Analysis

Trump Quits Iran Deal: A Career-defining Moment for Netanyahu That May Have a Price

Twenty-five years ago an up-and-coming Likud legislator published a column on the Iranian nuclear threat. Now let's see if Israel gets what he wished for

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to media outside  the Presidential Palace in Nicosia, Cyprus May 8, 2018.
\ YIANNIS KOURTOGLOU/ REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump’s sharp declaration of withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement was undoubtedly a defining moment in the Sisyphean campaign of the prophet of doom on Balfour Street – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was a campaign that peaked in an unprecedented confrontation with the previous U.S. administration.

And then, in one stormy week, the next president announced the cancellation of the agreement and a few days later is expected to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem with a festive ceremony. It’s almost everything Netanyahu preached over four terms. All that’s left is for the attorney general to close the stack of police cases against Bibi. He’ll be able to give out T-shirts saying “I told you so” at the next meeting of Likud MKs.

Twenty-five years ago, an up-and-coming Likud MK published a column that began with the words “The most dangerous threat to Israel’s existence is not found today in Arab countries but in Iran.” The worried MK was Netanyahu, the column appeared in Yedioth Ahronoth, and the prediction was that Iran would be able to produce its first nuclear bomb by 1999. “Therefore, it is our duty to ensure that it does not have the tools necessary to realize this aspiration .... Israel must act vigorously to thwart this threat to our very existence.”

Indeed, a quarter of a century after that dramatic statement, and though the Islamic Republic has yet to acquire a bomb, it’s hard to come up with a topic Netanyahu has been more vigorous about or that’s more associated with him than the fight against the Iranian threat. The campaign that was at times ridiculed by cynics – or sourpusses, as he’d call them – has finally led to a few minutes of sweet victory at the White House.

In his statement, Trump echoed each of the messages Netanyahu has conveyed over the years – that the Iranian regime is an evil regime that finances terrorism and produces dangerous missiles, that the agreement lets it continue enriching uranium and eventually produce nuclear weapons, that the agreement was a concession exactly when the world had the most leverage, that the intelligence Israel obtained proved that Tehran was seeking a bomb, and that the agreement’s wording was fundamentally flawed.

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Trump’s decision was also exactly what Israel had demanded – not just withdrawal from the deal but also heavy sanctions and a mention of Iran’s ballistic-missile project, not just its nuclear program. With his theatrical spectacle last week, Netanyahu showed that he’s coordinated with Trump, while Trump fulfilled a second campaign promise to his voters.

If Netanyahu felt any satisfaction with this milestone, there was no hint on his face before the announcement during a tripartite summit with Greek and Cypriot leaders in Nicosia. Netanyahu mainly looked tired. His tone, as usual, was often smug and sometimes sarcastic.

Speaking to reporters at Larnaca Airport just before returning to Israel, as he joked about the cola that was too warm, he again suggested that we wait for Trump’s statement before his response. If he knew exactly what Trump would say, he took pains not to show it.

But some in the entourage interpreted the caution as reluctance to commit before he saw and heard the final wording. After all, this is a president who often deviates from the teleprompter and improvises. One statement by Netanyahu in Cyprus was more understandable after Trump spoke. “This path allows unlimited enrichment of uranium so there’s the possibility other countries will seek it .... So it’s in everyone’s interest that there is no similar phenomenon in certain countries,” he said.

In the evening, his friend from Washington stressed: “If I allowed this deal to stand, there would soon be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Everyone would want their weapons ready by the time Iran had theirs.”

But, as the saying goes, “be careful what you wish for.” Netanyahu’s victory and the shelving of the agreement could have a price, perhaps even a heavy one, that won’t necessarily be paid by Americans. “We do not paint a rosy picture of Iran. Israel is prepared for any scenario, including a confrontation. We tell the public the truth,” Netanyahu said.

The big losers Tuesday, aside from Iran and its allies, supporters of the agreement in the United States and Europe, and the international-agreement fairies who once again lost their wings, were the members of the Israeli opposition who see but are not seen. In the current political arena it’s hard to find any leader who can produce a persuasive alternative to Netanyahu’s position on this issue.

For example, last Friday, Labor chief Avi Gabbay told foreign ambassadors at a Tel Aviv conference that Israel would “not allow Iran to acquire nuclear capabilities,” and he praised the Mossad’s intelligence coup that allowed the prime minister’s performance last week. It was the same message, albeit in slightly less polished English.

Others who seek power, like Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon, have all memorized the same messages with cosmetic changes, if at all. Prominent supporters of the nuclear deal could be found mainly in the depths of the opposition – Meretz and the Joint List of Arab parties – and among the liberal Jews of the Diaspora. The lesson they got was of the benefits of patience and Sisyphean perseverance, the fruits of which could be harvested after 25 years.