The leading countries of the world, led by the US, reached a deal with Iran last week that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been warning against since his speech to Congress – not just the one on March 3 but also the one he delivered this month 19 years ago.
Despite all of Netanyahu’s efforts to persuade the world against approving a deal that, polls show, a majority of Americans believe is bad, the vote in the United Nations Security Council Monday was unanimous, 15-0. In the UN building that Netanyahu has said is filled with darkness, a flicker of light could not even be found to abstain.
US President Barack Obama, top officials in his administration and other world leaders have taken turns mocking Netanyahu since signing the deal. Senior European officials are lining up to go to Iran, with the German vice chancellor starting this week and the French and European Union foreign ministers set to follow next week.
After not shying away from fights with the Obama administration, Netanyahu irked pro-Israel Democrats who despise Obama by showing a video at his Sunday cabinet meeting of former president Bill Clinton proudly boasting of the ill-fated deal that was supposed to prevent the nuclearization of North Korea. Showing the video was seen in DC as foolishly picking a fight with Obama’s most likely successor, the North Korean deal-signer’s wife, Hillary Clinton.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who purports to be the real opposition leader, has been attacking Netanyahu’s handling of the Iran issue with gradually increasing harshness for two weeks, calling it the biggest failure by a prime minister since Golda Meir in the Yom Kippur War and asking for a state commission of inquiry.
More and more politicians and press have adopted the word “failure” for Netanyahu since Lapid started his campaign two weeks ago.
Even opposition leader Isaac Herzog, whose natural inclination is to support the prime minister when facing a challenge to Israel’s security, joined the bandwagon, using the F-word about Netanyahu’s handling of Iran, even though he would enter his government under the right circumstances.
Nevertheless, although the world has allowed the Islamic Republic to continue to enrich uranium, the Iran deal has enriched Netanyahu politically.
Polls have shown the public continues to support Netanyahu on Iran and that it has rejected the attacks on him by Lapid.
For instance, in last Friday’s Jerusalem Post
poll, 51 percent of Jewish Israelis said Netanyahu should continue using all possible tools to persuade Congress to vote against the deal, 38% said the prime minister should instead try to reach understandings with Obama about its implementation, and 11% did not know.
The numbers about Lapid were more stark. When asked how they think opposition parties should behave, 62% said they should support Netanyahu in his struggle against the deal and 27% said criticize him internally for his handling of the US administration while backing him up externally in the international struggle against the deal. Seven percent said they did not know. Only 4%, which was less than the margin of error, said opposition parties should be attacking Netanyahu for his failure, as Lapid is doing.
So why is the public still backing Netanyahu, if he is not succeeding at his life goal of preventing Iran’s nuclearization, a goal that is so critical for Israel’s existence? Or in modern-day parlance, why is Bibi still the bomb, even though he’s bombing on stopping the bomb? There are several answers. The most obvious one, proven time and again by polls, is that the public supports its leaders at a time when the state’s security is threatened. This is especially true during wartime. Even Ehud Olmert, who finished with record-low approval ratings, hit record highs in polls during the Second Lebanon War.
That is why Lapid’s approach of trying to depict Netanyahu as a failure on Iran was so risky. It left Lapid open to the possibility that his attacks on Netanyahu would boomerang against him and cause him grave political harm.
Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett accused his former “brother” Lapid this week of attacking prematurely and “calling for a probe before the battle is over.” Bennett was mocked for that statement because he himself attacked Netanyahu during Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip. It is possible that the public held Bennett and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman accountable in the March election for their attacks on Netanyahu during wartime.
One can of course say that Israel is not currently at war. With all the justifiable fears of Iran, even Netanyahu does not expect the Islamic Republic to attack Israel any time soon on any front, not even through its proxies in Lebanon or the Gaza Strip.
But listening to the media in Israel lately, it is as if the war has already begun. Polls show Israelis believe Netanyahu when he says the Iran deal facilitates the nuclearization of Iran, which will cause war.
Israelis have been subjected to two decades of what can be called either fear-mongering or justifiable warnings on the Iranian threat by Netanyahu, which has made Israelis feel reliant on him to deal with the threat.
That leads to the next reason Netanyahu is still doing well politically, which has been proven in polls countless times: Israelis trust Netanyahu with their security. Rightly or wrongly, he makes Israelis feel safe.
They don’t trust him on the economy.
They don’t think he will bring about peace in the Middle East. But until the Left comes up with a credible security figure (former IDF chief Benny Gantz? Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai?) on security, in Bibi (and God) we trust.
Security issues dominate headlines in Israel and distract the public from more immediate threats, such as whether they have enough to eat.
It is true in elections around the world that the more the economy is in the headlines, the worse it is for incumbents. As long as Iran is in the headlines, good luck getting more than a small item on cottage cheese containers not containing the amount written on the package.
While prime ministers are often irrationally and unjustifiably blamed for socioeconomic problems that are not their fault, on security issues it’s easier to deflect blame, because there is always an enemy, and it is almost always the enemy’s fault.
If the deal signed in Vienna enables Iran to get a nuclear weapon, the six countries who signed it are at fault, not Netanyahu. The argument made by Lapid and others that the prime minister could have impacted the deal had he been more polite to Obama is a tough sell, especially among Israelis who don’t like the man who will be in the White House for 545 more days.
Obama was determined to make a deal with Iran. That has been clear for six years. Had a friendlier Israeli than Netanyahu, such as Herzog or Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On, been prime minister, he still would have made a deal the Israeli people would not have liked.
It goes without saying that Israelis don’t like the European Union and the other P5+1 negotiators either.
That animosity prevents Israelis from blaming Bibi, no matter how persuasive the arguments they hear from Lapid.
The final reason Netanyahu is still strong is that Israelis just had an election, and the public wants their leaders to govern, not engage in petty politics. Had Lapid run his anti-Netanyahu campaign when elections were on the way, it might have been different.
But for now, Netanyahu is in charge, and he will live to fight many more fights on Iran.