Geneva Deal Seals Netanyahu’s Legacy: An Ineffectual Leader

The prime minister wanted to 'save Israel.' He winds up alienated from the international community - and from his own base.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Benjamin Netanyahu entered politics waving the banner of refusing to surrender to terrorism. In practical terms, the question has been on the agenda since the Jibril prisoner-exchange deal in 1985, when terrorists, including murderers, were released in exchange for Israeli hostages. To his chagrin, he became prime minister quickly and broke his vows wholesale. Murderers were allowed to go free, Yasser Arafat became his partner and Hebron was handed over to the Palestinians. His term from 1996 to 1999 had no effect on the progress of history: It was as though it had never happened.

When he ran out of Palestinian cards, he pulled out the Iranian card. Just as the Hanukkah song asks, “Who can recount Israel’s mighty acts,” who can recount the heroic deeds of Benjamin? He will save the nation in blood, fire and columns of fallout, whether it needs saving or not. The military and intelligence chiefs told him there was no need, not yet, but they did not understand Netanyahu, or perhaps, they understood him all too well. The means - the military operation - became the goal. To overcome the internal resistance to a war that is premature and unnecessary, he gave Ehud Barak, his defense minister, a former commanding officer, and the man who defeated him in the elections, absolute freedom to instigate quarrels in the military's upper echelon.

The facts prove that all along, Netanyahu erred in his assessments and his policy. Those who said Iran would not have nuclear weapons before 2014 were right, as were those who strived to stop Iranian nuclear armament through non-military means — a mixture of dialogue and sanctions. If Netanyahu and Barak's plans between spring 2010 and spring 2011 had succeeded, Israel would now be dealing with the wounds of the first Iranian war and preparing for the second, while Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear bomb would be about to finish restoring their nuclear program.

Netanyahu exposed Israel’s weakness in Washington and its weakness without Washington. His head-on conflict with U.S. President Barack Obama showed the world that at the decisive moment, the president chose American considerations, leaving Israel unable to act independently. This is not a new lesson. That is what happened in January and February of 1991, when the Bush administration forbade Israel to attack Iraq even though 40 ground-to-ground rockets fell on Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Haifa and Dimona over the period of a month and a half. Yitzhak Shamir pondered his decision and obeyed. Then-Deputy Minister Netanyahu wore a gas mask on television. The presenter was an actor, not a statesman.

The realist American approach, from Truman and Eisenhower through Nixon and Reagan, avoided the fawning far left and the bellicose far right. The operative word was and remains containment — stopping something from spreading, whether Soviet influence in the decade after World War II or Iran’s current quest for nuclear arms. In practice the strategy is to freeze the situation. While firmly against future development, whether on land or in the nuclear reactors, they have also given up rolling back what has been already achieved. The hope is that the economy and society will deal the regimes the crushing blow, and that the ayatollahs will go the way of the Soviets. Obama promised American will not have to a contain a nuclear Iran, and he kept his promise: It is a pre-nuclear Iran that is being contained. Where the sides will go from here depends on the internal and external balance of pressures on each side.

George H.W. Bush was content with a limited victory over Saddam Hussein. After 12 years of containment, constant aerial activity and economic sanctions, his son engaged in a comprehensive war. George W. Bush sank deep the United States deep into Iraq, but by doing so he prevented the Iranians from attaining the nuclear bomb for five years. It is likely that this time too, the containment will meet an expiration date. That will become clear later on. But meanwhile, a chance has been forged for a new relationship and a substantial transformation in Iranian society, changes that will influence the leadership’s intentions and maybe even its composition. The risk of waiting is a tolerable one: The war will not be going anywhere. It can always be returned to, and it requires broad worldwide consensus in any case.

Netanyahu is a serial failure. Mitt Romney was not elected president. Congress did not stand behind Israel and against Obama. The agreement with Iran will be carried out, over Netanyahu’s objections, because that is what the superpowers want. John Kerry, encouraged by the diplomatic success that began with Syria’s chemical disarmament, will not let go regarding the Israeli-Palestinian talks. The Likud leadership anticipates a diplomatic and political crisis next spring, with a divided party that will try to tie Netanyahu’s hands. If he wants to run again, as his ministers believe he does, he will have to become even more extreme and speed toward Obama on a collision course.

This morning, in Switzerland, Netanyahu had his toy gun taken away. In Basel, Herzl founded the state of the Jews, and in Geneva, Obama ended Netanyahu’s era. He can no longer claim truly that he wants to govern the Israelis. The prime minister of Israel cannot be merely some diplomatic version of PR expert Rani Rahav who rails — as Rahav does about Shelly Yacimovich — that the deal with Iran is “bad, bad, bad.”

Netanyahu continuing as prime minister is a waste of time, energy, money and attention. In a new reality, Israel needs new leadership.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a French-Israeli technology innovation summit in Tel Aviv along with French President Francois Hollande, November 19, 2013.Credit: AP

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