Is Netanyahu fighting windmills?

There was much anger, frustration and disappointment in Jerusalem this week following the signing of the Iranian nuclear deal. What there wasn’t was any real talk about what Israel should do now.

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)
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)
The two events could hardly be more dissimilar, as different as day from night, heaven from earth: the nuclear deal with Iran agreed upon in Vienna on Tuesday, and furious haredi battles against alleged grave desecration in Jerusalem in the early 1990s.
Yet those haredi demonstrations came to mind while listening on Wednesday as National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz explained to foreign reporters why Israel continues to rail against the Iranian agreement even after its oft-heard arguments were not heeded, and the accord was signed.
Steinitz – reminded that it is very unlikely that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would win a battle in Congress with US President Barack Obama to scuttle the deal – replied that Israel has the “right and duty to speak up.” He then likened Israel to the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s classic story “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
“Israel is the little child pointing its finger, saying the king is naked, this agreement is naked,” he said, adding that there is “one little brave country” warning the world that “this deal is wrong.”
In other words, it is Israel’s duty and obligation to continue to yell and holler, even if the world isn’t listening. And if the world doesn’t hear, never mind.
You still do what you have to do, and perhaps something will somehow register somewhere down the line and make a difference.
Which is where the similarities came to mind with the haredim protesting the removal of ancient bones in the French Hill neighborhood of Jerusalem in the early 1990s to make room for a massive new interchange.
Day after hot day in the summer of 1992, ultra-Orthodox Jews came and protested a decision to excavate bones from an ancient burial cave, facing off against beefy border policemen on horseback, even though everyone knew that, in the end, at least some of the bones would be moved and the road would be built.
Then why go out and protest? Because, as one protester explained at the time, everyone has his “job,” and the haredi protesters’ “job” was to register their opposition as loudly as possible, to show effort.
He explained that the protesters felt obligated to do what they must to stop what they believed was a desecration. Whether their efforts succeeded was secondary, what was important at the moment was to do what they felt was incumbent upon themselves to do.
A similar strain of thinking echoed in Steinitz’s comments as well. Israel must yell that the emperor is stark naked, that this deal is a disaster. Whether the world listens is another issue. But at least Israel is doing what it must.
And Steinitz was not speaking for himself. He was taking his cues and his messaging from Netanyahu, his boss, In a telling speech from the Knesset rostrum on Wednesday commemorating 75 years to the death of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Netanyahu said that Jabotinsky understood that in the modern world, appealing to public opinion is vital to furthering state interests.
“There is no friendship in diplomatic matters, only pressure,” Netanyahu quoted his ideological mentor as saying.
“If there is no pressure on our side to their counter- pressure, no gains will be had. If the pressure is only coming from one side against us, and from our side there is not enough counter-pressure to overcome it, then whatever is done will be done against us, even if the person at the head of the government is called Balfour or Herzl.
“And those who don’t have the energy, daring, talent and desire to fight will not get even the slightest improvement in our favor, and not even from a government made up of our most trusted friends.”
Netanyahu quoted Jabotinsky as saying that in the modern era, it is not enough, in order to further one’s interests, to whisper into the ear of a leader. Now it is necessary to turn to the masses.
Jabotinsky quoted another Zionist leader, Max Nordau, as saying that before Zionism, Jews did not make demands.
“The change we made in this situation seems, at first glance, to be small but is actually very big – we make demands,” he wrote.
Then Netanyahu put an updated interpretation on those words. “We also make demands. We also stand up for ourselves. We don’t always get what we demand, but without our efforts we would not get anything.
And without the efforts Israel led for years on the Iranian nuclear issue, Iran would long ago have had the ability to arm itself with nuclear weapons.”
This philosophy continues to animate Netanyahu in the immediate post-agreement period as well. Continue to make demands, hoping that it will bring about a change.
