Peter Beinart on Netanyahu’s Bullying Act

The reason Netanyahu’s attacks have backfired is simple: this is about war. Gali Tibbon / AFP-Getty Images

The most generous explanation for Benjamin Netanyahu’s brazen, election-season attack on the Obama administration is that it’s a product of the prime minister’s desperate worries about Iran. And clearly, Netanyahu is desperately worried—in a way that most of Israel’s professional security experts are not. They’re mostly worried about 1949: an Iranian nuke that undermines Israel’s dominance in the Middle East, just as the Soviet Union’s atomic test undermined American dominance back then. Bibi, by contrast, is worried about 1942: he’s worried that millions of Jews again face extermination and that, he virtually alone among world leaders, sees the coming Holocaust, which is, indeed, enough to make you lose your cool.

But the problem with this more charitable analysis is that Netanyahu has been brazenly intervening in American politics—often with an eye to screwing Democratic presidents—since long before he became obsessed with Iran. It’s just the way he rolls. In 1989, as Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Netanyahu pushed Congress so hard to scuttle the nascent dialogue between the United States and the PLO that James Baker briefly had him banned from the State Department. In 1998, three days after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, Netanyahu, in a previous stint as Israel’s prime minister, addressed a rally organized by Clinton tormenter Jerry Falwell. Falwell later said, “It was all planned by Netanyahu as an affront to Clinton,” who was pushing Netanyahu to fulfill Israel’s obligations under the Oslo agreement by ceding significant land in the West Bank to the Palestinians.

Perhaps because of his deep ties to America—he attended high school, college, and graduate school in the United States, and held U.S. citizenship until he was in his 30s—Netanyahu has long exuded an extraordinary confidence that he could make the American government bend to his will. In his memoir, Dennis Ross recalls that after Netanyahu’s first meeting with Bill Clinton as prime minister, Clinton remarked in bewilderment, “He thinks he is the superpower and we are here to do what he requires.”

In other words, Netanyahu’s decision to publicly call out Hillary Clinton over Iran last week, soon after his tirade against U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, is not only about Iran. It’s about Netanyahu’s general belief that when push comes to shove, U.S. leaders can be moved in the direction he wants them to go. And given the way the Obama administration folded after Netanyahu publicly rebuked the president for proposing negotiations based upon the 1967 lines plus land swaps last May, there was no reason for Netanyahu to believe that he couldn’t act the way he always had.

Which makes the Obama team’s sharp-elbowed response all the more remarkable. Not only has the White House not given Netanyahu the deadline for military action that the P.M. reportedly wants, it also refused him a meeting when he comes to the U.S. later this month. Rattled by the administration’s anger, opposition leader Shaul Mofaz and Netanyahu’s own defense minister, Ehud Barak, both reprimanded him for jeopardizing relations with the United States.

Why, this time, did Netanyahu’s intervention fail? First, because he hasn’t closed the deal at home. Over the past 18 months, top security professionals who served under Netanyahu have expressed discomfort—even horror—at his push for a unilateral Israeli strike. Almost immediately after Netanyahu demanded that the U.S. establish “red lines,” about which Iranian behavior would prompt an American strike, Dan Halutz, who led the Israel Defense Forces until 2007, said the U.S. should do no such thing.

The second reason Netanyahu’s efforts have failed is that Obama isn’t as politically vulnerable on Iran as some assumed. Mitt Romney doesn’t talk much about the subject, partly because it’s not a top concern for voters, and partly because voters don’t particularly trust Romney on foreign policy anyway. That’s largely true for Jews as well. According to an American Jewish Committee poll early this year, only 4 percent of American Jews cited Iran’s nuclear program as their No. 1 voting issue (and most of them are likely in Romney’s camp already).

But perhaps the most fundamental reason Netanyahu’s attacks have backfired is the simplest: this is about war. It’s one thing to pressure an American president into backing down on the peace process. It’s another to pressure him into attacking another country. It’s offensive and absurd to expect a president to commit himself to war by a date certain before having taken his case to the American people. Americans do not want Iran to go nuclear, but this is a country weary of war. And, increasingly, it is a country weary of Netanyahu as well.

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