Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s assertion that the Iran nuclear deal will march Israelis to the “door of the oven” is a patently grotesque attempt to outdo his competitors in excoriating President Obama for “abandoning” Israel. But Huckabee’s effort dramatizes a far more disturbing development: the conversion by Benjamin Netanyahu and the Republicans of US bipartisan support of Israel into a wedge issue, shriveling the question of how best to serve the national security interests of both nations to one of how faithfully we support the Netanyahu government.
By embracing Netanyahu, the GOP seeks a migration of Jewish voters to the GOP, while securing millions from extremists like Sheldon Adelson, and motivating evangelical Christians within the Republican base, many of whom believe that God gave the West Bank to the Jewish people. As for Netanyahu, overtly allying with Republicans enables him to reassure his own right-wing base that he can dampen America's support for a peace process that would lead to the formation of a Palestinian state. Thus in the 2012 presidential race, Netanyahu signaled his preference for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama; in turn, prominent Republicans began backing away from the peace process. This conflation of the Palestinian problem with partisan politics reached its climax last March, when Netanyahu secured reelection at the 11th hour by disavowing a two-state solution and decrying that Arab-Israelis were turning out in "droves," whereupon virtually every prospective Republican presidential candidate fervently congratulated him.
The potential nuclear agreement presented a particularly ripe opportunity. First Speaker John Boehner colluded with Israel's ambassador to the United States, former GOP operative Ron Dermer, in inviting Netanyahu to denounce the nuclear negotiations before Congress, thus aiding Netanyahu's embattled reelection campaign. Then came a letter to Iran from 47 Republican senators, warning that the next president could undo any agreement "with the stroke of a pen." Typical among GOP presidential prospects were Lindsey Graham, who flew to Jerusalem to proclaim, "Mr. Prime Minister, the Congress will follow your lead." The elevation by a major party of a foreign leader over a US president is as unprecedented as Netanyahu's resolve to become an American political figure.
Ironically, the damage thus far is less to Democrats than to Israel. Among American Jews, support of Obama remains stable, and a clear majority support the agreement with Iran. But not so for Republicans. In April, a Bloomberg poll asked whether voters were sympathetic to Netanyahu or Obama — a question only slightly less stunning than the answer: Whereas Democrats chose Obama over Netanyahu by 79 percent to 9 percent, Republicans preferred Israel's prime minister to America's president by 67 percent to 16 percent. A poll by Reuters shows the same partisan divide over the nuclear deal itself.
On the merits, a persuasive case exists for the nuclear agreement: If the United States walks away, it would likely erase the prospect of further collective sanctions, ending the chances for an enhanced inspection regime while freeing Iran to pursue a nuclear bomb. Thus the agreement is supported by key members of Israel's national security establishment. But there is every reason for Congress to exercise the probing scrutiny due any pact with an aggressive adversary, including the overall efficacy of the inspections regime. And beneath this lies an important debate about what best serves the national security interests of America and Israel in a volatile and dangerous region.
But that is not what the GOP has given us. Even before the agreement was released, it was denounced by Mitch McConnell and virtually every GOP presidential contestant. It is already a given that all but one or two Republican senators are committed to its defeat. The remaining question is whether a sufficient number of Democrats will sustain a veto in the face of a barrage of negative advertising. And we can mark the moment where the issue of US and Israeli security became a political cage match.
Richard North Patterson is the author of 22 novels. He serves on the advisory council of J Street and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.