Friday, March 09, 2012

Anatomy of a summit

Obama views Netanyahu’s proclamations about Iran as a lever with which to exert pressure on Tehran • Following Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, the White House perhaps came to the conclusion that there is no alternative to more crippling sanctions.

Professor Abraham Ben-Zvi
In June 1964, then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was invited to the White House for his first official visit. In the 1950s, American attitudes toward Israel were colder, more reserved and more distant. When Eshkol’s predecessor, David Ben-Gurion, traveled to Washington, he also met with Presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, only these visits were held informally and without the attendant hoopla and galas that we are now accustomed to seeing in the elegant hotels of New York.

Unlike Ben-Gurion, Eshkol was warmly greeted by his host, President Lyndon Johnson. The historic state visit was arranged in a manner that befitted the pageantry and ceremony of all visits by a state leader. It was a visit that was arranged against the backdrop of the deepening and strengthening strategic ties, the foundations of which had been laid in the twilight of the Ben-Gurion era and the 1,000-day presidency of JFK and which were beginning to take hold between Washington and Jerusalem.

Eshkol’s presidential invitation also signaled the ideological rapprochement between Jerusalem and Washington, a rapprochement embodied by Johnson’s entry into the White House. Indeed, the White House meeting was remembered for the effusive praise and admiration that Johnson heaped upon Eshkol. The 1964 summit was perhaps the purest expression of the American president’s view of Israel as a vital, pro-Western bastion in a turbulent Middle East and his deeply held belief that Israeli society represented a mirror image of the values and tradition upon which the American nation was born.

These expressions of affections were also evident during Eshkol’s second visit to the U.S. in January 1968. It was a visit that included a trip to the White House as well as a visit to Johnson’s farm in Texas.

Ever since this watershed moment, summit meetings between leaders have become an inseparable part of the rules of the game which govern relations between the allies. These relations are anchored in Americans perception of Israel as a key strategic and regional asset for the U.S. as well as an ideological partner in advancing the moral and cultural vision of American society in the world today.

Yet alongside the summit meetings, which were usually occasions for heaping praise on Israel’s leaders (as occurred during most of the summit meetings when George W. Bush was president), there were also tense meetings characterized by friction and disagreement (like the March 1977 sit-down between Jimmy Carter and Yitzhak Rabin as well as the November 1982 meeting between Ronald Reagan and Menachem Begin).

Given this spectrum, which runs the gamut from warm embrace to chilly rebuke, it appears that the most recent Washington summit that took place this week between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can most accurately be described as being “somewhere in the middle,” a point equidistant from the two poles.

While the summit meeting was devoid of the sense of intimacy that was in the air whenever Johnson and Eshkol got together, it was held in an atmosphere that was light years from the brutal chill that has characterized other confrontational meetings between the two men, including the one that took place in April 2010.

Despite the sharp, fundamental disagreement over a number of issues, including the extent to which international sanctions have impacted Iran, the severity of the Iranian nuclear threat in the short term, and the risks inherent in exercising the military option, it is worth remembering that Obama and Netanyahu were starting from virtually the same point of reference.

As evidenced by the president’s clear and unequivocal remarks before the AIPAC conference, both men recognize that Israel has a complete right to take necessary steps to defend its existence and security in the face of the bellicose rhetoric and threats coming out of Tehran and that there would be no reconciling with a fanatic, clerical entity coming into possession of a nuclear weapon.

Indeed, Obama’s explicit vow to prevent Iran from realizing the nightmarish scenario of a nuclear capability overshadowed – at least partially – the points of disagreement that remained unresolved over issues like how much room there is to maneuver, what options are available, which options take higher priority, and the timeframe available for the American hegemon and the international community to take on the challenge that has been presented to them.

Although Obama would like for nothing more than to see quiet on the economic front, at least until the elections for president on Nov. 6 (particularly due to the fear that a crisis in the Persian Gulf would in one fell swoop send him tumbling back in time to the days of the George W. Bush administration and its strategic agenda, not to mention the steep economic price that any conflict is liable to exact), one should not discount the possibility that he sees a certain benefit in Netanyahu’s forceful statements on the Iranian issue, without ostensibly supporting the actual carrying out of the threat.

In the decade that led up to the Six-Day War, the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations made repeated use of Israeli threats to assert control over the West Bank of the Jordan River in the event that the Hashemite kingdom disintegrated. The specter of Israeli control over the West Bank was the most effective weapon that the U.S. could hope to brandish in order to deter Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser from continuing in his efforts to undermine King Hussein’s regime, this despite Washington’s vehement opposition to Israel undertaking such a takeover.

Despite the vastly different circumstances between then and now as well as the seemingly contradictory statements emanating from the administration, one gets the impression that when it comes to the Iranian issue, the White House, as it did in the 1950s and early 1960s, sees the increasingly aggressive Israeli tack as an effective means of pressure on Tehran and other global actors who are either hesitant, apathetic, or hostile to the sanctions regime. Of course, this is contingent on Iran refraining from any provocative responses.

In other words, the Israeli threat is one of many vital tools at the Americans’ disposal. These tools, which include a number of possible courses of action, are being utilized by the administration to cobble together a large coalition that would be more committed to stopping the imminent threat. Washington will brandish these threats without wholesale adoption of every aspect of the Israeli argument, all the while hoping that hardening its position will not lead to an escalation that gets out of hand and a crisis that spins out of control.