Netanyahu’s message on Iran and the nuclear deal has changed very little from the days before the agreement to the days after it. Before the deal was agreed, the message was that it would be a bad deal, a danger – to Israel, the region and the world – that must be opposed; afterward, the message remained the same.
Listening to Netanyahu make his case following the agreement, it was difficult at certain times to shake the feeling that he was arguing for the protocol, for the record, for history.
The son of a historian, an avid reader of history, Netanyahu seemed determined to let the historical record show, down the line, that he warned the world of the coming catastrophe – a catastrophe he believes is in the making.
Obama, apparently, sees the accord as his defining foreign policy legacy; Netanyahu sees fighting it, and warning against it, as his.
But does continuing to warn against the accord, now that it was signed, go far enough? There were two elements particularly striking in the prime minister’s public reaction to the deal this week.
The first was the degree to which the focus was less on the threat of a nonconventional attack from Iran, and more on the conventional threat Israel will face from an Iran flushed with billions of dollars with which to fund its mischief.
And this mischief will come not only through the funding of its proxies which Israel fights on a regular basis – Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad – but also through its ability to now significantly upgrade its own conventional capabilities, including through the purchase, a few years down the line, of once embargoed arms.
Obama himself caught on to this nuance, saying in an interview with The New York Times after the deal was signed that “what’s been striking to me is that, increasingly, the critics are shifting off the nuclear issue, and they’re moving into, ‘Well, even if the nuclear issue is dealt with, they’re still going to be sponsoring terrorism, and they’re going to get this sanctions relief.”
The second striking element was the degree to which nothing – but nothing – was said about what Israel would do now; how it would adjust, how it would it shift, how it would try to deal with the accord going forward.
The security cabinet met in an emergency meeting on Tuesday to reject the accord and say Israel is not bound by it, but gave no details of what exactly that meant.
Something did happen in Vienna on Tuesday. But instead of announcing how Israel would now act to try to shape that new reality, the messaging from Jerusalem was just about how bad that new reality is.
That message was repeated over and over until, at a certain point, one would be excused for shouting at the television set, “Okay, we get it, but now what?” And it is the “now what” that was missing from the public statements and the off-the-record briefings by senior officials.
Advisers to the prime minister said the battle against the accord will now be taken to Congress and the American people. But then what? Well, nobody was speaking about that.
It defies belief that policy-makers in Jerusalem have not planned out a day-after strategy – a strategy not only for the day after Iran gets a bomb, but for the day after this deal was agreed upon.
What compensation should be asked for? What new “strategic architecture” should be negotiated with the US to reduce the dangers of a muscular, empowered Iran within spitting distance in a few years of a nuclear bomb? What kind of intelligence mechanisms need to be put into place, and how to cooperate on them, to detect if the Iranians cheat? Again it was Obama who gave an indication there was some thinking in that direction, announcing that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter would be coming to Israel next week, and saying that after the battle in Congress – if that is where Netanyahu wants to go – then he will sit down with him and discuss “additional security assurances” needed from the US, as well as “ask some very practical questions: How do we prevent Hezbollah from acquiring more sophisticated weapons? How do we build on the success of Iron Dome?” But if there was thinking along those lines in Jerusalem, no one was talking about it, at least not publicly.
Steinitz, at his briefing, didn’t even want to discuss a possible compensation package, because – as he put it – there is no compensation for a nuclear Iran.
It is almost as if there is a fear in Jerusalem that by talking about further steps, you are somehow legitimizing the deal, something Israel does not want to do as long as there may be some chance of altering it, or perhaps of getting the next president to back away from certain components of it.
To sit down and talk about how to adjust to the new reality is to recognize that there is a new reality. And that is something that Netanyahu, who has fought this deal so long and so hard, is loath to do, at least as long as he thinks there might still be some chance of changing it.
Or, as he quoted Jabotinsky as saying: “If there is no pressure on our side to their counter-pressure, no gains will be had. If the pressure is only coming from one side against us, and from our side there is not enough counter-pressure to overcome it, then whatever is done will be done against us.”