We have one person to thank for the fact that President Barack Obama successfully let Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu know ‘who’s the boss’ both at the AIPAC conference and at a meeting between the two at the White House on Monday.
Thank you, Mitt Romney.
Imagine if things had worked out the way Netanyahu wanted them to: Romney would have turned out to be an excellent candidate who crushed his opponents with dispatch. He would not only have the Republican nomination sewn up by now, but he would be the frontrunner to win in November (especially if the economy was trending down and not up).
Under those circumstances, Bibi would have treated Obama the way he treated President Clinton during the ridiculous Lewinsky brouhaha. He essentially ignored him, hanging out with then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and sending the word to his followers that Clinton was likely to be removed by Congress. For Bibi, who hated Clinton’s alliance with the late Yitzhak Rabin and his commitment to Rabin’s vision, it was all ‘happy days are here again.’
That was how yesterday was supposed to be, too. Instead, Netanyahu met with an invigorated president who, thanks to Romney, Gingrich, Santorum and the rest of the weak GOP field, looks like an almost sure bet for re-election in November. Bibi understood that any attempt to embarrass Obama or diss him in front of his AIPAC buddies would haunt him for five more years.
Even worse, it could cost him his job. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir rallied AIPAC against the first President Bush, leading Bush to all but endorse his opponent, Yitzhak Rabin and bring about Shamir’s defeat. AIPAC gives ovations to Israeli leaders who challenge U.S. Presidents. But the Israeli people don’t, because they live there and understand how much Israel needs the United States (no, AIPAC, it is not the other way around).
So that is why yesterday was Bibi’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
Start with Obama’s speech to AIPAC. Netanyahu had asked that the United States redraw its “red line” from actual Iranian development of a nuclear bomb to the mere capability to do so. Should Iran cross the line, we would go to war. Obama mentioned no red lines and did not change U.S. policy. He maintains his latitude to do what he thinks is right.
Netanyahu wanted Obama to agree that the diplomatic route is dead; that sanctions can be utilized, but only to produce “crippling” pain on Iranians as a prelude to war. Instead, Obama emphasized diplomacy, mentioning it over and over again as the surest way to end the stalemate.
Netanyahu wanted Obama to make clear that if Israel attacks Iran, the United States will have its back. Obama agreed with the prime minister that “no Israeli government can tolerate” a nuclear weapon in Iranian hands, seemingly giving Netanyahu a go-ahead to bomb. But Bibi knows that means nothing unless the U.S. will join in the attack, and Obama made it clear that he is not there. Not even close. The president said:
As President and Commander-in-Chief, I have a deeply held preference for peace over war. I have sent men and women into harm’s way. I’ve seen the consequences of those decisions in the eyes of those I meet who’ve come back gravely wounded, and the absence of those who don’t make it home. Long after I leave this office, I will remember those moments as the most searing of my presidency. And for this reason, as part of my solemn obligation to the American people, I will only use force when the time and circumstances demand it.
In other words, he understands that Israel will do what it is going to do. But as president, he won’t join in unless the U.S. is directly threatened. Vice President Biden’s idea that there must be “no daylight” between Israeli and U.S. policies was noticeably absent.
It didn’t get any better for Netanyahu when he met with Obama at the White House.
Netanyahu tried hard to get Obama to go the Biden “no daylight” route. But Obama wasn’t buying. When Bibi came out with the outlandish and chutzpah-laden line “we are you and you are us,” Obama was silent. His message was: “We believe that there is still a window that allows a diplomatic solution to this issue.”
No wonder Netanyahu seemed so deflated when he delivered his much-heralded speech to AIPAC. It is enough to say that its highlight was when he justified war with Iran using a biblical story about a bad Persian tyrant who tried to destroy the Jewish people 2,500 years ago. (Pathetically, Bibi gave Obama a copy of the Bible story to use in his deliberations.)
It only got worse for Netanyahu today when Obama stated at a press conference that diplomacy remains his preferred route. Obama spoke just after the announcement that the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany would commence negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue.
Unlike last time when, at Netanyahu’s insistence, the United States imposed a 3-month deadline, this time negotiations will be open-ended. According to the New York Times, the talks would “help relieve pressure from Israel to use military force against Teheran.”
At his press conference, Obama at one point spoke as if he was directly addressing the neocons:
I think there’s no doubt that those who are suggesting or proposing or beating the drums of war should explain clearly to the American people what they think the costs and benefits would be. I’m not one of those people.
Because what I’ve said is that we have a window through which we can resolve this issue peacefully. We have put forward an international framework that is applying unprecedented pressure. The Iranians just stated that they are willing to return to the negotiating table, and we’ve got the opportunity, even as we maintain that pressure, to see how it plays out.
Netanyahu returns to Israel tonight. From the perspective of a hawk, his trip was an utter failure. He came here looking for a partner for war but leaves feeling lonely. War is much less likely.
Well played, Mr. President. And, Mitt, thank you.