Since the Iran nuclear agreement was signed on 14 July, Israel has consistently defined it as an existential threat. Demonstrating once again that Israel simply lacks the military capability to eliminate this alleged peril, the Netanyahu government has instead sought to scuttle the accord – since adopted by the United Nations Security Council – by invalidating the American signature on it. In what is perhaps the most intensive and divisive campaign ever undertaken by Israel on US soil, unregistered foreign agent the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and Israel’s Congressional allies have spared no effort – including accusations of appeasement and voluminous holocaust imagery – to muster the votes required to force President Obama to renounce the agreement.
Congressional opponents of the deal – politicians elected, usually at obscene expense, to represent the interests of American corporations and citizens on Capitol Hill – have rejected the agreement primarily on the grounds that it is bad for Israel. Indeed, the debate as a whole has been about how this international treaty will affect Israel at least as much as about how it will affect the United States. A miracle of Biblical proportions notwithstanding, it is also a fight Israel is destined to lose.
Once Israel’s defeat in Washington is formalised, the costs are going to be significant. In addition to the damage to US-Israeli relations and sharp divisions within the American Jewish community, there is the reality that no one likes a loser. In this case, Israel will have lost more than just a Congressional vote; its carefully cultivated reputation of controlling US policy and Capitol Hill in particular, will endure potentially significant repercussions.
Throughout the world, Israel markets itself as the litmus test for relations with Washington and gateway to American support. Give Israel what it wants, and AIPAC will ensure Congress delivers what you want. Defy Israel, and you are toast in America. It’s a ruse that’s worked remarkably well, not only with tin pot dictators and marginal states, but also with full-fledged members of NATO. For years, Israel and its US lobby claimed to be instrumental in preventing Congress from recognising the Armenian genocide, and Israeli-Turkish relations benefitted accordingly. Yet their claims to be the force behind US policy were exposed when AIPAC, the inappropriately named Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and other pillars of the Israel lobby changed their tune on this issue after relations between Tel Aviv and Ankara deteriorated, but nothing changed in Washington.
In the above context, it matters a great deal that Israel has so publicly lost on an issue it has chosen to define as being of existential importance in an arena where Israeli governments have traditionally enjoyed greater support than in the Israeli Knesset. The clear message that when push comes to shove it is the United States and not Israel that dictates American foreign policy has not gone unnoticed. In this respect, the Iran debate will also prove more damaging than Israel’s attempt to prevent the US from selling surveillance aircraft to Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s. That was about recycling petrodollars from a close ally with scaled-down weapons intended to strengthen Saudi Arabia against Iran rather than Israel. This is about the United States resolving a decades-long dispute with a regional power that is openly hostile to Israel and continues to arm and fund its most intractable enemies.
Israel’s international influence has other sources and is not going to evaporate overnight. But it does make the work of its diplomats and emissaries more complicated, and will subject their extravagant claims of owning Washington to greater scrutiny. This will particularly be the case if the Obama administration finally decides to punish Israel for its brazen interference in US domestic politics in recent years. Those who have traditionally looked to Israel to assist their relations with Washington may well begin to look for other friends to help it obtain American benefits.
Within Israel, commentators – including many viscerally opposed to the Iran deal – have been condemning Netanyahu for gambling with Israel’s greatest assets – the strategic relationship with the United States and the global conviction that it forms the Romeo and Juliet of international relations. While such criticisms are overblown, Israel’s debacle does provide an ideal opening for the Palestinians to reclaim the international stature they have lost since Oslo and particularly in the decade since the death of Yasir Arafat. In order to do so, however, they first need to overcome their petty internal disputes, and once again become a factor that unifies the region in their support and thus deploys its collective clout on their behalf.
[An earlier version of this article was first published on Palestine Square, the blog of the Institute for Palestine Studies]