Talks have resumed again today in Geneva between the Iranians on one side and the group known as P5+1, which consists of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (US, Russia, China, France, UK) and Germany. The talks seemed poised for a breakthrough the last time they met but were torpedoed at the last minute by the French.
This seems to be a standard process in such negotiations. As soon as there emerges rumors of a possible deal in which Iran negotiates limits on its uranium enrichment programs in exchange for changes in the sanctions regime, the prime minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu freaks out and pulls out all the stops to try to stop a deal. In his efforts to scuttle any deal, Netanyahu has been joined by Saudi Arabia (which sees Iran as its rival for dominance as a regional power) and France which is interested in cultivating Saudi Arabian arms deals. Andrew Cockburn explains another factor behind France’s actions.
Sarkozy exited the Élysée Palace in 2012, but left behind him at the Quai d’Orsay (home of the foreign ministry) a tightly knit group of officials, including its political director, Jacques Audibert, and Simon de Galbert, its director for disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation. Such people, I am told, “drank from the cup of neoconservatism.” Many had graduated from the ideological swamp of French leftist theory to an equally fantastical adherence to core neocon tenets: unswerving obedience to Israel’s dictates, coupled with militarism lightly disguised as promotion of democracy.
France’s sabotage of the recent negotiations gave Israel the breathing space it needed to mobilize Congress against any further possibility of settlement this side of a restoration of the Iranian monarchy. In the past week Capitol Hill has morphed into the Knesset. Israeli government ministers throng the halls urging deferential legislators to reject any agreement coming out of the next round of negotiations, and instead to stiffen sanctions against Iran. The hapless Kerry argues, correctly, that Israeli “intelligence” on Iran’s nuclear program is fraudulent, but senators are having none of it. The Iranian administration’s shock-and-awe assault on U.S. policy — which has included more concessions, even on Syria, than anyone in Washington dared hope for — appears to have come to naught.
But of course, the trump card in Israel’s deck is its lobby in the US and the influence it buys, especially in Congress. While presidents are also vulnerable, members of Congress seem to be more susceptible to its pressure tactics. And as usual, Israel has called on its lobby in the US to go all out to urge members of the US congress to block any deal that the Obama administration might try to work out, even to the extent of imposing new sanctions on Iran while the US is in the middle of trying to negotiate reductions of the very sanctions, despite president Obama’s explicit appeals to them to not do so. Netanyahu is even letting it be known that he would consider launching a unilateral attack on Iran if a deal is made not to his liking and the Israeli press has taken to smearing John Kerry.
This extraordinary effort by Netanyahu to so openly undercut the efforts of the government of its most loyal ally, without whose generous financial, military, and diplomatic support Israel would be in deep trouble, is raising eyebrows, with even supporters of Israel wondering if he is in serious danger of overplaying his hand. Dan Drezner, professor of international relations at Tufts University, says that Netanyahu seems to be ‘wigging out’.
Israeli jaw-jawing about a military strike puts it into a corner with no good exit option. Netanyahu’s definition of a bad nuclear deal seems to include… any nuclear deal. So say that one is negotiated. What can Israel do then? Netanyahu could follow through on his rhetoric and launch a unilateral strike. Maybe that would set Iran back a few years. It would also rupture any deal, accelerate Iran’s nuclear ambitions, invite unconventional retaliation from Iran and its proxies, and isolate Israel even further. If Netanyahu doesn’t follow through on his rhetoric, then every disparaging Israeli quote about Obama’s volte-face on Syria will be thrown back at the Israeli security establishment. Times a hundred.
It should be noted that poor U.S. consultation with Israel could be a cause for this kind of behavior. But consultation is a two-way street, and right now Israel is pretty much pissing all over the Obama administration. That’s its prerogative — but over the past few years Netanyahu has repeatedly bet against Obama’s political position and lost. I don’t see that changing.
Even a loyal Israel supporter like Tom Friedman says that this naked power play by the Israel lobby brings into the open how beholden Congress is to the Israel lobby.
Never have I seen Israel and America’s core Arab allies working more in concert to stymie a major foreign policy initiative of a sitting U.S. president, and never have I seen more lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — more willing to take Israel’s side against their own president’s. I’m certain this comes less from any careful consideration of the facts and more from a growing tendency by many American lawmakers to do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do in order to garner Jewish votes and campaign donations.
This reinforces what he said earlier that the “standing ovation [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby”. The point of this lobbying effort is to persuade the media that American people wholeheartedly support Israel’s hardline policies when that is not the case.
It will be interesting to see if president Obama and secretary Kerry can overcome these hurdles and negotiate a deal in the current negotiations.