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Why is Netanyahu Taking Sides in the Presidential Election?

In this week’s Point-Counter-Point, Yossi Klein Halevi talks with Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie about the impact of Netanyahu’s Iran campaign on US-Israel relationship

Why is Netanyahu Taking Sides in the Presidential Election?

In this week’s Point-Counter-Point, Yossi Klein Halevi talks with Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie , President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, about the impact Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Iran campaign has had on the US-Israel relationship.

Dear Yossi,

Help me understand why Prime Minister Netanyahu is taking sides in the American election. He says that he’s not, but he has attacked the Administration’s position on Iran and avoided praising Obama while showering compliments on Romney. He pulled back a bit at the UN, but enormous damage has already been done.

Allies do not interfere in each other’s elections, and small countries do not attack great powers from which they need support. Netanyahu, of course, must address the grave threat from Iran, but the crisis with America was unnecessary. It may serve the interests of Sheldon Adelson, but does not serve the interests of Israel.

Rather than educating Americans and moving them in the direction of Israel’s concerns, it has done the opposite: The Administration is fuming, Congressional Democrats – including Israel’s most fervent supporters – are furious, AIPAC leaders are apoplectic, American Jews are distressed, and the majority of Americans are no closer to supporting American involvement in an attack on Iran.

In dealing with America, Israel should focus on persuasion, building trust, avoiding the trap of partisan politics, and honest, tough talk with the Americans – in private. Zionism is meant to give a sovereign Jewish state control over its own destiny. But for now, America’s help is needed to confront Iran, and Israel’s leaders must be smart in securing that help.


Dear Eric,

There is deep anxiety among Israelis, too, about the growing rift between Netanyahu and Obama, especially during an election. A personal feud between the American President and the Israeli Prime Minister will inevitably affect the wider relationship. And yes, there is concern that Netanyahu has, wittingly or not, conveyed the impression of partisanship in an American election. You are right: If Netanyahu can’t bring himself to praise Obama, then he shouldn’t praise Romney.

You write that allies don’t interfere in each other’s elections. Unfortunately, the historical record reveals several examples in which American and Israeli leaders have done exactly that. President Clinton made his preference clear for Peres over Netanyahu in the 1996 elections. And in 1972, Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s ambassador to Washington, expressed an obvious preference for Richard Nixon over George McGovern.

Many Israelis sympathize with Netanyahu’s frustrations with Obama. The President failed to give him the credit and the backing when he imposed an unprecedented 10-month settlement freeze and instead provoked one of the worst crises between the two countries in decades – astonishingly, over building in a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem. That was a terrible miscalculation, as I think the adminstration itself came to realize. One consequence was that, when Netanyahu tried to extend the 10-month freeze, his outraged cabinet voted against him.

But who started the feud is obviously less important than containing it. If both men are reelected, then the special relationship between our countries will face its most serious test since that relationship began in earnest after the Six-Day War.

I agree with you that Netanyahu’s pique has at times been provocative and unwise. You know the Hebrew phrase: Don’t be right, be smart. Even if Bibi is right, as I believe he is, to regard Obama with wariness, he has not always played this smart.

Still, I disagree with your assumption that he has used the Iranian issue as a political wedge to undermine Obama during elections. The Netanyahu who spoke from the podium of the General Assembly seemed to me desperate to wake up the world – and yes, the administration, too – to the urgency of the Iranian threat. Israeli and American clocks, as General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently put it, are not running at the same speed. Our clock, as Netanyahu made clear, is close to midnight. Israel’s window for a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities is closing. Netanyahu is challenging Obama on Iran despite the election campaign, not because of it.

I don’t believe, therefore, that Netanyahu is scheming with Sheldon Adelson, as you imply, to bring down Obama. My plea to you, Eric, is that we argue these life and death issues without impugning each other’s integrity. By all means challenge Netanyahu when he oversteps the bounds of the American-Israeli relationship. But give him the credit he has earned after 10 years of relentless campaigning on the Iranian threat. He is not playing politics over a nuclear Iran.

Finally, Eric, a question to you: Why aren’t American Jews making the administration’s policy on Iran more of an electoral issue? Why aren’t Obama’s Jewish supporters challenging him to explain his refusal to draw a red line on Iran? Why aren’t American Jewish voters asking hard questions about the substantially different Israeli and American approaches toward nuclear breakout?

Yes, Obama has made some powerful speeches on Iran in recent months (though those seemed largely intended to deter Israel from striking). And yes, Obama’s sanctions are having a growing effect on the Iranian economy. But the regime shows no sign of slowing down its nuclear program. Quite the opposite; Iran is now within reach of its goal.

Given the administration’s failure to deter Iran, I am frankly disappointed that Obama doesn’t have to work harder for the Jewish vote. Just as the President felt impelled to offer concrete concessions on illegal immigration to Hispanic voters, he should be feeling domestic pressure to go further on Iran.

