Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his speech to US Congress on March 3, 2015, with US Speaker of the House John Boehner and President pro tempore of the US Senate Orrin Hatch applauding behind him.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Like a latter-day political Houdini, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tied himself into a straitjacket, his fate inextricably tied to that of his lifelong archenemy, Iran.
Netanyahu has devoted the better part of his long public career to sounding the warning about the dangers posed by Iran. He has been assisted in this task by the Islamic government in Tehran, which for decades has embarked on a path that includes support for international terror, assassination plots, repeated threats to Israel’s existence and, yes, a hidden nuclear program.
Netanyahu’s efforts were not for naught. Europe’s and the United States’ engagement with Iran and the framework nuclear agreement announced last week is by almost every measure the result of Netanyahu’s assiduous insistence on this subject.
But no, he is not taking a victory lap.
He has instead set the Israeli government on a path of continued confrontation with the United States that President Barack Obama now seems eager to take on.
“I’m trying to kill a bad deal,” Netanyahu said over the weekend in his appearances on three U.S. Sunday morning news shows.
“What I would say to the Israeli people,” Obama responded, in his own Easter weekend media blitz, “is … that there is no formula, there is no option, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon that will be more effective than the diplomatic initiative and framework that we put forward - and that’s demonstrable.”
As if in an afterthought, Netanyahu dispatched his minister of intelligence and strategic affairs, the hard-line Yuval Steinitz, to issue a list of Israeli demands that, if accepted, would make the deal “more reasonable.” The amendments appear to be a restatement of clarifications and critiques put forward by skeptics.
In one of the greatest ironies of the moment, Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based paramilitary group armed and financed by Iran, announced its enthusiastic support for the deal. Hassan Nasrallah, its leader, told the Syrian news channel al-Ikhbariya TV that “there is no doubt the Iranian nuclear deal will be big and important to the region … God willing.” The agreement “rules out the specter of regional war and world war” that would result from an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, he added.
How has Netanyahu, long considered a deft operator on the international stage, found himself opposing his nation’s No. 1 ally at the very moment he achieved one of his life’s great goals: obstructing the threat of a nuclear bomb aimed at Tel Aviv?
He did it by abandoning the Israeli national interest he has championed in favor of his private political fortunes.
Instead of waiting for a deal to be announced, he scheduled a March address to Congress two weeks before Israel’s national election and coarsely snubbed Obama. That move laid bare his only real interest — “to use Congress as a studio for his political ads.”
Netanyahu repeated the same points he’s been making for years and offered no new alternative to a nuclear deal that at that point did not yet exist. And then, Netanyahu’s poll numbers dipped. It didn’t have to be that way. A principal reason for the wide-ranging international reaction that the Iran deal looks “better than expected ” is that the public believed Netanyahu’s admonitions about how bad it was going to be.
Netanyahu has now made himself superfluous to the talks — and all but invited Obama’s growing antagonism.
Writing in the daily Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s former consul in New York, Alon Pinkas, says “the ‘Israelization’ Netanyahu has brought to the issue of Iran in recent years has led to an open and toxic conflict with the United States that does not serve a single Israeli interest.”
Instead, the prime minister of Israel finds himself in an odd, dark place. He has in front of him the offer of a deal that is close to what he has always asked for. That said, he seems to have lost the ability to say anything but “no way.”