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Should Netanyahu Keep Publicly Criticizing Obama?

by Shmuel Rosner

November 25, 2013 | 8:13 am

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and US President
Barack Obama at the UN General Assembly
photos by Reuters

There was an obvious touch of sarcasm to Prime Minister Netanyahu's contention, about the US decision to sign an agreement with Iran, that "when an ally is wrong it is our duty to speak out". The Obama administration has used such phrases many times, enlightening puzzled observers whenever a decision was made to confront Israel about its policies – especially about its policies concerning the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Nevertheless, it is fair to ask why Netanyahu is still using this type of rhetoric when the deed is already done, when the interim agreement is signed. More specifically, it is fair to ask if Netanyahu is engaging in such critical language because of frustration with the Obama administration, or because of a calculated decision that "speaking out" is still his best option.

It is also fair to ask if using such critical language is more helpful – in keeping the pressure up when the half year of talks with Iran is just beginning – or more hurtful – in alienating the Obama administration at this critical juncture for Israel. In six months, a permanent agreement with Iran is supposed to be signed. In four months the nine-month deadline for Israeli-Palestinian negotiation expires. Clearly, it is a time in which the better, the more intimate, US-Israel relations are the better it is for Israel. Clearly, Netanyahu's criticism makes it more difficult for the parties to have intimate relations. So it is fair to ask: why is Netanyahu continuing with the harsh criticism?

One possible answer- one that is not very flattering for the Prime Minister- is frustration. Proponents of this narrative will argue that it is a matter of ego more than one of rational thought. Netanyahu is angry about the agreement (for good reasons, by the way- this is not a good agreement and Netanyahu's criticism of it is more than valid) and he just can't hide it. If that is the case, one would hope that he'll soon master the strength to just stomach his defeat and move on. There's still work to be done.

Another possible answer is that Netanyahu truly believes that, moving forward, criticism is the only way for him to get results. That is, because he doesn't believe that the Obama team wants intimate coordination – in other words, they will welcome the civil tone but will not really answer Netanyahu's concerns. For Netanyahu to reach such a conclusion would be a sobering and frightening process. The stakes are very high – relations with an administration that still has three years in office – and the Prime Minister has to consider the consequences of constant mutual bickering. His possible response to such concerns would be: the stakes regarding Iran are also very high. I can't let the Iran campaign fail for the sake of my relations with a president who seems insistent in his pursuit of an agreement with Tehran.

Publicly criticizing the agreement is also a way for Netanyahu to signal to Israel's friends in the US that accommodating the administration at this time would be the wrong thing to do; to make it more difficult for Jewish defenders of Israel, and for Israel's friends in Congress, to compromise. The thought process in this case is as follows: this is a volatile moment, in which many actors have to decide whether they will be going into an open war with the administration over a key component of its policy. If Israel falters at such a moment, and seems ready to accept the new reality, this will make it much easier for Israel's supporters to also take the first available exit and let Obama do what he wants to do. Israel can't expect its supporters – in this case Jewish supporters would be the main target – to face the ire of the administration alone. If Israel wants them to fight, it needs to show them that it is also ready to fight – and that it is ready to live with the consequences.

Of course, underlying all this is the real question: what can Israel do now? On Tuesday, back in Israel after what he deems a successful trip to the US, Minister Naftali Bennett tried to remind Israelis that Israel can't always win. It lost this time – its concerns were not remedied – but the battle is still on. His remarks were a manifestation of one school of thought: the interim agreement is bad, and Israel should fight for a better final agreement and keep other options on the table.

Yet this wasn't the only possible response to the agreement signed between Iran and the international community. There was the doomsday response – exemplified by John Bolton's advice: Israel has no choice but to attack Iran as soon as possible, since the final agreement will be no better than the interim agreement, and the expected outrage over the attack will be just as strong if Israel waits. And there was the calming response- it is not so bad, concerning the alternatives- expressed by Israel's former military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin. “If it was the final agreement – then it would really be a bad agreement, but that’s not the situation" said Yadlin, who is presently the head of the Institute for National Security Studies. He is patient enough or naïve enough to hope for better results later.

Or maybe Yadlin simply doesn't see an alternative to waiting. Then again, the fair question is to ask what Israel and its Prime Minister should do as they wait. Should they keep criticizing the Obama administration- with the intention of making the agreement politically costly for the administration – and risk an even more contentious fight? Until contradictory proof is presented, Netanyahu's answer seems to be positive. By losing confidence in the Obama administration he is behaving like the majority of Israelis. By criticizing the Obama administration he is also behaving like the majority of Israelis.

Yet for the majority of Israelis this is an instinctive expression of frustration, anger, and, well, also some fear over the possibility that Iran is indeed on the right path towards winning the battle. Netanyahu, on the other hand, has a job that doesn't allow for instinctive expressions of anger.

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