President Barack Obama’s enlistment of sufficient support in Congress to push forward the nuclear deal with Iran has dealt a final blow to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign in Washington against the accord.
Yet the prime minister is giving no sign that he is about to change course or halt his public criticism of the accord, which sets curbs on Iran’s nuclear program but that Netanyahu warns still would allow Iran to retain the means to build a nuclear bomb.
Netanyahu’s attempts to lobby U.S. lawmakers against the deal fell short with the announcement Wednesday that 34 senators have pledged to uphold Obama’s promised veto of any effort to block the accord.
Diplomatically sidelined as the deal was signed and with Congress now offering no hope for a reprieve, Netanyahu suggested Thursday that he would take his message to the American people.
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There doesn’t seem to be any cost for Netanyahu by staking out his position.
Yossi Alpher, Israeli analyst
“An overwhelming majority of the American public sees eye to eye with us on the danger posed by Iran,” Netanyahu said. “It’s important to instill in American public opinion in the coming decade, and maybe beyond, the fact that Iran is an enemy of the United States. It openly declares this. And Israel is an ally of the United States. This understanding has important implications for our security.”
Analysts said Netanyahu was playing to his rightist political constituency, calculating that he did not stand to lose promised American defense aid because of his positions.
“Netanyahu is not talking to the American public or the U.S. Congress, he is talking to the voters in Israel who re-elected him a few months ago, Israelis who don’t trust Iran and don’t like Obama,” said Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“This will continue to work for him, allowing him to hide from pressing social and economic issues, and he’ll continue to milk it for a long time to come,” Hazan said.
Netanyahu’s criticism of the Iran deal has brought promises of increased defense assistance from Washington. On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry sent a letter to members of Congress outlining security commitments to Israel and the Arab Gulf states that included a new 10-year security agreement with the Israelis, additional funding for missile defense and joint research and development for tunnel detection.
Yossi Alpher, an Israeli strategic analyst, said that despite Netanyahu’s failure, the prime minister did not feel under particular pressure to reassess his stance.
“He reads Obama, who has indicated that he has no hard feelings and is ready to talk about a compensation package, so there doesn’t seem to be any cost for Netanyahu by staking out his position,” Alpher said.
Zeev Elkin, a cabinet minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party, argued in a radio interview Thursday that the prime minister’s campaign against the accord had significantly boosted opposition to the Iran deal in the United States, and that public opinion there remained an important factor in the Israeli-American alliance.
But critics said Netanyhau had suffered a resounding defeat after a lobbying drive that damaged Israel’s relations with the White House.
“Netanyahu failed completely in his campaign,” opposition leader Isaac Herzog told Israel Radio. “He raised the bar so high that it exacted a price, and the price is a political price in the United States.”
Commenting in the mass circulation daily Yediot Ahronot, Orly Azoulay, the paper’s Washington correspondent, said Netanyahu had emerged from his campaign against the Iran deal isolated, diplomatically marginalized and shunned by administration officials.
“He has become a self-defeated man,” Azoulay wrote, “the one standing on the wrong side of history.”
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.