I can’t help feeling that if American Jewish anxiety on Iran were more clearly expressed, then Israeli anxiety could be more muted, especially during the election campaign.


Dear Yossi,

I understand, at least to some degree, Israeli concern about Obama. He bungled the settlement issue early in his term. (To be fair, Netanyahu has bungled it since then; Israel’s settlement obsession, which hurts Israel’s standing everywhere in the world, is diverting attention from the critical issue of Iran.) Obama supports Israel, but without the emotional connection of Bill Clinton or George Bush. Still, he sees Israel as a vital American interest, and on matters of defense and security, he may be the most supportive President ever.

I was not suggesting, heaven forbid, that Netanyahu was scheming with Sheldon Adelson to bring down Obama. It is unthinkable to me that an Israeli Prime Minister would do this. I was saying that when you are the Prime Minister and your friend and major supporter is one of America’s most prominent and virulent Obama opponents, you need to proceed with the utmost care to avoid even the hint of partisan motivation. Unfortunately, Netanyahu did not do this.

But the key, as you say, is to look forward, and here I think you are misreading the American political map.

When it comes to Iran, Netanyahu has done an extraordinary job in the last three years in putting the Iranian nuclear threat on the agenda of America and the West. This is his most important accomplishment. But his indispensable partner in this effort has been the American Jewish community, which has rallied to the Prime Minister’s side. The entire organized community, from right to left, has joined in this effort.

You seem to feel that now, if only the Jews would make Iran more of an electoral issue, America would get really tough, draw red lines, etc. But you are making the mistake that Israelis often make about American Jews: You are vastly exaggerating our power.

These are the realities: The presidential campaign is focused almost entirely on the economy and domestic issues. American voters like the idea of America being “strong,” but they don’t like the idea of additional military action at this time. Poll data show that the American people do not want their government to attack Iran, or even to offer support for an Israeli attack (See the  survey  by the Chicago Council for Global Affairs.). Furthermore, there is no chance of playing one candidate off against the other because they are both saying exactly the same thing. For political reasons, Romney talks with a bit more bluster, but his position on Iran and red lines is no different from Obama’s.

This is what is needed: The day after the election, no matter who wins, American Jews will need to work with the President and Congress to make the case for a possible American military attack on Iran. Making this case will require every ounce of our political skill. But jumping in now, with a message that the voters clearly do not want to hear, will not help. And Mr. Netanyahu, with his political missteps of the last few months, has probably made that job harder. Still, it is a job that we must do. Because on this we agree: Under no circumstances can the Iranians be permitted to produce a nuclear weapon.


Dear Eric,

I agree with you about the damage of settlement expansion. In fact, a conversation you and I had in Jerusalem a few years ago helped clarify for me the damage that settlement building is doing to us. More than the arguments you made, I was haunted by your anguish.

As for Obama’s support for Israel: He deserves our gratitude for the military aid and cooperation -and also for coming through for us at several crucial moments, as when the Israeli embassy was under assault in Cairo. But he has also severely undermined Israel’s position internationally, by conveying a sense of distance and at times hostility toward the Israeli government. Recall, for example, the reports of how the administration lobbied Germany to distance itself from Israel. At times it has appeared as if Obama feels a visceral contempt for Netanyahu that he expresses for no other world leader.

And his mishandling of the Middle East generally – his inexplicable passivity during the 2009 anti-regime demonstrations in Tehran, his lip-service on Syria, his passivity in the face of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, his repeated and embarrassing denunciations of the pathetic anti-Muslim You Tube clip (even taking out ads on Pakistani TV!), and worst of all his refusal to draw red lines on Iran – have all combined to undermine American power and Israeli security in the region.

As for American Jewry and the elections: You may well be right that we in Israel tend to exaggerate the impact of American Jews, especially during an election, and aren’t sufficiently sensitive to the complexities of making Israel’s case. If we expect too much of American Jews, it’s because we acutely feel that we need you more than at any time perhaps since the terrible weeks of May 1967.

One positive result, incidentally, of growing Israeli anxiety is a new-found appreciation and respect here for American Jewry, whose support has been too often taken for granted. I sense it in conversations with Israelis, and in the way the Israeli media anxiously reports on expressions of American Jewish dissent from Israeli policies.

In your opening remarks you noted the irony that, while “Zionism is meant to give a sovereign Jewish state control over its own destiny,” Israel cannot meet the challenge of Iran without American backing. The question of unilateral Israeli action on Iran presents us with a wrenching choice between two cherished Zionist goals: self-defense, and securing Israel’s place among the nations. As our international standing becomes more precarious, we are even more dependent on American goodwill.

Obviously, I share your hope that America will take the lead in stopping Iran – with more effective sanctions, and if those fail, with a military strike.

In working with American Jewry to prevent a nuclear Iran, Israeli leaders need to be mindful of American Jewish sensitivities. At the same time, American Jews need to appreciate the growing desperation that is motivating Netanyahu.

I’m grateful for the chance to share my frustrations and anxieties with you.


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