- will be in a position to cause more havoc in the region, even if measures against nuclear weapons development are enforced. Israel does not want to be perceived as endorsing a bad agreement when there is still a slim chance Congress could kill it.
The chance truly is slim, though. Opponents would need both chambers to pass a resolution against the deal, and then would need two-thirds majorities in the House and the Senate to override a presidential veto. As we reported, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi has made it a priority to defend the deal in the House, and Senate Democrats opposed to the deal have not been lobbying their colleagues against it.
"The decision makers in Israel believe we don't start the dialogue now because it will be used to make it seem like we acquiesce on the deal,” said Michael Herzog, a former senior Israeli defense official and the brother of the leader of Israel's Labor Party. All of Israel’s major political parties have come out against the deal.
The Israeli campaign for now is focused on Democrats in Congress. Israel's ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, has had dozens of meetings with lawmakers, urging them to vote against the deal after the review period ends in September, according to Senate and House lawmakers and staff members.
While Dermer and allies like AIPAC are working Capitol Hill, Netanyahu will have lots of opportunities to make his case directly to lawmakers as well. Dozens of U.S. lawmakers will travel to Israel during the August recess. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, a key and as yet uncommitted vote on the Iran deal, will lead a group of freshman Democratic members of Congress to Israel next month.
Israel and Arab states both feel threatened by a newly empowered Iran, but America's Arab allies like Saudi Arabia have not been publicly trashing it. Carter said that in his meeting with King Salman, the leader read a statement expressing some support for the deal. However, former Saudi officials like Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador in Washington, have been critical publicly.
U.S. and Israeli officials now tell us that the end of the Iran deal probably won't be the end of the tension with Israel. After the review period closes on Sept. 20, the Obama administration may turn its attention to the peace process. After Netanyahu's re-election this spring, Obama said his administration was reviewing its policy on Palestinian statehood, including the longstanding U.S. policy to veto one-sided anti-Israel resolutions in the U.N. Security Council. The officials say that one option under consideration would be a U.S.-authored resolution laying out the parameters for a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority based on what Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to during peace negotiations in 2013 and 2014.
But neither the U.S. nor Israel is dwelling on that yet. Israel's short-term goal is to scuttle the nuclear deal so Iran will not gain cash and legitimacy to back Hamas and Hezbollah, two groups that have waged war on Israel from Gaza and southern Lebanon. (Carter said Wednesday that the U.S. was interested in continuing work with Israel on three rocket and missile defense systems.) The formal estimates from the U.S. intelligence community say Iran will use most of its new cash to shore up its economy and pay off foreign debt. But even while its population suffered under crippling sanctions, Iran was willing to spend billions on helping Syria's dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Matthew McInnis, a former senior Pentagon analyst during Obama's first term on Iran who is now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, predicts the cash infusion Iran will receive once it implements its obligations will go to arming Hezbollah. "Iran's greatest deterrence capabilities against Israel are Hezbollah's rockets and missiles," he said. "Anything to blunt that will be something Israel would want."
McInnis also said Israel has in the past expressed interest in weapons that might deter Iran from building a nuclear weapon into the future. Obama himself supported development of a conventional bomb capable of penetrating deep into the earth for just this purpose. Israel's military establishment covets this bomb, known as the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, and the B2 bombers to deliver it.
Any discussions for Israel to receive such bombs will have to wait for Congress to review the Iran deal. And for Israel to stop trying to stop it.
(Corrects President Obama's role in development of a heavy bomb, in 14th paragraph.)
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Philip Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org