Can Netanyahu turn interim failure into end-game success?

Failing to block the Geneva deal, the PM antagonized the US, came off as intransigent, and saw Israel’s own military options constrained. What can he do now to ensure a better result on a permanent deal?

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem on November 6, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem on November 6, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

In his bid to torpedo a nuclear deal between the international community and Iran, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put all his eggs in one basket. Never losing sight of his life’s mission, to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, he gambled for high stakes. And lost.

To be sure, Tehran hasn’t yet acquired a nuclear weapons capability. Now that the six world powers and Tehran have signed an interim agreement, which would partially freeze Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief, the specter of an Iranian atomic bomb has been ostensibly pushed off for at least another few months.

But Netanyahu might need to rethink his strategy as he prepares for those coming months — in which the US, Russia, Britain, China, France and Germany will try to reach a permanent agreement with Iran. While his warnings and arguments are resonant in Israel — even most mainstream opposition politicians support Netanyahu’s stance — the international community has just showed its determination to go to great lengths to solve this standoff diplomatically. In that climate, the prime minister may want to ask himself afresh, how can Israel act to best further its interests?

If Netanyahu continues to pursue a zero-sum strategy — insisting that everything but Iran giving up its nuclear program entirely is a bad deal — he might well face further failure, at the permanent rather than the interim level.

Jerusalem spent the past two weeks fighting tenaciously and publicly to block the deal signed in Geneva overnight Saturday-Sunday, or at least improve its terms. Senior government figures from Netanyahu on down insisted it was a “bad,” “dangerous” and “illogical” agreement. Jerusalem even risked undermining its most precious asset — the strategic alliance with the United States — in the course of its very public sniping with the Obama administration.

And ministers did not let up after the deal had been signed, either. “This agreement is still bad and will make it more difficult than before to achieve an appropriate solution in the future,” Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said in a statement published early Sunday morning. As with the failed deal the West cut with North Korea in 2007, the current deal is more likely to bring Iran closer to having a bomb, Steinitz said.

Netanyahu himself, speaking at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, called the deal “a historic mistake,” and warned: “Today the world has become much more dangerous, because the most dangerous regime in the world took a meaningful step toward acquiring the most dangerous weapon in the world.”

The prime minister was widely and rightly credited for alerting the world to the dangers of an Iranian regime armed with nuclear weapons over recent years. The tough sanctions that forced Tehran to the negotiating table were, to a large degree, imposed due to his tireless lobbying.

But by ridiculing an agreement US President Barack Obama said marks an “important first step toward a comprehensive solution,” by indulging in a public spat with the administration over the merits of the deal, by sending Minister Naftali Bennett — a native English speaker — to Capitol Hill to rally Congress against the White House and the State Department, and by calling on American Jews to oppose their government’s policies, the Israeli government was straining the US-Israel relationship to its limits.

“The current crisis is already one of the biggest U.S.-Israel blowups, ever — and it could get worse before it gets better,” Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote last week.

According to a report in the Haaretz daily, an Israeli politician recently told Netanyahu that his fiery rhetoric against the US only serves the interests of Iran, which feels it succeeded in driving a wedge between the Great Satan and its little Middle Eastern brother. Netanyahu took the criticism seriously but replied that he only chose a confrontational course because the matter was vital for Israel’s security. “If we don’t confront the US over this, what will we confront it over?” Netanyahu said, according to the paper.

But it’s more than just bilateral relations. Jerusalem has been proudly playing the party-pooper ever since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani started his charm offensive in September, warning the world of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Defying an entire international community which was willing to give Iran a chance, Netanyahu argued that Tehran might have a friendlier face but remains the same old terrorism-sponsoring, genocide-threatening rogue regime.

In an op-ed published Thursday in the Los Angeles Times, former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren tried to explain why the prime minister took it upon himself to be portrayed a warmonger, doomsayer and wolf-crier. “Netanyahu is acting out of a deep sense of duty to defend Israel against an existential threat. Such dangers are rare in most countries’ experience but are traumatically common in Israel’s, and they render the price of ridicule irrelevant,” Oren wrote. “Critics can call him militant or intransigent, but Netanyahu is merely doing his job. Any Israeli leader who did less would be strategically and morally negligent.”

Netanyahu rightfully sees in Iran’s nuclear ambitions a serious threat to Israel’s security — and indeed to the well-being of the free world. But looking at the current deal and the damage he may have caused in trying, unsuccessfully, to thwart it, Netanyahu might want to ask himself whether his game plan was strategically efficient. He seems to have gotten the worst of all worlds: failing to prevent a “bad” agreement, straining ties with the US, and creating the sense of Israel as aggressor, the one player in the Middle East unwilling to compromise. Worse, now that the deal has been signed, it becomes much harder for Israel to launch a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities as it would come in open defiance of the entire international community.

The one positive outcome of Jerusalem’s stance in recent weeks could turn out to be a warming of ties with Arabs states in the Gulf, which fear Iran even more than Israel but don’t dare speak out as vocally. Yet, to date, not one such state has made any kind of tangible public move to underpin any new Sunni-Israeli alliance.

Netanyahu and his colleagues would argue that although they couldn’t prevent the deal, their lobbying efforts improved the terms. That may well be true: Iran committed to halt progress on its heavy water reactor in Arak, which could produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, and the Western powers fought hard to avoid stating Iran has an inherent right to enrich uranium on its soil — elements that may not have been in the original interim deal that was scuppered in Geneva two weeks ago.

But with a permanent agreement supposed to be signed in six months, the prime minister and those around him may well need to reconsider whether the route of public confrontation is the smartest to take. Jerusalem is convinced that Tehran has no intention of reining in its nuclear weapons ambitions.

The challenge now is to credibly draw the world’s attention to what Netanyahu has no doubt will be Iran’s violations of this latest agreement, and to highlight the dangers to the entire free world of the Islamic Republic’s duplicity, in order to ensure that an interim accord he considers “a historic mistake” is not followed by a permanent deal that is downright catastrophic.

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