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Netanyahu`s alliance with Republicans risks further ire from Obama
Israeli journalists have long been frustrated that their prime minister appears to regard himself as more accountable to the US press than his own.
So it was at the weekend, as Binyamin Netanyahu, who has generally avoided serious interrogation by Israeli reporters during his years in office, was to be found bouncing from one US talk show to another, denouncing President Obama’s tentative nuclear deal with Iran.
Netanyahu claimed to be doing no more than defending Israel’s interests in the face of what he characterised as a terrorist state intent on Israel’s obliteration.
I’m not trying to kill any deal. I’m trying to kill a bad deal,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press.
But with Republicans using the agreement as another opportunity to rally against the president and even turn it into an election issue, Netanyahu once again allied himself with Obama’s opponents.
The Sunday talk shows, with their deferential questioning – the Israeli prime minister was not questioned about his country’s own undeclared nuclear weapons, and his alarmist claims about Palestinian intent went unchallenged – provided the platform for Netanyahu to lay out the case the Republicans are already pushing to try and scupper the deal.
The Israeli prime minister particularly objected to the short-term lifting of international sanctions against Iran. Republicans have drafted legislation to stop the president from suspending sanctions amid a dispute over whether Obama has the power to temporarily lift the blockade without congressional approval.
The administration has said the president will veto the bill. Republican leaders are working to win enough Democratic support to override the veto. Netanyahu’s appearance on the Sunday talk shows will have added to the pressure on senators and members of Congress concerned at the political consequences of not being seen as sufficiently pro-Israel.
The Israeli prime minister denied on CNN that he was working in league with the Republicans, although, tellingly, he refused to say if he trusts Obama.
“I’m not approaching it on a partisan basis. I have talked to about two-thirds of the representatives of the United States, the House of Representatives, and probably an equal number of senators from both sides of the aisle. This is not a partisan issue,” he said.
That’s not how some Democrats see it. Netanyahu’s authority among Democrats has been eroded over the past six years by his fractious relationship with Obama – fractious to the point of open contempt.
But it was the Israeli prime minister’s extraordinary address to Congress last month, in which he used the platform of the US legislature to attack the president’s Iran policy, which caused an open rift, as nearly 60 Democrats took the equally unusual step of boycotting the speech.
Although Netanyahu insisted on that occasion that there was nothing partisan about his address, it was revealed that the invitation to Congress was cooked up between Israel’s ambassador to Washington and John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives. Boehner visited the Israeli prime minister in Jerusalem last week.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, on Sunday suggested that Netanyahu is undermining his own authority by opposing the Iran agreement without offering a credible alternative.
“To be candid with you, this can backfire on him. And I wish that he would contain himself, because he has put out no real alternative. In his speech to the Congress, no real alternative. Since then, no real alternative,” she told CNN.
Claims that the Israeli leader is dabbling in American politics have been buttressed by the large amounts of money from hawkish supporters of Netanyahu around Republicans leading the attack on Obama and a deal with Iran.
Those Republicans include a new senator from Arkansas, Tom Cotton, who organised the much-derided open letter signed by 46 Republican colleagues warning Iran’s leaders that Congress could sink an agreement signed by Obama.
Cotton, as the New York Times noted this week, is a major recipient of money from rightwing supporters of Israel. The hardline Emergency Committee for Israel spent nearly $1m to back Cotton’s election. A political action committee run by John Bolton, the hawkish former US ambassador to the UN, gave $825,000 to elect Cotton, its second largest donation of the most recent election. Hundreds of thousands of dollars also came from two Jewish American billionaires who strongly support Netanyahu.
On Thursday, the senator denounced the framework agreement as “a list of dangerous US concessions that will put Iran on the path to nuclear weapons”.
Netanyahu’s regular appearances on US television add to the pressure on Democratic members of Congress who fear a well-funded political challenge. But many will also be loth to undermine a Democratic president’s authority or his foreign policy prerogatives, particularly with the Republicans in charge of the legislature.
Even if Congress succeeds in blocking Obama from lifting sanctions, that will not prevent European countries from doing so, which would have a significant impact on Iran’s economy. And Netanyahu’s influence in the White House will have been eroded even further.
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