Binyamin Netanyahu is right to be skeptical, very skeptical, about Iran’s
nuclear intentions, but his heavy-handed campaign to portray the new Iranian
president as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” out to build a bomb under cover of
negotiations could blow up in his face.
He could be right, but as usual
his over-the-top approach doesn’t impress those who he needs the most – the
American and European leaders dealing with the Iranians in Geneva – and raises
suspicions that more than not trusting the Iranians, he may not want to see a
negotiated solution to the standoff.
And he may have another motive. Many
believe Netanyahu’s intense focus on the Iranian nuclear threat is not just
strategic but also based on the issue’s value as a diversion from the
Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The Israeli prime minister is
considered a reluctant and unenthusiastic peacemaker – not unlike his
Palestinian counterpart – who has repeatedly insisted nothing can be done in
resolving that conflict until the Iranian nuclear threat is lifted. His
two-state rhetoric notwithstanding, Netanyahu is said to have little enthusiasm
for the peace talks but sends his negotiators because he doesn’t want to be the
one blamed for the ongoing stalemate and because he needs good relations with
the White House to keep the pressure on Iran.
Netanyahu’s greatest worry
is said to be that Hassan Rouhani will seduce Barack Obama and the rest of the
world with his charm offensive while the centrifuges keep spinning out enriched
uranium, and that one day the world will be jolted awake by a nuclear fireball
in the Iranian desert.
I don’t doubt Iran has been developing nuclear
weapons capacity for many years.
However, it is possible the
international pressure, stringent sanctions and the damage they’ve done to the
nation’s economy, the secret Israeli and American cyber-war being waged against
it and Iran’s pariah status have changed its leaders’ thinking. Contrary to what
Netanyahu seems to be saying, that’s worth trying to find out, but there should
be no letup in the pressure without verifiable evidence that Iran won’t and
can’t build a nuclear weapon.
Kenneth Pollack, an Iran expert at the
Brookings Institution, contends that, “Rouhani is serious about getting a deal”
and is “probably ready to make significant compromises to get
Netanyahu’s view that Rouhani is bluffing to buy more time to reach
the breakout point is not widely shared, but there is broad consensus that he
should be tested and must demonstrate proven results before any talk about
Netanyahu deserves credit for focusing international
attention intensely on the Iranian nuclear program, but notwithstanding his
strident warnings and calls to double down on sanctions, there is a new sign
that the Israeli leader may be ready for some compromise.
This weekend in
his cabinet meeting and in an appearance on Meet the Press, there was a one-word
addition to his consistent demands that Iran stop all uranium enrichment, ship
its entire stockpile out of the country and submit to intrusive
On Sunday he repeated his warnings while adding, “The
greater the pressure, the greater the chance that there will be a genuine
dismantling of the Iranian military [emphasis added] nuclear
That one word suggests Netanyahu may realize his zero-tolerance
approach may not be workable, and President Obama’s view that Iran has the right
to pursue a peaceful nuclear energy program is.
made the Iranian nuclear threat an issue in last year’s American presidential
election, prodding both major candidates to pledge to use military force if
necessary to prevent Iran from getting the bomb.
But neither Obama nor
the American public are anxious to plunge into another war, and Netanyahu fears
the president’s resolve may be weakening, so he is ratcheting up the pressure,
although not yet in the same caustic way he did during Obama’s first
He has launched a media blitz in the US and Europe – no one is
calling it a charm offensive – pressing for ever-tighter sanctions.
was accompanied by posting YouTube videos of the Israel Air Force training for
aerial refueling and long-range missions in joint exercises with the Greek Air
Force (take that, Erdogan).
He has mobilized his reserve forces: the US
Congress and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
faithfully echoes Netanyahu’s line (something it didn’t always do for his
predecessors), and has issued its own list of demands that Iran must meet before
pressure can be eased. Iran sanctions have been the lobby’s primary agenda item
for nearly 20 years, and it is pressing Congress to ignore an administration
request that the Senate delay new sanctions to see how the Geneva talks
Congress doesn’t need a lot of encouragement to take a hard
line. It’s good for fundraising and by now it’s a well-ingrained
Partisan politics – the ongoing Republican effort to make sure
anything Obama does fails – and Democratic timidity when it comes to standing up
to the pro-Israel lobby will likely boost AIPAC’s congressional push. Already
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) has likened delaying new sanctions, as the State
Department requested, to appeasement.
According to the buzz in
Washington, Netanyahu sent Ron Dermer, a close confidante and former Republican
operative before making aliya, to coordinate the resistance.
took over as ambassador and is expected to oversee the pushback in case
Netanyahu decides Obama is not being demanding enough on the Iranians, or too
demanding when it comes to the Israeli- Palestinian peace
Netanyahu is very skeptical about the Iranians.
everyone else. A recent New York Times profile described him as a loner,
isolated, with few personal friends and little faith in allies. Any deal with
Iran will be a tough sell with Netanyahu, and that’s not a bad thing.
if he is perceived as trying to slam the door shut on a possible diplomatic
breakthrough that could avert a new and unwelcome military confrontation – and
if his GOP friends take up the cause with a partisan vengeance – it could
ultimately undercut Israel’s support in this country.
©2013 Douglas M.