09/04/2014 09:58 am ET Updated Nov 04, 2014

Netanyahu's Tactical Use of U.S. 'Strategic' Dialogue


This just in... Yuval Steinitz, Israel's Minister of Strategic Affairs, will be leading what he calls a "very large" delegation to Washington next week, ostensibly to lobby against the nuclear deal being envisioned with Iran. As Laura Rozen pointed out to me -- and as Haaretz explains -- Steinitz's mission is technically to participate in the annual U.S.-Israel Strategic Dialogue, and it comes just ahead of resumption of the "P5+1" talks between major powers and Iran.

Steinitz makes a perfect candidate to use working-level talks for political impact, having just bragged to that effect in Jerusalem. Most careerists are experienced enough to know Israel has its hands full with Al Qaeda taking over the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, a precarious truce in Gaza, and the West Bank ready to boil over at any moment. And the United States also has its hands full, too, without undoing the chances for a diplomatic solution on Iran.

The sitting Mossad director, Tamir Pardo, recently echoed former officials, emphasizing that the Palestinian conflict is the single greatest threat to Israel's security, even more than a nuclear-armed Iran. And Israel's security experts are nearly unanimous in dismissing the value of an Israeli air strike on Iranian facilities. So Netanyahu has no real cards up his sleeve that might sway Obama, or strategists from either country.

Steinitz was in Washington just three months ago for the singular purpose of advocating an end to talks (or, adding the demand to eradicate even low-level uranium enrichment, which would end the talks). Now he's back for what should be sharing of intelligence and coordination ahead of the next round of negotiations with Iran, but advertising the seemingly incompatible goal of changing the parameters already agreed to by the P5+1.

In a true cabinet of rivals, Steinitz can do his bit, allowing Prime Minister Netanyahu to remain at arm's length and avoid further angering the Obama administration with direct opposition. Netanyahu had to back down once this year, when the administration convinced Congressional Democrats to abandon AIPAC's all-out drive for new U.S. sanctions on Iran -- which would have derailed the Iran talks already underway.

Like the unusual appearance of Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer at a Republican campaign summit last March, having Steinitz in town -- during the final days before mid-term elections determine future control of the U.S. Senate -- is a gift to the GOP. And it's more than an open secret that Netanyahu and most of his right-leaning coalition are desperate for a likeminded Congress ahead of the 2016 Presidential elections -- anything to keep Barack Obama in check until then.

Sheldon Adelson, the same Vegas casino mogul who helps Netanyahu stay in power, has already invested tens of millions to unseat Obama and lesser Democrats, so for the current Israeli government it's a political and ideological win-win.

Republicans, and Netanyahu, are also a bit desperate. The first phase of Iran talks failed to reach an agreement, but they were considered productive, the Iranians mostly kept to their obligations, and sanctions relief proved of only limited value to Tehran. Later this month, U.S. and Iranian leaders -- and other key participants -- will all be in New York to open a new session of the United Nations General Assembly, and there is a chance for a breakthrough before the end of November. But that success or failure would come only weeks after November 4, too late to say "I told you so" if the talks don't deliver.

Ironically, it seems to be in the best interest of Israel -- if not Netanyahu -- for the talks to proceed. If they produce a verifiable agreement, Israel will be spared the impossible choice of launching a counter-productive attack. If the talks fail as Steinitz keeps predicting, then Western powers will be able to push in the UN Security Council for stronger sanctions than ever. And Israel will face that much less international outcry if it does try to neutralize Iran's program on its own.

True, a "bad deal" allowing Iran to continue its program will leave Israel with a real threat and no international cover to act on its own, but there's little reason to think the Obama administration would abide anything less than an effective and verifiable end to Iran's potential for nuclear weapons. Given international realities, there may be no way to absolutely stop Iran, but any deal Washington agrees to will be far better than what current or additional sanctions would be able to achieve -- and Russia and China would never agree on more sanctions if a reasonable deal is on the table.

As for Russia, now that the process is underway, it's unlikely to let Iran slip through with a "bad deal" that leaves it where it was before. With everything else going on between Russia and the West (see under: Ukraine, Syria), it's telling that the Kremlin has continued to be constructive and cooperative in its role as one of the P5+1. Gone are the days when Russian leaders supplying Iran would retort that their country is more vulnerable to a nuclear-tipped Iranian missile than Americans are. Now they mean it.

Beyond partisan politics and campaign cash, there are other reasons for Netanyahu and Steinitz to keep complaining about Iran talks. With no Palestinian peace process on the horizon, especially with his latest expropriation of 1,000 more acres in the West Bank, Netanyahu needs to distract with a greater threat. That threat isn't even a nuclear Iran, it's the bogeyman of a naive and uncaring fantasy U.S. Government, and the specter of an agreement that's less than what Netanyahu or Obama would have ideally wanted.

Netanyahu and Steinitz can claim rhetorically that they have most of the Arab League on their side, since the Saudis and Jordanians also don't want a nuclear Iran -- but the idea of an alliance between them and the Jewish State -- which just bombed out Gaza and still controls nearly four million Palestinians, plus the Al Aqsa Mosque -- is beyond fanciful. And no former or current Mossad director would suggest otherwise.

At the end of the day, having successfully alerted Washington and the Security Council to the dangers of a nuclear Iran, Netanyahu has made it more than an Israeli problem -- it is now the world's problem. He can obviously veto any possible agreement with the Palestinians, either overtly or by expanding settlements and refusing to provide his version of a map, but he cannot veto the rest of the world on Iran. With help from Steinitz and company, though, he can deflect on settlements while also boosting last-minute campaign cash for one or two more Republican Senate seats.

Netanyahu's own UN speech in a few weeks' time will restate his perennial themes of an Iran bent on repeating the Holocaust via nuclear weapons, Israel on the front lines against Islamic terrorism, and the Jewish state's inability to find a Palestinian partner for peace despite its best efforts. He won't openly disparage the U.S. President -- he won't need to.