Agitated Netanyahu wonders if he left it too late

The prime minister’s very public horror at the deal taking shape in Geneva reflects his concern that he is failing in what he sees as his central mission

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a statement to the press about Iran at Ben Gurion Airport, Friday, November 8, 2013 (Photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom /GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a statement to the press about Iran at Ben Gurion Airport, Friday, November 8, 2013 (Photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom /GPO/Flash90)

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eulogized his historian father in April of 2012, he praised Benzion Netanyahu as a man who knew “how to identify danger in time” — a quality “that our people lost while in exile.”

Benzion, who foresaw the Holocaust but was in no position to avert the Nazi genocide, taught his son to “face reality head on,” the prime minister said at the funeral service, and to “draw the necessary conclusions.”

On Friday, addressing the media after talks with John Kerry at Ben Gurion Airport — a meeting held just before the secretary of state headed off to Geneva for his unscheduled participation in the fast-moving talks there on Iran’s rogue nuclear program — Netanyahu spoke with the panicked air of a Jewish leader who was wondering whether he had failed to heed his father’s lessons, proved incapable of learning from history, and was thus going to be unable to protect his people from another potentially genocidal regime.

Thwarting Iran’s nuclear weapons drive has been the central mission of Netanyahu’s prime ministership. And he has been deeply worried these past few months — since the election of Hassan Rouhani in June gave Iran a smiling new public face, and since US President Barack Obama’s public volte face on a punitive strike against Syria’s President Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons against two months later — that the West was going to cut a lousy deal with Tehran that would leave at least part of the Islamic Republic’s enrichment capabilities intact.

Evidently unimpressed by Obama’s reassurance to him at the White House in late September that the United States would be negotiating “clear-eyed” with Iran, the prime minister headed straight to the United Nations General Assembly in New York to declare that, even if everybody else was fooled by the Rouhani charm offensive, and was ready to take Iran’s “we don’t want the bomb” claims at face value, Israel would “stand alone” against the Iranians’ bid for nuclear weapons.

But this weekend, his concern has been elevated to new heights. Unsourced reports on Friday night’s Israeli TV news programs suggested that the prime minister feels he has been misled by the Obama administration, and that the offer put on the table to the Iranians in Geneva — which would allow them to continue to enrich uranium to 3.5% and thus, in Israel’s assessment, to establish themselves as a “breakout” state capable of racing to the bomb at a time of their choosing — is far more dangerous than anything he had anticipated. As he declared Friday in that highly agitated Ben Gurion Airport appearance, Iran, under the deal on the table, “gets everything that it wanted at this stage and pays nothing.”

Ensconcing himself as the prime public face of international opposition to the deal taking shape in Geneva, Netanyahu openly acknowledged that he had pleaded with Kerry “not to rush to sign, to wait, to reconsider, to get a good deal… This is a bad deal, a very, very bad deal. It’s the deal of a century for Iran; it’s a very dangerous and bad deal for peace and the international community.”

Underpinning the prime minister’s undisguised horror at the direction of the Geneva talks was his worry that he has mishandled the crisis. Nobody could credibly assert that Netanyahu has failed to sound the international alarm. He has been warning the world relentlessly about Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, and his constant highlighting of the danger played a central role in pushing the international community into the sanctions that finally brought Tehran to the negotiating table.

What the prime minister is likely asking himself this weekend, however, is whether he should have moved from warnings to action — whether the moment for his threatened resort to force has already come and gone.

Persistent reports have suggested that Netanyahu did want to intervene militarily in the past, most particularly in the summer of 2012, and that he was deterred by opposition from the United States and from Israel’s own security chiefs, past and present. Others close to him, however, insist that had Netanyahu truly believed that it was a case of now or never for a military strike, he would have ordered one. “If he had thought that military action was crucial at the time, he would have acted,” Tzachi Hanegbi, the Likud MK, and former minister for nuclear affairs, who is closer than most others in the party to the prime minister, told this writer just a few days ago.

Hanegbi added that Netanyahu “most likely decided not to [resort to force in the past] because there are great advantages to waiting until Israel comes as close as possible to the limits of its tolerance. Because when that point is reached, we can use all of the previous restraint as a very powerful tool for strengthening the legitimacy of our actions.”

For Netanyahu now, though, the question of whether he has waited too long. As he made crystal clear in that UN address, he is certain that “Iran is developing nuclear weapons” and he believes that “when a radical regime with global ambitions gets awesome power, sooner or later its appetite for aggression knows no bounds.”

He vowed in that speech that Israel would “not allow” Tehran to get the bomb. But now the entire international community is publicly lined up in search of an accord with the ostensibly newly moderate Iran. If a deal — however “bad” and “dangerous” — is being done by diplomats led by the United States, can Israel seriously contemplate defying the world and taking on Iran militarily? To paraphrase those comments he made at his father’s funeral, the prime minister will be asking himself whether he proved incapable of identifying the danger and drawing the necessary conclusions in time.

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