January 19th, 2022

Reality Check

Obama's Hollow Threats of Revenge on Bibi

Jonathan Tobin

By Jonathan Tobin

Published Jan. 26, 2015

  Obama's Hollow Threats of Revenge on Bibi

What blustery Barry grasps

The latest twist in the long-running feud between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu has reached a new stage.

After days of ill-concealed umbrage about the prime minister accepting an invitation to speech to a joint session of Congress about Iran sanctions without so much as a by your leave from the administration, the White House decided to fire its own shot across the bow of Israel's government.

A "senior U.S. official" told Haaretz that the president and his staff think Netanyahu "spat" in the president's face with his actions and vowed "there would be a price" to be paid for his effrontery.

But whatever one may think about the decision to accept the invitation — and I think it was a mistake — Obama's threats shouldn't impress anyone in either country.

After six years of insults, provocations and staged spats aimed at Israel by the Obama administration that did nothing to advance U.S. interests or the cause of Middle East peace, it's not clear that they can do much to hurt Netanyahu that would not hurt the president more.

Though his American fans are thrilled with the idea of Netanyahu addressing Congress and rallying it to the cause of stopping Iran, the prime minister did the White House a favor by accepting Boehner's invitation without going through the normal protocol of consulting with the State Department and/or the White House.

Instead of the focus being on Obama's illogical opposition to any pressure on an Iranian regime that has been stonewalling him and running out the clock in nuclear negotiations, attention has been focused on the prime minister's chutzpah. There is already a strong majority in both Houses of Congress for more sanctions on Iran, a step that would strengthen Obama's hand in negotiations, and the controversy over Netanyahu's appearance gives some weak-willed Democrats an excuse to do the president's bidding and sink the proposed legislation.

Obama's claim that he is willing to impose more sanctions if diplomacy fails, as he supposedly told Netanyahu, rings false. This administration opposed every major piece of sanctions legislation against Iran including the ones that it now boasts of having brought Iran to the table.

Nor is there much chance that Obama would ever admit failure.

The rumors that the current talks will be extended for a third time in June, despite the president's promises a year ago that the negotiations would be finite in length so as to prevent the Iranians from playing their favorite delaying games, gives the lie to the administration's credibility on this issue.

Obama's goal in the talks is not so much preventing the Islamist regime from becoming a threshold nuclear power — an objective that went out the window with the signing of the interim pact in November 2013 — as it is to create an entente with Tehran that would give a U.S. seal of approval to Iran's ambition for regional hegemony while ending 35 years of confrontation between the two countries.

But Obama's dire threats of revenge on Israel are just as insubstantial as his promises about Iran.

The talk of Netanyahu and his country paying a "price" is mere administration bluster whose purpose is to cover up their own agenda of détente with a nation that has repeatedly threatened Israel with annihilation. As he has shown over the last six years, the White House has the power to poison relations with its sole democratic ally in the Middle East if it so chooses.

This is the same White House, after all, that just a couple of months ago used journalist Jeffrey Goldberg to hurt insults like "coward" and "chickensh-t" at Netanyahu. Obama has consistently tilted the diplomatic playing field in favor of the Palestinians (though without it being enough to get them to actually negotiate in good faith, let alone make peace), undermined Israel's position in Jerusalem in a way no predecessor had dared, wrongly blamed Netanyahu for the collapse of peace talks although it was the Palestinian Authority that torpedoed them and even cut off the flow of ammunition resupply during the war with Hamas last summer.

It is true that the U.S. could do far worse than that. Obama could seek to hold up all military aid despite Congressional protests. It could also cease opposing Palestinian attempts to use the United Nations to make an end run around the peace process, further isolating the Israelis. Administration sources speak of Secretary of State John Kerry's hurt feelings after doing so much to protect Israel's interests around the world leaving open the possibility that he won't be so eager to play that role in the future.

But as Obama has already concluded prior to the current Palestinian campaign at the United Nations, any abandonment of Israel in international forums will hurt the U.S. as much as the Jewish state.

Obama and Kerry aren't opposing the Palestinian attempt to gain UN recognition without first making with Israel to be nice to the Israelis. They're doing it because they rightly concluded that ending the peace process would damage U.S. interests and prestige and lead to further instability and violence in the region. Obama would, in effect, be cutting off his nose to spite his face if he were to allow his feud with Netanyahu to go that far.

Although his antipathy for Israel and its government is no secret, he has already shown that he's not interested in going down that path.

So what can we expect over the next two years if Netanyahu is re-elected?

It was already a given that there would be plenty of tension and conflict between the two allies. If, as is almost certain, Obama signs a weak nuclear deal with Iran or allows the talks to go on indefinitely, they were bound to be worse anyway. There will be more insults lobbed at Jerusalem and attempts will be made to squeeze the Israelis at every turn.

But any revenge from Obama over Netanyahu's speech will do more to create the impression that his foreign policy is a failure than real damage to Israel's strategic position.

The prime minister would do well to stay home and to lobby quietly and effectively for Congress to raise the pressure on Iran. But even if he does give the speech, the U.S.-Israel alliance is sufficiently strong to withstand Obama's assault on it.

Blowing smoke about revenge is as close to a real rupture in relations with Israel as Obama and his staff will get.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of Commentary magazine, in whose blog "Contentions" this first appeared.