Deflated but defiant, Mr. Netanyahu goes to Downing Street

A visit to Downing Street is a welcome distraction for Mr. Netanyahu as Congressional options close over Iran deal

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A visit with British Prime Minister David Cameron at 10 Downing Street will be a welcome distraction for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In the last few days his campaign, aligned with the Republican Party, to kill the P5+1 Iran nuclear agreement via a vote in the US Congress has been decisively vanquished. President Obama has secured enough support not only to guarantee that any veto issued against rejecting the deal will be upheld, but he may even now have the votes to avoid a veto altogether.

An audience with Cameron…sends the signal back home that all is hunky-dory, that Israel's prime minister is a prized guest in Europe's key capitals

From a controversial and heavily partisan speech to Congress in March, to endless appearances on American media outlets, the mobalisation of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and numerous front organisations and endless insults hurled at the agreement’s signatories, Netanyahu has made opposition to the agreement reached on July 14th his cause célèbre. Phase one of that struggle is now over.

In March’s Israeli general election, Netanyahu secured enough seats for his Likud party to quite comfortably ensure his continued tenure in office. That election victory could however only be translated into the most narrow of governing coalitions, incorporating 61 of Israel's 120 Knesset members.

Netanyahu’s high-stakes gamble in defying not only Israel's closest ally in the White House but also the rest of the P5+1 in his fight against the nuclear agreement might have been expected to cause turbulence within that wafer-thin coalition and Israeli politics. That has not been the case. Israel’s cabinet rallied around the PM and Israel's opposition is weak and feckless – it has taken a pass on challenging the PM on the substance of his opposition to the deal, focusing exclusively on Netanyahu’s supposed mismanagement of Israel's international standing and friendships.

Which is why an audience with Cameron in London will be so welcome to the Israeli leader. It sends the signal back home that all is hunky-dory, that Israel's prime minister is a prized guest in Europe's key capitals.

Netanyahu's defeat in Congress should not, in any case, be overstated. Israel’s Premier surely knew that prospects for achieving a veto-proof majority vote in both houses of Congress were slim. Netanyahu's strategic objectives – beyond the still continuing attempts to derail the agreement itself, with more Congressional poison pill resolutions in the pipeline – were at least two-fold, both of which are still in play, and both of which will be on display during his London sojourn.

First, Netanyahu is seeking to set the terms of reference for the next phase of engagement with Iran, the morning after the nuclear Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA). The goal is to limit or, better still, prevent entirely any spillover from the nuclear deal to any further dealings with Iran on the regional interests and issues of western concern. In Netanyahu’s world the post-JCPOA era should be an occasion for doubling down of adversarial relations between the West and Iran in every other arena rather than an opening to explore possible follow-up diplomacy.

Success in that effort might be easier in Washington DC than in Europe. British foreign secretary Philip Hammond has already visited Tehran since the Iran agreement and embassies have been reopened. The UK has been explicit in its intention to pivot from the nuclear agreement, not only to renewed economic relations but also to a renewed diplomatic push on the regional conflicts, not least Syria, in which Iran is a key actor. Expect Netanyahu's pushback to be strong on rhetoric and meagre on substance. A wise Israeli leader might explore whether Britain's new contacts with Tehran can be put to beneficial use on those issues that most concern Israel.

Second, Netanyahu is, as ever, looking for trade-offs, distractions and leverage that will secure his maximalist position against the Palestinians. In the US Congress a number of Democrats who have declared their support for the JCPOA will now be particularly susceptible to the claims of lobbyists that they “owe Israel big-time” and better not step out of line again on the Palestinian issue. To understand American policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict think gun control and the National Rifle Association. An extremely well-resourced lobby leads to a fundamental disconnect between policy and reality. For many in Congress bucking the lobby on the Iran agreement was a very big deal, one that will not be repeated any time soon.

While European politicians have a lot more political space to operate in than their American counterparts, they too have a track record of timidity when it comes to the Palestinian issue. Europeans too seem to be ‘compensating’ Israel by absenting themselves even further from action on Israel’s daily violations of international law in the occupied territories. Compensation that is for having achieved an unprecedented roll-back, limitation and verification agreement to prevent an Iranian nuclear break-out.

Despite British policy against settlements and occupation, British leadership in labeling of settlement products and the government having issued detailed guidance to British companies last year of the risks of doing business with Israeli settlement-based entities – Cameron has become increasingly lame in his policies and pronouncements on Israeli treatment of Palestinians and undermining of peace and two states, not least during last summer's devastating Israeli military operation against Gaza. Expect more of the same during Netanyahu’s visit. In fact the Palestinians are not even mentioned in the Israeli official background note on the visit, focusing instead on Europe supporting Israel as “the only true protection Europe has in the Middle East against surging extremist Islam”.

A wise British leader might point out to his Israeli interlocutor that Israeli policies targeting the Palestinians are a driver of, not counter-point to, extremism, that while Britain seeks to deepen ties with Israel it is duty bound to differentiate Israel from its illegal settlement policies and that without a shift in Israel’s approach to the Palestinians public opinion at home will make Cameron’s Mr. Nice approach an increasingly untenable political option.

Those talking points from Jerusalem and Downing Street would make for a newsworthy visit indeed…but don’t hold your breath.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


President, US/Middle East Project

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