The contentious diplomatic drama that was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the U.S. Congress last week has now expanded into a full-fledged political farce, after 47 Republican senators sent a letter to the Iranian supreme leader earlier this week. That letter basically insulted the Iranians by suggesting they did not know how the American political system operates, because, they argued, the next administration or president could reverse any agreement President Barack Obama reaches with Tehran.
The tension between the Republican-dominated Congress and Obama is nearly a constitutional crisis vis-a-vis the president’s prerogative to conduct foreign policy. It is also quite unusual to see a sitting Congress actively trying to thwart a foreign policy objective that the president is actively pursuing in close coordination with five other world powers.
Those issues will blow over in time, but the more lasting impact of these developments might well be the evolving relationship between the Israeli government, the Republican Party in the United States, and the traditional bipartisan position in the U.S. to policy towards Israel and wider Middle East issues. Both the rightwing Netanyahu-led Israeli coalition government and the Republican Party in Congress have reasons of their own to challenge U.S. President Barack Obama, and they have chosen the nuclear agreement being negotiated with Iran as the issue on which to confront him very hard and very publicly.
The unprecedented manner in which both Netanyahu and the Republicans have openly tried to shape American foreign policy on the basis of Israeli demands has shocked seasoned political analysts I have spoken to during my visit in the United States this week. Some note that this episode has crossed the line that demarcates routine ideological contestation from the charge that American elected officials are choosing to back a foreign government over their American president. Some wonder if this is treason by those congressmen and women who openly advocate the Israeli position. Others speak of a congressional gimmick, while others yet charge the Republicans with risking war with Iran simply to score political points at home.
The fact that most of Netanyahu’s accusations and scare-tactics warning about what would happen if the nuclear agreement were reached with Iran are factually wrong or highly exaggerated presumptions is not the real issue here. It is rather that American elected officials who are sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States have chosen to act in a manner that makes them look like they represent the wishes of a foreign government.
The fact that the foreign government in question is Israel also could put Jewish Americans in uncomfortable positions where they might be accused of having dual or torn loyalties to Israel and the United States—or worse yet, of supporting Israeli policy over American policy.
I am not surprised that Netanyahu has resorted to the most ridiculous manner of hysterical exaggerations, warnings, and historical analogies, because he understands that an agreement on Iran’s nuclear capabilities would be an enormous game-changer in the region, which would confront Israel with major new challenges. An agreement would certainly open the way to more normal Iranian relations with the United States and other Western powers, and would probably force a reconfiguration of Iranian-Arab ties which are now often strained.
An unsanctioned and thriving Iran would be an attractive partner for any country, and a stronger Iran that is not a nuclear threat would force a new balance of power in the Middle East among Iran, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and perhaps Egypt. Israel would probably be unhappy with such a situation that saw a handful of strong countries create a balance power that did not allow any one of them to impose its will on the entire region. Israel today feels it can do anything it wants to do anywhere in the Middle East, with total impunity.
That would change if a new regional balance of power arrangement were to take shape. So Netanyahu is using any available tactic to prevent an agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear capabilities, including going so far as to shatter the traditional rules that governed U.S.-Israeli ties. Those rules said that both parties in the U.S. political system would fully support Israel in virtually every arena, but Israel would not interfere in domestic American politics.
Well, Netanyahu just tore up that rulebook, and nobody is quite sure what will happen next. We are entering into uncharted territory, as senior American officials and some members of Congress now openly criticize the Israeli prime minister for brazenly trying to change American foreign policy by manipulating members of Congress against the American president. Most of the damage done to the U.S.-Israeli relationship will probably be patched up, but some of it may remain. We will find out more about this in the American elections next year.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter at: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global