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Netanyahu Is Waging a Losing Battle Against Iran

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Netanyahu. The cries of 'bad, bad, bad' in reaction to the Iran accord reflect frustration rather than policy.Credit: Emil Salman

On July 14, 2011, the tent encampment of the social justice protest sprung up on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. A momentary fear seized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but the political expression of the protest was weak, passing and containable. Now, when Netanyahu gets bored in the Knesset plenum, he can note with satisfaction that the only outcome of that protest was the fact that its leaders – Stav Shaffir, Itzik Shmuli and Manuel Trajtenberg – became MKs but pose no threat whatsoever to his government.

Exactly four years later Netanyahu’s foreign problem is far more serious than that domestic problem was. The diplomatic policy that he promoted, with respect to the issue that he defined as the most important one for himself and his people, has crashed. He is the Neville Chamberlain of the Iranian affair – all his assessments and activities have been crushed by the steamroller of history. The entire world is against him, except perhaps for Saudi Arabia. Good company, King Salman, but a bit limited. And instead of tents, the premier is facing Uncle Atom's Cabin.

Long before Netanyahu became prime minister, Israel opposed nuclear weapons in Iran. For that reason it should welcome the Vienna agreement rather than condemn it, for it is a good means of achieving a vital objective.

The agreement distances Iran from nuclear warheads rather than bringing them closer. It reflects an opportunity to reduce the primary fear of a regional explosion. By the very fact that it is an agreement, it is preferable to other alternatives. The cries of “bad, bad, bad” reflect frustration rather than policy.

There is no military option, neither Israeli nor American, because there is no effective military operation without boots on the ground – an invasion, and not merely a raid. Twelve years ago Tehran panicked and froze its military nuclear program because U.S. President George W. Bush invaded Iraq. That was a different America, shortly after the 9/11 attacks and determined to pay the necessary price to bring down the Taliban in Afghanistan and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

In the intervening years the American public and its army have had to pay off the debts. Enthusiasm has cooled. Pentagon budgets have been slashed. The Islamic State, or ISIS, is in the line of fire. Russia is inciting. China's power is spreading. The young men in America are tired and bitter. Tens of thousands will be forced into unemployment and the rest shy away from desert assignments that distance them from their families for months on end. Nobody wants a war. That is why the deterrence involved in economic sanctions is more credible – and has been proven effective – than the threat of military power.

Israelis who in the 1980s celebrated the drawn-out Iran-Iraq war – some from the school of the late Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan, which rejoiced when Arabs killed one another (after all, Persians are Arabs too, aren’t they?), and others who were arms dealers who supported the embargo in order to bypass it and garner more profits – these people, in 1991, got the long-range missiles that Saddam had developed in order to attack Tehran. The son of the Scud was the Qassam; its stepbrother, the Shahab.

The scornful attitude toward defense systems for repelling missiles and rockets was replaced, in the wake of the embarrassing revelation of total powerlessness, by an investment of billions of dollars and shekels in generations of Arrow missile systems, and other shorter range missiles. The situation changed so drastically that Israel Air Force Commander Amir Eshel has recently been forced to dampen the enthusiasm, and to warn that the record performances of the Iron Dome missile defense system in 2014's Operation Protective Edge will not be repeated in the coming crises.

This month he was joined by Col. (res.) Meir Finkel, commander of the IDF's Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. In an article in the bimonthly IDF journal Maarachot, Finkel mentions a number of well-entrenched, defensive systems that collapsed over the years (the Maginot Line in France, the Great Wall of China, the Bar-Lev Line in the Suez), and warns that “all the disadvantages of the Maginot Line – strategic costs at the expense of [development of] offensive means, the creation of false security and the atrophy of the army’s offensive thinking – are liable to occur in connection with the Iron Dome and the Magic Wand as well."

Finkel calls for defense-related efforts to focus on national infrastructure, military installations and large urban concentrations only, because “the aspiration to provide total defense of the entire population during a widespread conflict is liable to lead to a strategic fiasco.”

That term, “strategic fiasco,” also suits the collapse of Netanyahu’s Iranian policy. What was presented as suspicion and realistic conservatism was shortsightedness – similar to the forgotten argument over negligible fine points during the Israeli-Egyptian talks over the separation agreement at the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and again during the second separation agreement in 1975. Who will remove the dust from your stones, Mitla Pass.

Of course, mine fields left in agreements (no-man’s lands, crude sketches of borders) are liable to undermine their longevity, but above and beyond the details are mutual desires and shared interests. The battle over details is a smokescreen, which is necessary mainly in order to convince home audiences that the negotiators and their dispatchers fought like lions.

Netanyahu is now waging a losing battle. The Americans will not walk away from the agreement, because then the partnership of the six great powers will disintegrate, and there can be no agreement in the UN Security Council to reimpose sanctions against Iran. An American change of heart would also grant Iran permission to abandon efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation and begin to develop nuclear weapons at will.

This is also clear to the Republican Senators who want to appear in the media and before major political donors as being more Bibi than Netanyahu, but who also know – to borrow an image from the comics that the late President Ronald Reagan loved – that a missile launched from a submarine won’t be returned to its launch tube.

Under these circumstances, it is essential to be on guard against a desperate move by Netanyahu in the next 60 days – days of discussion in Congress and a possible effort to throw U.S. President Barak Obama onto his sword. The only party that can torpedo the new accord in the coming months is Iran, if it makes the foolish mistake of running riot and thus justifying the warnings voiced against it.

The problem is that the Iranians have thus far been meticulous about keeping their word and acting cautiously, in connection with the nuclear talks that have been underway for the past year and a half and more – and all the rest has nothing to do with this story. We have to "help" Iran to run wild, to cause it to go crazy. For example, by killing some nuclear scientist or officer from the Revolutionary Guard during a visit to Syria or Lebanon – something that will provide it with a “casus” so that Israel can pull out the “belli.”

In that sense, the coming months, until the Jewish New Year, demand close supervision of Netanyahu – by cabinet ministers, in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, among the heads of the defense and intelligence establishment, and on behalf of the attorney general – so that he won’t be tempted to initiate incitement in the hope of a chain reaction. The leader of Israel will not tell a lie, but to be on the safe side he should be tied to a polygraph.

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