Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is nothing if not a performer, well suited to the sleight of hand politics that dominate modern political discourse.
Congress, Washington’s august “Peoples’ Palace”, offered Netanyahu, within sight of the Oval Office, an extraordinary opportunity to incite against the president of the United States and his policy of rapprochement with Iran. Presiding over a setting that even Hollywood could not match, the Israeli prime minister all but accused Obama of being an unwitting tool in an Iranian “plot to destroy the Jewish People“, a central element of the mullah’s global strategy of world domination not seen since Chamberlain’s misguided and costly appeasement of Hitler’s Germany.
Netanyahu’s attack on US policy, and his promise to defend Israel’s interests with every means at its disposal, was applauded at almost every turn by members of Congress, blithely oblivious to the dire consequences of their endorsement of Netanyahu’s rejection of Obama’s diplomacy; indeed of any diplomatic effort worthy of the name.
Best reality show in town
This is the same Congress that votes unceasingly, if ineffectively, to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, and who above all relishes its role as bit player in the best reality show in town. The entire complement of black-robed Supreme Court justices, unwilling to lend the honour of their position to the show, boycotted the session, along with a small but important number of congressional members.
As in all such performances, the drama occasioned by Netanyahu’s controversial appearance was manufactured, the controversy over his appearance only so much noise.
The audiences as well as the star know that the die has been cast. The Obama administration is determined to reach a nuclear deal with Tehran, Netanyahu remains adamantly opposed, but nothing he is prepared to do or say will force the president to change course.
While Bibi’s attention is focused on scuttling the impending deal with Tehran, his rage against Tehran is far broader. The concerns expressed for the better part of two decades by a parade of Israeli officials and experts have never been principally about Israel’s fear of a nuclear-equipped Iran. What keeps Bibi and his colleagues awake at night is the broader and far more threatening prospect of a strategic rebalancing in the region that will be at the top of the joint US-Iranian agenda, indeed it already is, when a nuclear deal is signed.
What keeps Bibi and his colleagues awake at night is the broader and far more threatening prospect of a strategic rebalancing in the region that will be at the top of the joint US-Iranian agenda, indeed it already is, when a nuclear deal is signed.
Israel, particularly since the Iranian revolution and Tehran’s estrangement from Washington, has enjoyed tremendous regional advantage. The Obama administration has gone to great lengths in recent days to underscore the intricate web of relations that enable Israel, the region’s only nuclear state, to preside unchallenged by its neighbours. But Netanyahu fears for this relationship, as well he should, in the context of a maturing rapprochement between Washington and Tehran.
Netanyahu is not alone in his grim assessment of the high stakes of the game he is now playing. His security establishment, as well as his political opponents, are united in the need for Israel to remain Washington’s primary if not sole strategic point of entry in the region.
Most see danger rather than opportunity in the prospect of an effective dialogue, however incremental, with the Iranian government bringing an end to decades of bitter antagonism and boycott. In Netanyahu’s view, no deal is not only better than a bad deal, it is better than any deal, and anyone paying close attention to what Netanyahu said on Capitol Hill did not hear otherwise.
Change in tactics
Netanyahu’s appearance before Congress offered him, and by extension Israel itself, the opportunity to declare a change in tactics. The old tactic was more in line with the advice the Israeli prime minister is getting from some military and security advisers, and more consistent with Israel’s own traditional policy of consultation with Washington.
Far better, they argue, to be “inside the tent” when the White House is setting course for what promises to be the biggest shake up in regional affairs since the Iranian revolution, than yelping loudly but ineffectively like a dog barking at a passing caravan.
Netanyahu has chosen to ignore the advice to consult and coordinate with Washington, which every Israeli leader since Yitzhak Shamir has followed. In so doing, he has placed Israel on a new, uncharted path in its relations with Washington, prompting the very reassessment that he professes to oppose.
Obama’s advisers no doubt believe that Washington can have its cake and eat it too. That is, it can make up with Tehran while maintaining its unprecedented ties with Israel. Neither Israel, nor Iran for that matter, believes this to be the case. To Congress, the American people, and the president himself, Netanyahu declared a strategic standoff.
“We, the Jewish people can defend ourselves,” he declared. “Never again!”
Only those with no imagination could mistake his unmentioned but ever-present allusion to Israel’s nuclear capability. And for those who did, Nobel Laureate and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, feted by Netanyahu, stood up before Congress to remind them.
Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle East affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.