Breakthrough in Iran Talks Might Be Terrible for Israel but Wonderful for Netanyahu

Despite widespread criticism, news of an impending deal could turn PM’s Congress speech into a dramatic, Hollywood-style closing argument.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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A military vehicle carrying an Iranian Zelzal 2 missile drives past a picture of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a military parade in Tehran, April 18, 2009.
A military vehicle carrying an Iranian Zelzal 2 missile drives past a picture of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a military parade in Tehran, April 18, 2009.Credit: Reuters
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

In the coming weeks, the Obama administration has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to deliver a potential coup-de-grace to Benjamin Netanyahu’s electoral prospects. What it needs to do is make sure that nuclear talks with Iran plunge into crisis a few days before Netanyahu’s controversial speech to Congress; that would be tantamount to pulling the political rug out from under him.

Picture it: 48 hours before the Israeli prime minister goes to Capitol Hill to lambast a U.S. administration and other world powers who are “galloping ahead” to a “dangerous agreement” with Tehran, American negotiators announce a breakdown in talks. “We won’t give in to Iran’s excessive demands,” John Kerry or someone similar will announce. “Israel’s security is paramount to the president, no matter what some of its leaders may say, and we will not place the Jewish state in danger.”

Netanyahu would be left dangling in the air, for the entire world, including Israeli voters, to see. Here he is, playing footsy with the Republicans and John Boehner, breaching protocol and otherwise badmouthing the White House and the Democrats, upsetting American Jews and confounding the most supportive of media pundits – all in the name of defending Israel from a “bad agreement,” which, it seems, Obama had no intention of signing? Coming to Congress under such circumstances, Netanyahu would look ridiculous, as some would say, or like something that rhymes with muck, as Yiddish speakers might have it. What would he tell Congress? “Oops”?

At the same time, however, a contrary scenario – which seems much more plausible, if you listened to Obama’s press conference with Angela Merkel on Monday – could very well produce diametrically opposite results. The closer the P5+1 powers appear to be to a nuclear agreement in the days before Netanyahu is scheduled to take to the podium on Capitol Hill, the more rational and justifiable Netanyahu’s speech will start to seem.

Many people will have grown tired by then of the ongoing sniping, bickering and debate over the propriety of the speech, and focus instead on its contents. Possibly that is what Netanyahu himself believes, as he reiterated Monday that he has no intention of canceling his speech.

For many years, Netanyahu has been touted, justifiably or not, as a leader who has almost singlehandedly rallied the world to confront Iran’s nuclear ambitions. If the negotiations with Tehran start to seem like a done deal, many Israelis – indeed, many Americans – could maintain that he has earned the right to make one last closing argument before a verdict is handed down – and his life’s work is demolished.

Addicts of Gregory Peck’s rendering of Atticus Finch’s closing remarks in "To Kill a Mockingbird" or Matthew McConnaughey’s in "A Time to Kill" could come to savor Netanyahu’s dramatic last stand, even if they aren’t convinced by it.

That’s why for Netanyahu the politician, a deal that seems imminent as he heads to Washington at the beginning of March would be nothing less than a godsend. Discussion of the merits or demerits of the deal would take center stage, while the details of Netanyahu’s diplomatic misbehavior would fade into the background.

More significantly, and probably more importantly from Netanyahu’s point of view – regardless of how well he does in his speech, oratorically speaking – the Israeli media is bound to focus obsessive attention on the emerging deal with Iran throughout the final weeks of the Israeli election campaign.

This would undoubtedly work in Netanyahu’s favor: he is, after all, “Mr. Iran.” The first rush of emotional reactions in Israel to news of an impending deal would almost certainly be alarmist, suspicious and negative, and Netanyahu would be the first to profit.

Then there won’t be enough time left before the March 17 vote for Israelis to ask themselves what Netanyahu could have done differently and how he might have averted this disastrous deal that he is now railing against: How much more leeway he might have had if he hadn’t antagonized and alienated the president or taken sides in America’s partisan politics; how much influence Netanyahu might have maintained with European leaders if had at least tried to keep up appearances of engaging in a serious peace process with the Palestinians; how many credible demands he could have made that would bolster Israel’s security if he had linked progress with the Palestinians to an acceptable deal with Iran.

But Netanyahu wanted to have his cake and eat it, to extend his credit in every arena but never go bankrupt, to burn his bridges but then walk over them as if nothing had happened. He refused to engage the Palestinians, continued to expand settlements, nixed a deal on Gaza, thumbed his nose at Europe, treated the U.S. president as if he was a junior member of some anti-Zionist party and then cried foul when the world chose to ignore him.

Some might consider his behavior shortsighted chutzpah, but if a last-minute deal with Iran turns Netanyahu’s Congress speech into a climactic, Hollywood-style ratings-bonanza – and if it then wins him the election – it will once again be Netanyahu who will be laughing all the way back to the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.

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