Opinion | Opinion

Netanyahu Should Remember: Obama is a Friend

The last month has been dismaying for anyone concerned about the U.S.-Israel relationship.

While the United States and five other powers worked to reach a diplomatic agreement with Iran to halt its nuclear program in exchange for allowing Tehran access to a few billion dollars in frozen Iranian assets, Israeli officials and their U.S. allies have railed against the deal using almost apocalyptic language.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the breakthrough with Iran as a historic mistake. Yet, the only alternatives to diplomacy are either a nuclear-armed Iran or a military strike on Iran. One only has to remember past military interventions — the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon — to know how easily they can spiral out of control with dire consequences.

Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations have come under intense pressure following a series of announcements, some subsequently withdrawn, about new settlement construction across the Green Line that seemed to test the ability of the Palestinians to remain at the table. The latest announcement of more than 800 housing units in the West Bank came Dec. 2.

Ordinary Israelis know that maintaining a close partnership with the United States is central to their security. Nurturing that relationship has historically been seen as one of the most important tasks of its government and particularly its Prime Minister. Unfortunately, the current incumbent has all too often seemed willing to test the limits of that friendship.

Nobody should deny that Netanyahu has a indisputable right to oppose any U.S. policy or action which he sees to be counter to his country’s interests. But friends and allies have accepted ways of airing their differences. They do not include openly intervening in the domestic politics of another country in a blatant attempt to frustrate the ability of its elected leader to conduct his own foreign policy.

That’s a line Israel has come perilously close to violating with a vigorous campaign aimed at persuading the Senate to adopt new sanctions against Iran while the negotiations with Iran were ongoing. The administration managed to hold off that threat, which could have sabotaged the talks, until after the Thanksgiving recess. It remains to be seen what senators will do when they return to Washington.

During this campaign, Israeli officials briefed US lawmakers, handing out alarming figures of the amount of sanctions relief Iran would receive under the agreement. Israeli’s Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said the deal would give Iran at least $40 billion in sanctions relief. Others mentioned the figure $50 billion.

When the agreement was signed, it became clear that the actual amount of economic relief given to Iran under the agreement came to between $6 and $7 billion while Iran continues to lose $5 billion a month due to oil sanctions that remain in place. So where did those Israeli numbers come from?

Even some of the highly supportive members of the House of Representatives briefed last week by Israel’s ambassador Ron Dermer said they felt uncomfortable at the “vocal and public” way Israel had lobbied the American public and Congress, Reuters reported.

Netanyahu himself has used language that at times has been highly emotional and inflammatory. Speaking to the Jewish Federations General Assembly on Nov. 10, he accused the United States and the other major powers of negotiating a deal with Iran that put the very survival of Jewish people in danger.

Netanyahu said Kerry and the other negotiators had put forward a deal that would allow Iran to develop long-range nuclear weapons that would eventually threaten the United States itself. “Coming to a theater near you. Do you want that?” he exhorted the delegates. “Well, do something about it.”

Since the 2012 presidential election, when Israeli officials made no secret of their preference for Republican nominee Mitt Romney, Obama has gone out of his way to demonstrate his friendship for Israel. It hasn’t gotten him very far with Netanyahu. One would have thought from this behavior that Israel has so many fast friends and trusted allies around the world that it can afford to alienate the United States – but let’s remember, it has but one.

If Netanyahu wants to retain some influence over the United States and its allies when they start trying to negotiate a permanent nuclear deal with Iran, he should tone down the rhetoric. If he prefers dramatic performances on Sunday TV talk shows, he should keep going.

The strangest aspect of the story is that if the diplomacy fails, the only way to stop Iran indeed becoming a nuclear-armed state will be by launching a military attack on its heavily defended and widely dispersed atomic facilities, possibly plunging Israel and the wider region into an all-out war. Is that Israel’s preferred outcome?

While this has been going on, Netanyahu’s government has been testing American patience with its constant, on-again, off-again settlement announcements. The Prime Minister has spoken of his Palestinian peace partners in dismissive terms, casting doubt on their sincerity and commitment to peace.

Now, the danger is that the rift between Obama and Netanyahu spills into the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as well, casting a shadow over the prospects of a resolution to the conflict.

It’s time to calm down and for friends to start behaving like friends again. These two countries need each other.