Herzog: Netanyahu sowing ‘unnecessary panic’ on Iran

In first policy push since his election, new Labor chief and opposition leader criticizes PM’s response to nuclear deal

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Isaac Herzog (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Isaac Herzog (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

In a first policy statement since his election last week as the Labor Party’s new chairman, and the Knesset opposition leader, MK Isaac Herzog on Monday blasted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy toward the Iranian nuclear deal.

“He’s creating unnecessary panic,” Herzog said in an interview with Channel 10. “This is an interim agreement; it isn’t Judgment Day, which hasn’t arrived yet.”

Herzog praised Netanyahu for “putting the issue on the global agenda,” but added: “Now he’s spoiling the pot.”

According to Herzog, clamping down on the Iranian nuclear program required “intimacy between President [Barack] Obama and the prime minister. Instead, we’re seeing mutual slaps to the face. This creates a total breakdown of trust, and is the main reason no one listened to Netanyahu” during the talks, Herzog said.

The prime minister must treat the deal as a fait accompli rather than try to attack the very idea of an agreement, Herzog continued. “This six-month window [created by the agreement’s timetable] is a critical time, but instead of creating dialogue all we see is friction. There’s a cacophony of ministers lunging at microphones. You really think [Minister of Strategic Affairs Yuval] Steinitz or [Minister of Culture and Sport Limor] Livnat have any influence over the process?”

Later, at the first Labor Knesset faction meeting he has chaired since winning the party leadership last week, Herzog again urged Netanyahu to stop confronting the US administration and instead “go to Obama’s office” in the White House, “close the door, build the intimacy,” and work with the president toward an effective permanent Iran deal. He also said the interim deal might have some beneficial aspects.

Perhaps to emphasize that the criticism was part of a synchronized campaign rather than an offhand comment, Herzog’s key Labor Party allies and closest supporters during the party’s recent primaries, MKs Erel Margalit and Merav Michaeli, also made statements taking Netanyahu to task and expressing guarded support for the deal with Iran.

“The agreement signed last night,” Michaeli wrote late Sunday, “is not perfect, but it distances Iran from a [nuclear] bomb and gives the international community important tools for oversight that will ensure Iran remains far from a bomb; and it leaves in place meaningful sanctions.”

Michaeli’s criticism of Netanyahu was of a kind with Herzog’s.

“Netanyahu’s concern and his warnings were appropriate,” she said. “But his failure was in forcing the world to appear to be against us simply because he can’t take ‘yes’ for an answer.

“Obama promised he would not accept a nuclear Iran, and, indeed, the agreement distances Iran from nuclearization,” she continued. “Israel’s supreme interest is to preserve its close relations and cooperation with the international community generally and the United States specifically. Netanyahu can’t take ‘yes’ for an answer because he can’t identify an Israeli interest that might be achieved in negotiations – not when it comes to Iran and not when it comes to the Palestinian issue. Netanyahu has failed once again, and Israel needs a leadership that can say ‘yes’ to an agreement, with Iran and with Palestine. That’s our interest.”

The deal with Iran “creates a chance for a new relationship with Iran and fundamental changes in Iranian society that could lead to changes in its leadership,” Michaeli explained in a statement posted to Facebook.

Margalit urged Israelis to trust the US to enforce the deal.

“I’ve done a lot of business with the Americans,” Margalit, a high-tech entrepreneur, said in a statement on Sunday. “Anyone who has ever done business with them will tell you that you can only cheat them once. If they catch you cheating you’re finished; they’ll never do business with you again.”

If the Americans discover “that the Iranians diverged from the agreement, or lied or delayed — they will never again sign an agreement with them,” he said.

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