Unpacking Bibi’s Iran Deal Strategy

Unpacking Bibi’s Iran Deal Strategy

For some of us the period since July 14, when the nuclear agreement with Iran was announced, has been immensely hectic. I and many of my friends have been reading, commenting, publicizing petitions to Congress, and generally doing our best to get the word out that most American Jews do not oppose the deal and that many (most, according to some reliable polls) support it. Some of us think that the deal is a triumph of diplomacy; others think there is simply no alternative. Obviously, lobbying has been intense and increasingly bitter on both sides.

As I write this on Saturday night, Sept. 5, it looks like the deal will pass, since more than 34 senators (all Democrats) have said they support it. Perhaps we will reach 41 senatorial supporters, which would prevent the Senate from disapproving it, and thus avoid a certain veto by President Obama. Republicans have vowed to do their best to prevent it from going into effect, and hope that if they win the presidency next year, the next president will annul US approval, as he or she will have the right to do.

This may be a good time to examine why Prime Minister Netanyahu broke all diplomatic precedents by actively opposing an American president on a major American debate, especially when it was probable that Obama would win. This question of “why?” has become a cottage industry in Israel, where even many who oppose the deal have condemned Bibi’s heavy-handed strategy as calculated to seriously alienate the United States, Israel’s primary ally. We who support the deal should keep in mind that we only won this round – assuming we did – because the congressional deck was for once stacked for us; constitutionally we only needed 1/3 of one house of Congress. The fact is that Bibi’s and the Republicans’ arguments – which are essentially the same – seem to resonate with about half the American people. Of course Bibi knew he would most probably lose, whatever he was telling people. Everyone knew that the numbers were against him.

So why did he invite a seemingly humiliating defeat for himself, but even more for AIPAC and the American Jewish establishment, many of whom reportedly warned him of the consequences and counseled him against going toe to toe with Obama and inviting a split in the American Jewish community?

In my view he went all out for the deal because he is playing for even bigger stakes, namely the presidency in 2016. His preference for Republicans has been made absolutely clear since at least the 2012 election, while Republican adulation for him was obvious when he addressed the US Congress in March, just ahead of the Israeli election. Many called that appearance a “mistake” in judgment because of its divisive and obviously partisan nature. I don’t agree it was a mistake. Not that he never makes them – far from it; but this is too elementary. Rather, his behavior since July has provided strong evidence that he not only doesn’t care about bipartisan support for Israel but, rather, is actively working to swing Jewish support to the Republicans while virtually writing off, even deliberately alienating, traditionally pro-Israel liberal Democrats.

In the 14 months until the presidential election, Bibi’s support will be crucial in mobilizing a few super-rich Jews and millions of evangelicals for the Republican candidate. He has already fired them up in the Iran campaign. His popularity among most Republicans is immense. And we can assume that his message will be that to support Bibi is to support Israel — and of course to oppose him is to be anti-Israel, whether you are Jewish, Christian or whatever. Even more so than in the last two months, this will split the American Jewish community unprecedentedly and perhaps irrevocably, with most (not all) Orthodox Jews supporting him, along with much of the Jewish establishment, while liberal Jews will be painfully torn. My own, by no means disinterested, guess is that most liberal Jews will vote their values and oppose Bibi, and that the historic relationship between American Jews and the Democratic party will continue, but that support for Israel will become increasingly diffuse and partisan.

Thus, it really didn’t matter to Bibi if he won or lost this battle. In some ways it’s better for him that he lost, because whatever goes wrong with the agreement — and nothing is as smooth as we like to imagine — will be puffed up and blamed on Obama and the agreement’s supporters. And we know the Republicans will try to sabotage the agreement every way they can, and blame the consequent damage on Obama, Democrats and liberals.

It’s a risky gamble, of course. There are plenty of uncertainties. For example, Bibi certainly didn’t envision Trump, and I’m sure he’s not happy about him because he’s unpredictable and doesn’t subscribe to orthodoxies. But I don’t think Trump will get the nomination, and he probably likes Bibi’s Israel in any case. But I think Bibi’s main goal is trying to remake the American role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and get its support for the most rightwing forces in Israel, which are openly supporting a Greater Israel, with no Palestinian state, and Israel in permanent control of all the land west of the Jordan River. Doing that would assure his legacy forever.

I am not alleging a conspiracy but simply a political deal. The evidence of Israeli-Republican cooperation is plain to see. Within the Jewish community, we have witnessed numerous instances of those who dissent from Bibi’s policies being excluded from Jewish community forums. Given the bitterness engendered in the campaign for and against the Iran deal within the Jewish community, we can expect to see more of this in the coming year.

