Netanyahu Overplays His Hand
Following his doomsday speech at the United Nations General Assembly on October 1—in which he warned the world that Iran’s new president should not be trusted and that Israel would attack Iran on its own unless it ends its nuclear program—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent two days in New York on an anti-Rouhani media blitz. He reiterated his UN points in a half-dozen interviews with CBS’s Charlie Rose and others. He addressed the media in English, Hebrew, Spanish, and even Farsi. “Rouhani doesn’t sound like Ahmadinejad,” Netanyahu said at the UN and repeated thereafter, “but when it comes to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the only difference between them is this: Ahmadinejad was a wolf in wolf’s clothing. Rouhani is a wolf in sheep’s clothing—a wolf who thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community.” To NBC’s Andrea Mitchell he said that supreme leader Khamenei is “the dictator of Iran” to whom Rouhani allegedly says “I can get you the completion of the nuclear program by speaking nicely to the West… What Ahmadinejad tried to do with a frown, I’ll do with a smile.”
It did not work. As Chemi Shalev of the Haaretz has noted, “Bibi’s” aides claimed that he has successfully countered Rouhani’s charm offensive, but underneath their bravado one could detect clear signs disappointment, even desperation: “The American media dutifully broadcast their interviews with Netanyahu, but did so furtively and minimialistically, as if an old friend had asked for an inconvenient favor, before switching back to the political drama of the government shutdown in Washington. Netanyahu, suddenly, was the wrong man, at the wrong time, with the wrong message.”
Netanyahu’s meeting with President Obama was brief and unexciting. It came at a time when Washington is more preoccupied with the shutdown than with Iran’s alleged ambitions. The Prime Minister was more warmly received on the Hill, where his loyalists from both parties expressed their undying support for everything he wants now, or may want in the future. Nevertheless, it would be a dangerous strategy for Netanyahu to try and use his influence with his congressional friends to sabotage the Administration’s developing détente with Iran. His previous attempts to bypass the executive in setting the U.S. Middle Eastern agenda—notably on the two-state solution and on his settlement policy—have failed, and resulted in periods of marked coolness in relations with Obama.
Netanyahu has several problems in presenting a credible policy on Iran to the world. None of them are easy to tackle, and some are impossible to resolve:
- Netanyahu will never be able to secure his maximalist demands in any negotiations, above all his insistence that all Iranian uranium enrichment facilities should be shut down and all stocks of fissile material removed from the country. In any final settlement the P5+1 group (five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany) are likely to accept Iran’s insistence that it should not be prevented from the legitimate and legal use of nuclear technology for electricity generation and other peaceful purposes. He will not be able to dictate the terms of any final deal with Iran, and he will not be in the room if and when that deal is signed.
- Nobody of consequence, in the U.S. or anywhere else, believes that Israel will act on its own in attacking Iran even if the U.S. and the rest of the Security Council believe that they are making progress in nuclear talks, let alone if they reach a settlement with Iran which is not to Israel’s liking. Netanyahu’s explicit threat to do so has left the world underwhelmed because he did not sound credible.
- In recent years, while advocating U.S. military action against Iran, Netanyahu would invariably claim that the bombs were needed because economic and financial sanctions against Iran were ineffective. At the UN, however, he admitted that sanctions are hurting Iran. Apparently he changed his position in order to prepare his auxiliary line of attack: that the sanctions regime should not be relaxed, no matter what Iran’s leaders say or do. That may have seemed like a clever ploy to his advisors, but to the rest of the world it may smack of cynical opportunism at best. At worst, at a time of Israel’s growing diplomatic isolation, Netanyahu’s threats will be viewed as a heavy-handed attempt to torpedo diplomacy just as it seems to be yielding dividends.
- For years Netanyahu has claimed that former Iranian president Ahmadinejad’s words—above all his threat to wipe Israel off the map and his holocaust denial—should be taken seriously enough to prevent Iran from having any kind of nuclear program. But when Iran’s new president declares that Iran has no intention to attack Israel and when he condemns Nazi crimes against the Jews—both of which were accompanied by a chorus of disapproval at home—Netanyahu asserts that mere words have no strategic meaning.
- Netanyahu’s hard line may draw attention to the neglected fact that Israel has a nuclear arsenal, that it has not signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and that it has never granted IAEA inspectors access to its nuclear facilities. Once the key powers are satisfied that Syria has given up its chemical arsenal and Iran its nuclear ambitions, attention may be drawn to the fact that Israel will be the only country in the region left in the possession of the weapons of mass destruction.
Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama went well even though they distrust and dislike each other, but the two may be on collision course some time next year. If the P5+1 negotiations with Iran make progress and result in an agreement which the United States and other powers find acceptable but Israel does not, Netanyahu will probably try to tie the President’s hands through legislative action on the Hill. It would be a risky strategy. The Lobby’s attempt at the end of August to mobilize congressional support for Obama’s intended war on Syria was a failure. The ability of the Israeli prime minister to identify his understanding of Israel’s interests with those of the United States is not as great as before, which is good news for both Israel and America.