Conventional wisdom has it that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suffered the worst defeat of his political career last week, with the announcement of Iran’s historic nuclear deal.
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Iran, after all, was the main (some might even say “sole”) focus of Netanyahu during his last six years as prime minister, as he burned almost every bridge, broke almost every diplomatic rule and alienated almost every friend Israel has had trying to fight it. But when it came to preventing what he termed a “bad mistake of historic proportions,” Netanyahu ultimately came up terribly short.
There is some truth to the Netanyahu defeat narrative: Netanyahu has been, after all, thoroughly obsessed with Iran in recent years, spouting Holocaust analogies left and right, constantly warning Western nations of falling for the “charm offensive” of a dogmatic and fanatic clerical regime, reprimanding world powers in a way that seemed - in the eyes of many - dogmatic and fanatic itself. On the surface, there is no other way to see it but this: Netanyahu bet big on his ability to hinder the Iran deal, and he lost.
That is, if you assume the fight Netanyahu was really concerned about most was the struggle against the Iran deal. But it wasn’t. Throughout his career, Netanyahu has never been an ideologue. Whether it was voting for Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza despite being vehemently against it, or altering his economic views to fit his political needs, Netanyahu has always preferred political survival above all else.
Conventional wisdom has it that Netanyahu suffered a crushing blow last week. Conventional wisdom has it wrong. What looks like the moment of Netanyahu's greatest failure is, in fact, proof of his greatest triumph, a true - and frightening - measure of the way the man and his views have taken over Israel’s political sphere.
Anyone who thinks Netanyahu lost this week should take a cold, sober look at the way Netanyahu’s political rivals from the left reacted to the announcement of the Iran deal. All of them, to a man, even those who rebuked Netanyahu for his failure to change the terms of the deal, echoed his statement that “on existential issues there is no coalition and opposition.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, for instance, was quick to denounce the Iran deal as a “bad agreement that endangers our security interests” and pledged his support for Netanyahu and his Iran policy, even going so far as to announce an upcoming trip to Washington to beseech American policy makers to reject the deal, as if he were Netanyahu’s foreign affairs minister and not the prime minister’s biggest political rival as opposition head.
Interestingly enough, five months ago Herzog told the Washington Post: “I trust Obama to get a good deal.” Now, reports suggest that after months of cautious flirting, Herzog and the rest of the Zionist Camp might join Netanyahu’s government, “in light of the new situation that has been created” (to quote Herzog).
Israel’s other opposition leader and former finance minister, Yair Lapid, also condemned the Iran deal, declaring it a “bad day for the Jews.” Unlike Herzog, he laid the blame squarely on Netanyahu’s shoulders, calling the Iran deal “the biggest foreign policy failure in the history of Israel” and demanding a public inquiry commission on Netanyahu’s handling of the Iran nuclear issue. Yet Lapid also boasted enlisting in Israel’s public diplomacy efforts, and was so eager to out-Netanyahu Netanyahu that he denounced the deal even before its details were made public. Lapid even reiterated Netanyahu’s statement that “Israel is not obligated to the Iran deal.”
And that’s without even mentioning Netanyahu’s own ministers, such as defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, who called the deal “a tragedy,” or culture minister Miri Regev, who said that “Iran just got a license to kill.”
Ironically enough, Netanyahu’s defeat looks like it might ensure his continued rule for years to come. But Netanyahu’s victory, the utter triumph that his bungled Iran effort represents, is bigger than his own political survival. It’s not just Bibi the man that was victorious this week. More than Bibi the man, in fact, it was Bibism - Netanyahu’s worldview, his stubborn rejectionism - that truly won.
You could see it clearly in the homogeneity of Israeli responses to the Iran deal, in the way both sides of the political spectrum rushed to Netanyahu’s side. Even dovish politicians like Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich denounced the Iran deal in very similar terms to Netanyahu’s. In fact, not one MK outside of the Arab parties - not one - dared to present a view that’s opposite, or even significantly different, than Netanyahu’s. Most of them made extensive use of the Netanyahu lexicon. Even when being critical of Netanyahu the man, they adopted his basic stance - and almost immediately rejected the deal, so quickly that it’s hard to imagine they had any time to seriously study it. Their fast reaction and almost hysterically harsh tones made it seem they were competing in a Netanyahu impersonation contest.
You could see it in the twitter feeds of journalists, pundits, and regular politically-minded Israelis, where responses to the Iran deal often varied between references to the 1938 Munich Agreement (one of the Netanyahu’s favorite analogies) and various Holocaust allusions.
Israelis were quick to denounce the deal, thereby affirming the impression that they would have rejected any deal, regardless of the terms.
So for those who, once again, are quick to eulogize Netanyahu - don’t. In the one true fight that matters to him - his own political survival - he won. He may look beaten, but these are only the flesh wounds of a man who made a big bet - not necessarily on his chances of thwarting the Iran deal, but on his ability to get the Israeli public, and through it the Israeli political system, on his side.
So far, it has worked beautifully. According to a poll published by Israeli newspaper Maariv this weekend, almost half of Israelis (47%) would support a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran. Netanyahu’s biggest rivals inadvertently channel him even when attacking him, thereby proving he was right all along, essentially postponing any possibility that he might be replaced.
This lack of discussion, of opposition, of dissent, is Netanyahu’s true victory. In Netanyahu’s Israel, there is only one way to react to a deal that the rest of the West greeted with at least some measure of cautious optimism: fear and paranoia. And when it comes to fear and paranoia, Netanyahu is equal to none.