Washington Watch: Netanyahu’s lost opportunity

When the nuclear sanctions achieved their goal of bringing the Iranians to the table to negotiate away their nuclear weapons, Netanyahu was the first and loudest to object.

Netanyahu at the INS Rahav submarine arrival ceremony (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Netanyahu at the INS Rahav submarine arrival ceremony
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
No sooner was implementation of the Iran nuclear pact announced this weekend than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took credit for the historic deal that he so bitterly fought and still opposes.
“Were it not for our efforts to lead sanctions and thwart Iran’s nuclear program, Iran would have had nuclear weapons some time ago,” the modest Israeli leader said.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t still wish it had never happened and won’t continue fighting it, but there is some truth to his claim of credit.
Netanyahu and pro-Israel groups in the US put the subject on the international agenda and pressed friendly governments to apply intense economic, diplomatic and political sanctions on Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions. His goal was the total elimination of any Iranian nuclear activity, military and civilian; anything less, he preached, was capitulation.
Still, his vehement opposition and his collaboration with partisan Republicans determined to thwart any Obama administration foreign policy initiative did incalculable harm to the US-Israel relationship.
The sanctions lifted this week applied to Iran’s nuclear program; others aimed at its terrorism role continue, and the Obama administration imposed new ones on its ballistic missile program.
When the nuclear sanctions achieved their goal of bringing the Iranians to the table to negotiate away their nuclear weapons, Netanyahu was the first and loudest to object.
Instead of helping shape the negotiations and the ultimate agreement, working to get a deal more to his liking, he declared war on the president of the United States.
The high- or, more appropriately, low point was allying himself with the Republican opposition and giving an unprecedented address to Congress; for the first time in history a foreign leader used that platform to attack a sitting president and his policies.
It was also a historic blunder that did enormous damage to relations with American Jewry.
How much influence could Israel have had in shaping the final agreement if its prime minister had tried to play a constructive role instead of an obstructive one? Uzi Arad, his former national security adviser, said Netanyahu’s strident campaign against the deal weakened Israel’s influence. “To judge by the outcome, we lost. In any event, [Iranian] diplomacy won, and that’s a pity,” he told Israel Radio.
The military and intelligence establishment did not share Netanyahu’s apocalyptic view of the agreement, but were ordered to hold their tongues.
The IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, said the agreement contains “many risks” for Israel but also “opportunities.” He expects Iran to honor the deal and turn its attention to other foreign policy objectives in the region.
Netanyahu disagrees. He’s convinced the Iranians will secretly pursue nuclear weapons. And he wants to see the screws tightened, not relaxed.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) bans Iran from developing nuclear weapons for at least 10-15 years. The International Atomic Energy Agency and the major powers will be responsible for assuring compliance.
Netanyahu has said Israel will also “monitor the implementation” of the pact and “warn about any violation.”
Iran, in his view, still dreams of obtaining nuclear weapons, and he may be right.
He rightly warns that “Iran will now turn its resources toward its terrorist activity,” particularly Hezbollah, and the international community must scrutinize Iran’s behavior and be prepared to take “an appropriate response to every violation.”
Netanyahu intends to keep the pressure on Iran. Israel last week took delivery of its latest German-built Dolphin- class advanced submarine, which is reportedly capable of firing nuclear-armed missiles while submerged.
Unconfirmed reports tell of Israeli Dolphins patrolling the Indian Ocean and even visiting the Persian Gulf at times, both as a deterrent and because of their second- strike capability in the event Iran launches missiles at Israel.
Don’t look for the prime minister to be as stealthy as his subs when he moves on the political front.
The 2016 elections will be very tempting for someone with Netanyahu’s proclivity for meddling in American partisan politics. If history is a teacher, don’t expect his ambassador, former Republican operative Ron Dermer, to be neutral.
He is the one who worked secretly with House Republican leadership to arrange Netanyahu’s combined congressional/ campaign speech on the eve of the Israeli elections.
The Democratic presidential candidates have all declared support for JCPOA – Bernie Sanders even called for US to “aggressively” move to “normalize relations with Iran.”
The Republican hopefuls are even more adamantly opposed to the Iran deal than the Israeli leader, with several vowing to shred it upon arrival in the Oval Office. Most invoke Israel’s name, even “my friend Bibi,” in expressing their hostility to the agreement.
Republicans unanimously opposed the JCPOA in the Congress, and throughout this election year they will be trying to impose new sanctions for Obama to veto so they can go to supporters claiming to be the real friends of Israel while the Democrats are siding with Iran.
Can Netanyahu resist the temptation to join in, especially when they quote his warning that the agreement is a threat to Israel? He also can expect pressure to join the fray from his billionaire buddy Sheldon Adelson, who is expected to invest tens of millions to elect Republicans this year.
As Netanyahu thinks about getting involved, even clandestinely, he should bear in mind that American Jewish voters ignored his call to arms and supported the Iran nuclear deal. They also voted more than two-to-one against his choice for president four years ago. And this year, as for generations of elections, they can be expected to vote overwhelmingly Democratic.
Don’t be deceived by the hidebound Jewish organizational leaders, who are more loyal to the Likud and to wealthy, conservative donors than to their own rank and file.