The Netanyahu Legacy vs. the Obama Legacy

U.S.-Israeli relations reached a low point one year ago yesterday as the White House scolded Congress over allowing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak directly to the American people through an address to a joint session.  Nevertheless, from the well of the U.S. House of Representatives last March, the prime minister delivered his speech about the perils of the Iran nuclear deal, and now a recent poll suggests that the message was received.

A Gallup poll released last month finds that 30% of Americans approve, while 57% disapprove of the Iran nuclear deal.  Along party lines, the difference is far more drastic, as a meager 9% of Republicans approve of the agreement compared to a slight majority of 51% of Democrats.  Also telling is that only 30% of independents support it.  Gallup concludes that Netanyahu's disapproval may have helped “shape the sour national mood on this issue.”

Yes, it is sour – a word defined in this context as “harsh in spirit or temper.”  But it was not Mr. Netanyahu who was sour, because at the beginning of his remarks, the prime minister recounted longstanding ties between the two countries, citing specific instances where President Obama assisted Israel in recent years.  It was U.S. politicians who shaped the sour national mood. 

President Obama, who refused to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu while he was in Washington at that crucial moment, also made sure the world knew he wasn’t planning on watching the speech, dismissing it altogether afterward.  House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she was “moved to tears” during Netanyahu’s address because the speech took place without the Obama administration’s blessing, and nearly 60 Democrats in Congress refused to attend.

What is insulting to the majority of Americans outside the Beltway is the extent to which the Iran agreement may actually help pave the way for that nation to become a nuclear power, as Netanyahu warns, which remains the key unresolved issue nobody can answer.  Perhaps another reason the agreement is so unpopular is the technical jargon attached to it.  “Snap-back sanctions” and “breakout times” were (and still are) Obama administration terms used to paper over Iran’s belligerent record in order to sell the deal to a skeptical Congress.

Somehow, re-imposing sanctions is supposed to be like pushing a button.  As for the confusing breakout period, the White House maintains that due to the agreement, it will take nine months longer for Iran to become a nuclear power if it wants.  It’s no surprise Americans are left wondering when Iran will get the bomb and why this agreement is necessary in the first place.    

It is necessary to uphold Mr. Obama’s legacy.  In his first inaugural address in 2009, he said of Islamic countries, “[W]e will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”  Iran has clenched its fist, quashing the Green Revolution, test-firing ballistic missiles, and most recently capturing Navy sailors who inadvertently ventured into Persian waters and then parading them to the media.

Contrast Obama administration word games with the forceful clarity with which Mr. Netanyahu addressed Congress.  “America's founding document promises life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he said.  “Iran’s founding document pledges death, tyranny, and the pursuit of jihad.”

It is unclear if the president saw that part of the speech.  It doesn’t matter now.  Israel is paying close attention to this year’s elections; U.S. presidential candidates regularly lead the news cycle there.  Media outlets ranging from liberal newspaper Haaretz to the more conservative Jerusalem Post have special sections devoted entirely to U.S. election coverage. 

Israel is closely watching who will be elected, because its citizens want to know what the next president’s position is on repealing the Iran deal.  A telling headline in Haaretz captured Israeli sentiment after Mr. Netanyahu’s speech, stating that several domestic public opinion polls show “a broad consensus against the deal that seems to transcend conventional political divides.”

Here at home, the Gallup poll shows thta partisan differences remain over the terms of a nuclear-armed Iran.  But those differences hardened when the prime minister received petty treatment from the Obama administration.  Then-House speaker John Boehner, who orchestrated the speech to Congress, received widespread criticism from mainstream media for not seeking White House approval.  But nobody recalls any criticism of congressional speeches among over a dozen other world leaders during Obama’s presidency.

The next president has an opportunity to extend a hand to Israel in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal.  Should that happen, around this time next year, it may turn out it is Benjamin Netanyahu who gets the last word.  

Jim Pettit is a public policy and message development consultant.  He is on Twitter at @jamesmpettit.