Tel Aviv — Ever since President Barack Obama visited Israel in the spring, the bad vibes between the U.S. and Israel were supposed to be a thing of the past. It seemed the two leaders had turned the page.
Until this week.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public lambasting of a U.S.-backed compromise with Iran and Secretary of State John Kerry’s criticism of Israel’s handling of the peace process seem to have undone all of that. But now, the dispute over Iran is so ferocious that it’s threatening to pull American Jews into the crossfire.
Addressing the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America on Sunday evening in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said that opposing the emerging compromise on Iran was a matter of Jewish survival and world Jewry needs to “stand up and be counted.
“When the Jewish people were silent on matters that related to our survival, you know what happened,” he said, alluding to the Holocaust.
Such an appeal by an Israeli prime minister for U.S. Jews to come out against the administration is rare and could put American Jewry in an awkward position in the middle of a spat between Israeli and U.S. leaders. It also risks kicking up the kind of criticism Netanyahu faced during the presidential election when it was thought he was intervening in domestic politics on behalf of Obama’s challenger, Mitt Romney.
“I can’t remember any such thing — it’s highly unusual,” said an Israeli official with ties to diaspora Jews. “It was considered as something that you don’t do.”
The prime minister argues that the West will ease up on sanctions against Iran without demanding that Iran reduce its capacity to enrich uranium. He has warned such a move will empty all the air from the sanctions regime, giving the West no more leverage to keep the Iranians in talks.
Netanyahu’s critique of the U.S. administration has been swiftly embraced by Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman. In a statement Foxman said he was “troubled” after seeing the details of the Geneva compromise and that it was now necessary to lobby for new sanctions — a move that would run counter to the administration policy
“[Netanyahu] is right and we shouldn’t be silent — this is a threat to world Jewry if Israel is injured,” Foxman, who was in Israel for the GA, told The Jewish Week. “First and foremost when I’m lobbying for sanctions, I’m lobbying for the best interests of the U.S. ... If we begin unrolling sanctions now, [Iran] is not a trustworthy partner … so far all they want is relief [from sanctions].”
Foxman said he didn’t know if other Jewish groups would follow suit [by criticizing the administration], but said he hoped they would. An American Jewish official from another leading group that focuses on U.S.-Israel ties said it was too early to make such a call, and that it would most likely depend on the compromise in Geneva and what measures Congress proposes
“There are all types of variables you have to watch. I don’t know which variable will elicit a statement or initiative,” said the official.
It’s unclear whether American Jews will heed the prime minister’s call to oppose the Geneva compromise.
“It goes back to World War II,” said the American official. “I constantly think of people in 1938. Would my friends have backed Chamberlin or Churchill. The fact is that most of my friends would have backed Chamberlin. It’s a question of when do you go out and do something, and when do you leave the comfort zone. When do you get involved? I, at least, don’t have clear answers for this stuff.”
The prime minister’s public campaign against the U.S. efforts at compromise with Iran drew significant criticism in Israel. On Tuesday, newly sworn in Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, usually known for hardline attacks on the international community, said that Netanyahu had taken the spat with the U.S. too far and that there was a need to air differences in private.
“Netanyahu is paying a price he did not have to pay,” wrote Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. “A prime minister who deserves credit for internationalizing the Iranian issue and turning it into a top priority on the global agenda, is now paying the price for the Israelization of the Iranian issue.”
“Instead of a quiet, credible, serious and intimate dialogue with the Obama administration, Netanyahu has succeeded in isolating Israel from the U.S. and the world on a critical issue on which he is in the right.”
Indeed, Secretary of State Kerry and many Israeli national security experts, such as former Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin, cautioned that the prime minister’s criticism is premature and that his doomsday portrayal of the conflict is exaggerated for the time being.
“This is his issue inside of Israel,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli-Iranian political analyst who believes Netanyahu strengthens Iran by openly arguing. “He wants to be seen as a savior of the Jewish people, the one who saves the Jewish state from annihilation, and that drives him to say exaggerated things and react in an exaggerated manor. … He goes over the top,” he said.
And yet, centrist figures like President Shimon Peres embraced Netanyahu’s criticism of the talks, as did Justice Minister Tzippi Livni. Israeli news analysts said that compromise in Geneva had undermined the camp of ex-security chiefs who lobbied against a military strike in favor of taking the lead from the U.S.
That raises the likelihood of a lone Israeli strike, they say.
Dore Gold, a former ambassador and a sometimes adviser to the prime minister, said it seems the U.S. is eager to get a deal with Iran regardless of implications.
“The problem is that once the Iranians detect that the party opposite them on the table is determined to close the deal, they pull back, ironically, to improve the terms. It makes negotiating with the regime very difficult.”
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