The latest round of talks between the Permanent Members of the Security Council and Germany (the “P5+1”) and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program have failed. The US expressed its disappointment as did the P5+1. One can’t help the feeling though, that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu didn’t feel the quite the same.
Indeed, while Western officials were recently talking optimistically about the prospect of reaching an agreement with Iran, the prime minister was upping the ante. He warned that Iran was continuing its pursuit of nuclear weapons and he called for more sanctions and set forth requirements to verify Iran’s compliance.
It was that kind of aggressive rhetoric, actually less intense for Netanyahu on the subject, that earned Netanyahu the severe criticism of former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) director Yuval Diskin, who labeled the prime minister “messianic” (he claimed Netanyahu makes “decisions from messianic feelings” and sarcastically referred to Netanyahu and Ehud Barak as “our two messiahs”).
As part of his comeback campaign, former prime minister Ehud Olmert similarly criticized Netanyahu, asking rhetorically at the Jerusalem Post Conference this past April, “Why do we... compare it to the tragedies of the Second World War... why do we have to speak from a position of fear?” Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy issued the same condemnation, calling Netanyahu “Mr. Terror,” concluding, like Diskin, that Netanyahu is a “messianic leader who think[s] [he] is saving Israel and the Diaspora from another ‘Holocaust’ that is not even on the horizon.”
Admittedly, Netanyahu’s warnings about Iran have been powerful.
Even as opposition leader in 2006 Netanyahu declared, “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs.... Believe [Ahmadinejad] and stop him.”
Nor has Netanyahu shown any remorse for using the example of the Holocaust, stating on Holocaust Remembrance Day that “to fear telling the truth, which is that there are those today who also seek to destroy millions of Jews, is to disrespect the Holocaust and insult its victims.”
Perhaps Netanyahu has been taking a cue from the spiritual founder of the Likud movement, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who had, prior to the Holocaust, warned European Jewry in the starkest terms to escape Europe and called on the world to evacuate Jews to Palestine. Jabotinsky used dramatic language: “Liquidate the exile before the exile liquidates you”; “May God save us from even one thousandth of what the beast is dreaming.”
Jabotinsky’s opponents criticized him as a fearmonger and an extremist just as Diskin, Olmert and Levy did with Netanyahu. But while they claim that Netanyahu’s rhetoric is bringing Israel to the brink, that rhetoric may be the only card Israel has to play to goad the international community and the United States into taking action to stop Iran.
It would be comforting to believe that if not for Netanyahu’s persistence on the issue over the years, Western leaders would have come to their own conclusions and taken the lead in stopping Iran as Israel so desires. But this would be an illusion.
Until recently, Netanyahu has been the only world leader talking about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
President George W. Bush, who may be the last hawk in the Oval Office for years to come, raised the issue only near the end of his presidency.
President Barack Obama came into office apologizing to the Muslim world, equating Jewish suffering in the Holocaust to Palestinian displacement at Israel’s founding, touting the need for negotiations with Iran and recognizing Iran’s “right” to nuclear energy. Even the idea of “containment” was floated.
Over the decades, several states have gone nuclear on the world’s watch (India, Pakistan and North Korea). If not for an Israeli strike in 2007, that list could have included one of Israel’s archrivals, Syria, which has massacred thousands of its own citizens and continues to do so.
On this basis, it is hard to imagine that the Western powers would have enacted sanctions like we have seen against Iran on their own initiative.
The sad reality is that the international community, whom Israeli leaders repeatedly say bears the responsibility of stopping Iran, would probably have done nothing.
Netanyahu, however, forced them to act. With his messianic, Holocaust-invoking rhetoric, Netanyahu made it clear that Israel considered a nuclear Iran an existential threat. With Israel’s past unilateral and daring military actions to back him up, Netanyahu’s rhetoric convinced Western leaders that if they did not stop Iran, Israel would act on its own, regardless of what regional turmoil would result.
But this strategy could only work if they truly feared Israeli action.
The flexibility, lack of red lines, gesture- making, and willingness to enter endless diplomatic talks that has characterized Israel’s position with regard to Palestinian terrorism would have sent mixed signals at best. Only extreme rhetoric would succeed. And thankfully, thus far it has, bringing the international community to enact a series of crippling sanctions against Iran.
If the optimism initially expressed by Western leaders is any indication, the West would be happy to come to an agreement.
Without Netanyahu setting concrete benchmarks and generally raising hell, that agreement could be very bad for Israel – lifting the sanctions and leaving Iran to bide time to pick up where it left off.
Thank God, Netanyahu and his messianism are there to remind the world that this is a result Israel will not accept.
The writer is an attorney and the executive-director of Likud Anglos.