Netanyahu’s complacency on Iran

Netanyahu failed to see three main deficiencies in Trump’s makeup.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Iran at the weekly cabinet meeting (photo credit: OHAD TZVEIGENBERG‏)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Iran at the weekly cabinet meeting
(photo credit: OHAD TZVEIGENBERG‏)
Now that Benjamin Netanyahu’s election loss means that he belongs more to the historians than the journalists, it is appropriate to examine the career of this wily strategist. Clearly, he was among the great diplomats of his era, a brilliant, eloquent champion of the outlier state he represented.
Yet despite his greatness, he will be found guilty of complacency at the critical end of his tenure on his signature issue – Iran. More than any other leader, he sounded the alarm to the world on this terrorist state going nuclear, as described one month ago in the cover story of the Sunday New York Times’ Magazine.
In 2012, as the Times reported, Netanyahu’s goal of bombing the nuclear facilities of Iran was headed off, for different reasons, by both US president Barack Obama and the IDF generals. Notwithstanding such opposition, contemporary respected political analysts and friends of Israel such as Charles Krauthammer still predicted an Israeli attack.
So why did Netanyahu turn complacent to bombing the Islamic Republic following the election in 2016 of a political friend, Donald Trump? His thinking was based on the mistake that since Trump, who knew full well where Iran stood, was now in the White House, Israel could rest more comfortably and discard its previous attack plans.
But Netanyahu failed to see three main deficiencies in Trump’s makeup. Firstly, Trump, when it comes to foreign policy, is primarily an isolationist, a politician who sees this imperfect world much more like a Sen. Rand Paul than a Sen. Lindsey Graham, or the late Henry Scoop Jackson. Money is a big ingredient coloring Trump’s political thinking, and he was blindsided by the hundreds of billions that Obama used to pay off Iran in order to bring them to sign the disastrous nuclear deal.
Secondly, Trump loves to make a deal. When everything settles relating to international anxiety over Iran’s attack on the Saudi oil fields, Trump will still try to work his self-conceived bargaining smarts on the Iranians. The problem here is that a deal will in some sense be illusory, and that the deceitful Iranians will still keep up secret, hidden nuclear production. Thus, this existential threat to Israel will remain around, a prospect Netanyahu feared.
Thirdly, Trump is fervently looking for a geopolitical victory that he could spin in next year’s election. Of the various global prospects to allegedly reach some compromise, Iran would be the easiest because it would be giving up the least to make a deal, since officially it still does not own nuclear weapons.
Furthermore, even if Iran is exposed as lying, which Netanyahu artfully showed a number of times, Trump’s hands are tied, because barring a direct attack on US assets, the American public would oppose one more Middle East military involvement.
Someone with Netanyahu’s smarts should have understood all the above and launched a preemptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. His predecessors, Menachem Begin and Ehud Olmert, rose to the occasion in attacking Iraq and Syria despite American opposition.
True, Iran would have been a much greater military challenge. Without getting involved here with military and technical considerations, Netanyahu would have had a one- or two-day dispensation to do the job. but still a great Israeli victory. The presence at the time of John Bolton – who often on TV called for such an attack – in the American security apparatus would have also made a positive difference. Hezbollah, up north, would have most likely been spurred into action, but notwithstanding Israeli casualties, this would represent a small price to have paid for strongly diminishing the Iranian nuclear threat.
Ironically, had Netanyahu shown daring and resolution rather complacency and unfounded trust in this, the defining issue of his premiership, in these final days of his tenure, the case for his indispensability would have brought him the fifth term that he never won.
The writer is an emeritus professor of political science at CUNY and author of the recently released Strangers and Natives, a Newspaper Narrative of Early Jewish America, 1734-1869.