Of course, Bibi may well be overreaching — let’s pray he is. There’s a lot that can go wrong with this for him — but if the Republicans get in, they will owe Bibi bigtime. And that means Greater Israel will be a reality, Israeli and Palestinian supporters of a two-state solution will have nowhere to go, and what unity remains in the American Jewish community will likely be gone forever.

Paul Scham
This post was written by
Paul L. Scham has been Executive Director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland since 2008. Originally an attorney, with a B.A. from Columbia and a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley, he quickly tired of practicing law and has worked on issues relating to Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for more than twenty years at NGO's, in think tanks, and at universities.

8 Comments on "Unpacking Bibi’s Iran Deal Strategy"

  • David says

    This is the most cogent explanation of Bibi’s US “long game ” that I have seen. A Republican President will clearly have to be a one-stater. But even assuming a Clinton or Sanders or Biden presidency, the Israeli rejection of a serious two-state solution cannot be overcome absent something big.

  • Khalil Jahshan says

    Thanks Paul for your thoughtful analysis and brutal honesty. Excellent article as always!

  • bryna kahan says

    Professor Scham, I would like to ask a few questions.
    1-What can be done to undo Netanyahu’s damage?
    2-For what reason does Netanyahu not-want a two-state solution?

    If he does possibly have good reason, his behavior gives us reason to doubt his credibility.

  • Paul Scham says

    Thanks to Khalil and David, though my guess is that Bibi will not formally repudiate 2 states until he has an understanding with a friendly White House occupant that the US would support him. Even then, it would likely be billed as a provisional solution or something like that.

    Bryna, I emphasize that I do not have secret information; I am going on what Bibi says and does. I think he was brought up to believe the Jewish people has unique ownership of the historic Land of Israel. I think he genuinely has a fundamental distrust of Arabs and and non-Jews in general, and he believes Israel is only protected by force. His history for many years and his unwillingness to negotiate seriously on the 2SS, as well as his continual expansion of settlements, and his Government’s large membership of ministers who oppose it, give very good reason to believe he would never agree to it – absent very strong US pressure, perhaps, which has never been forthcoming.

    Your first question is harder. Try to build understanding in this country and in Israel that Bibi’s course is dangerous for both Israel and the US, and that peace is possible with a real 2SS, as unlikely as that looks in the foreseeable future.

  • Irl says

    Great analysis, Paul. Only thing missing is Sheldon Adelson and the RJC.–

  • Jerry Blaz says

    This is a very cogent analysis. If I many add a factor I think is important. To address the behavior of Netanyahu in connection to the JCPOA without invoking the name of Sheldon Adelson leaves Bibi’s connection to the Republican Party incomplete. Bibi owe’s Adelson big-time for contributing his money to support a freebee daily newspaper like Israel Hayom which, because it doesn’t have to bill anyone for it, now claims to have the largest circulation (and yet is not highly regarded among veteran Israelis except some right-wing writers for who it is a comfortable gig.)

    I, for one, hope and predict that in 2016, we will be electing a Democratic president. The current crop of Republican nominees are a very mixed bag, and they will no doubt be forgetting Reagan’s so-called eleventh commandment (Thou shalt no speak ill of your fellow Republican). This will result in a very besmirched appearing group that will wear each other down like a mass Australian tag team mud wrestling match. There are several who could possibly be dragged from the fray by the Republican National Committee to stand as a candidate, but fourteen months before the election, it is difficult to prognosticate who that will be. I certainly hope it will not be Trump, because if he acts like he talks, it will be an anglicized Benito Mussolini all over again, but this time in America.


  • Don Peretz says

    Thanks a lot, Paul. I agree with you 100%. Don.

  • Eddie says

    Here is the big gotcha for all this. At some point, there will be a Republican President. If not 2016, then certainly by 2020 or 2024 – The United States liked to alternate presidential administrations. And when this happens, the assumption that a Republican administration will operate in Israel’s interest and not the interests of the corporate business interests than dominate the Republican party and will continue to do so unless Citizens United is defeated, is illogical. The automatic support of the Democratic Party, which has supported Israel since its inception in 1947 (when Republican mainstream thinking was against Truman’s de facto recognition), is now gone thanks to Mr. Netanyahu’s heavy-handedness. Israel will pay a cost for his strategic blunder.

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