Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, US, September 19, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS/LUCAS JACKSON)
Unlike New Year’s for many non-Jewish readers, that involves copious amounts of alcohol, over-priced taxis, horrendous bar queues, “Auld Lang Syne” and the ubiquitous “before the network crashes” text messages (and of course celebrating with families and friends), the Jewish New Year marks a period of intense reflection on the past year, and represents – in the 10 days leading up to Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, an opportunity to make right past mistakes.
It was in this spirit that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his UN speech on the Iran deal.
You might have missed it given the headline- grabbing “we will obliterate North Korea” from US President Donald Trump, that drew audible gasps in a forum where – quite literally – decorum is placed above all other political virtues.
The message from Israel to the Iranian regime, while not employing the diplomatic sledgehammer favored by Trump, was still blunt, to the point, and delivered in an oratory few besides Netanyahu have the skill to deliver.
The core message, endorsed by Washington, is that the Iran deal brokered under the previous administration was bad. So far, so what? This is hardly a new message, and prompts many of us to say “well, no sh*t, Sherlock.”
What is new however is the concerted effort to unpick something that has been ratified and accepted by many leading countries in the General Assembly, especially EU states. What this speech represents, when taken with Trump’s words on the Iran deal, is the first real political and diplomatic effort to “nix or fix” the deal. When two significant players reopen the book on the deal, particularly the US which is the single largest funder of the UN, it means something. It means that some sort of compromise is needed.
“There’s a new sheriff in town,” said America’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley on her appointment to the post. On the Iran deal it is clear that she is the deputy and Trump the sheriff. Such unambiguous language, when coupled with Netanyahu’s message, sends a clear signal: we are not playing around.
Both leaders have pinned their colors to the mast in such an overt way that no wriggle room has been left for a “compromised” climb-down. In short, it’s high-stakes stuff.
But with other countries – notably France, despite President Emmanuel Macron’s message last night that there were some changes and improvements that could be made to the deal – having invested billions in Iran since the deal was signed, it will be a tough ask to unpick it, particularly as EU politics works on the consensual model, rather than unilateral one favored by both Trump and Netanyahu.
It is here, in these fundamentally different approaches, that the real battle now lies. It’s one thing preaching to the Trump and Republican choir – a largely friendly and reciprocal audience – but quite another to convince EU countries, whose decision- making processes can be labyrinthine and to whom industrial giants like France’s Total or Germany’s BASF have invested, or are actively considering investing, billions in Iran, to change course significantly.
It will take a lot of effort to move Europe on Iran, but it’s not impossible, depending on what leverage both men have in their arsenals. Will the renewed efforts at peace-making between Israel and the Palestinians, and giving Europe a meaningful role to play at the negotiating table, where it has previously just enjoyed crumbs, be the trade-off? We will have to wait and see.
What is clear though is that despite this uncertain course ahead of him on the Iran deal, a clearly emboldened Netanyahu can smell an opportunity in the air for a rewrite on a deal that was the political equivalent of a thorn in his shoe and that was steamrollered past him by president Barack Obama.
And ever the Machiavellian, if he can secure a significant rewrite and claim responsibility for it... well, let’s just say it would be a useful shield against the proverbial slings and arrows being leveled against him in domestic politics, and a useful weapon in his political arsenal ahead of elections in 2019.
Smart guy, that Netanyahu. Smart guy.The author is the director of EIPA: Europe Israel Public Affairs, a multi-disciplined pro-Israel advocacy Group based in Brussels, with offices in Paris and Berlin.