A painful reminder

Aside from the willingness to lean on the Israeli threat as yet another means to deter Iran and persuade the international community to adopt even tougher sanctions, one can consider this week’s summit as a clear indication that the Americans have formulated a more aggressive and pro-active strategy than it has to this point when it comes to dealing with the Iranian theatre.

Not only has the White House show its readiness to use the Israeli threats of military action as a lever against Iran, but it seems that it has also come to the realization that it has no other option but to ratchet up the severity of sanctions against Tehran. Washington’s hope is that a combination of tough, forceful language emanating from Jerusalem and U.S. and international diplomatic activity will be enough to keep the Iranian nuclear bomb from coming into being.

Contrary to President Theodore Roosevelt’s doctrine (to which Obama alluded in his AIPAC speech) which posits that it is better to speak softly and carry a big stick, America’s future conduct on the Iranian matter is likely to stem from an entirely different principle given contemporary strategic thinking. This could be attributed partly to Israeli lobbying.

Indeed, the White House’s rhetoric is likely to be blunt and bellicose rather than soft, and it will be backed up by a number of crippling, menacing sticks. The intention is to narrow the gap between words and action in the hope that the Islamic fanatics will reassess the feasibility of the nuclear project.

In this vein, we can point to a number of potential far-reaching, punitive steps that could include harsher sanctions against Iran’s banking and energy sectors as well as tactics of economic warfare similar to those employed by the Nixon administration against the government of Salvador Allende in Chile four decades ago. It may also include the various actions and schemes that were hatched behind the scenes by the U.S. and Britain which led to the premature downfall of Mohammad Mosaddeqh, the Iranian prime minister, in 1953.

Another variable – which to a large extent could be credited to the prime minister’s trip to Washington this week – could compel the Americans to take a tougher stance toward the Tehran regime. This factor found expression in Netanyahu’s speech at the AIPAC convention, which aimed to rally the Jewish community and its organizational might to undertake an uncompromising, no-holds-barred campaign against the Iranian nuclear program. The Israeli hope is that organized Jewry will bring its considerable influence to bear on the Obama administration during this election season.

Indeed, the prime minister’s poignant references to past wounds and traumas – including the futile effort by the World Jewish Congress to lobby Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration to intervene on behalf of European Jewry during the Holocaust – during his AIPAC speech was aimed at reminding the crowd of the days when U.S. Jewish leaders, chief among them Rabbi Stephen Wise, had in practice come to terms with the most horrific atrocities (alongside the ostensibly unforgivable and unfathomable oversights and inaction by Roosevelt himself). This was meant to be a painful reminder of the efforts to enlist others in the fight against threats of destruction that are made on a near daily basis by Tehran.

One should keep in mind that the Jewish community in the U.S. has for eight decades been tied by the proverbial umbilical cord to the Democratic Party. U.S. Jews have been an integral part of the party ever since the days of Roosevelt’s “grand coalition,” formed in the 1930s.

These entrenched, traditional attitudes were further manifested in 2008, when no less than 78 percent of U.S. Jews cast their votes for Obama. The president aims to once again garner an overwhelming majority of Jewish votes, particularly in light of the fact that U.S. Jews have in the past “punished” presidents or presidential candidates, including Democrats, who were deemed too confrontational toward Israel. In light of the fight for Jewish votes, the community’s position on Iran takes on added importance.

This is so when one takes into account the fact that three of the four top candidates for the Republican nomination wholeheartedly support Israel’s position on this front. Alongside Israel’s growing pressure on the Americans (as well as the pressure on the White House that is being exerted by Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich), there is also likely to be pressure on Obama from this critical source of support, the Jewish community, which has a high voter turnout, extensive financial clout, and which is capable of tipping the balance in critical swing states where electoral college votes are up for grabs.

As for the Republicans ...

Jewish support has taken on greater significance when one considers the relative rise of the front-running Republican candidate Mitt Romney, following his successful string of primary victories in the recent Super Tuesday contests. Romney now commands the loyalty of a far greater number of delegates who will decide which candidate will face Obama compared to the biggest threat standing in the way of Romney’s White House hopes, Santorum.

Still, despite Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, winning in six of 10 states that held primaries this week, Republicans have yet to rally around him as their top candidate. If, however, Romney could finish the job and ensure victory, this would force Obama, who thus far has been watching with glee as Republicans bicker amongst themselves but whose advantage in the polls over his potential rivals remains fragile, to devote most of his energies to ensuring a second term.

In this scenario, Obama’s sensitivity to the “Jewish vote” would be especially acute. There is widespread agreement that Obama’s opposition to a military option will continue to be adamant, at least until Nov. 6. Nonetheless, he will be ready to go a long way toward additional punitive measures against Iran.

These next few months (perhaps weeks) will prove whether the 44th president is willing to reach serious compromises with “the Jewish vote” on the issue of his Iran policy in an effort to repeat his electoral feat of November 2008 among Jewish supporters, who may just represent the springboard that will catapult him to his ultimate goal – conquering the White House for a second time.

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