Analysis

'Democtator' Netanyahu and His Lonely War on the Iran Nuclear Deal

His decision to battle Obama’s agreement and to enlist Trump to scuttle it was made without challenge or opposition

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech on Iran's nuclear program in Tel Aviv, April 30, 2018.
Ofer Vaknin

The late Quintin McGarel Hogg, aka Baron Hailsham of St. Marylebone, was a senior figure throughout most of the 20th century in Britain’s Conservative Party, and one of its most prominent thinkers. He served under Margaret Thatcher as lord chancellor, a post more or less equivalent to an American attorney general or an Israeli justice minister. In a speech in 1976, Hogg coined the term “elective dictatorship” to describe the regime in Great Britain. In many ways, mutatis mutandis, it is the system of government in Israel as well.

An elective dictatorship doesn’t have three branches of government but only slightly more than one. The elected government uses coalition discipline to control its members and impose its will on parliament. It denies parliament the right to supervise government activities and turns it into a rubber stamp for its wishes and whims. Without a written constitution, British courts are barred from revoking laws approved by Parliament; the 1911 and 1949 Parliament Acts also depleted the House of Lords of its long-held authority to block legislation. The signature of the king or queen, which is needed for a law to come into force, turned long ago into a mere formality.

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In theory, Hogg said, the British government enjoys absolute rule, though its will and ability to exercise its theoretically unreserved authority are tempered by traditions and norms of democracy, ethics, restraint and fair play. In Israel, which lacks both British tradition and English prudence - and which has maintained a decidedly undemocratic occupation of the Palestinians for over 50 years - the only check on the integrated executive-legislative branch of government is the Supreme Court. Since the establishment of Israel, the court has nullified less than 20 of the Knesset’s laws, but even that modest intervention is too much for the Israeli right wing. It wants Israel to have an elective dictatorship, which was dubbed “Democtatorship” by Israeli historian Yaakov Talmon, in which nothing stands in the way of the ruling coalition, even one that lost its inhibitions long ago.

Right-wingers tend to mock protests against the government’s anti-democratic policies and slide to authoritarianism, describing them as tendentious and overhyped. As the initiators and implementers of Israel’s anti-constitutional revolution, their denial of the impact of their own deeds is understandable, and may not even be hypocritical. It rests on an earnest belief that, notwithstanding nearly four decades of right-wing rule, they are the still the victims of leftist oppression by the courts, the media, human rights nongovernment organizations and Israeli elites in general. Their total lack of self-awareness is analogous to that of white Americans: A 2017 poll found that 55 percent of whites believe that they, rather than minorities, suffer from discrimination. In the American south, homeland of slavery and birthplace of Jim Crow, 67 percent of whites viewed themselves as victims of discrimination. A separate study conducted 20 years ago found that the sense of discrimination was strongest among members of white supremacist groups; their perceived victimhood helped them erase the stain of racism that others ascribed to them.

The dangers of elective dictatorship in Israel have been compounded in recent years by the rise of what political scientists call “personalist dictatorship” in which a charismatic leader - in this case Benjamin Netanyahu - makes all the important decisions. Most Israeli prime ministers before Netanyahu had to contend with other strong personalities from their own parties, who usually relied on their own independent political base. Netanyahu, on the other hand, has succeeded in distancing those who challenged him and in surrounding himself exclusively with yea-sayers who are terrified of confronting him, mainly because of his total domination of the right-wing “base.” Other parties in Netanyahu’s coalition allow him to lead on issues he deems important in exchange for funds and favors that serve their particular constituencies.

In this deal, Netanyahu is far from all-powerful. He often has to succumb to demands on issues such as religion and state that run contrary to his own beliefs and interests. In exchange, however, he has been given a free hand on issues of national security that he deems most crucial. The combination of his political partners’ self-imposed feebleness with Netanyahu’s experience, sophistication, knowledge, resoluteness, rhetorical talents and the cult of personality that he has successfully nurtured among right-wing voters have made Netanyahu into a sole decider. Even if the army and defense establishment occasionally rebuffs his demands, Netanyahu alone essentially determines the general thrust of Israeli policies. He decides and he navigates, as Yitzhak Rabin once said of himself. His exclusive authority stretches from derailing the peace process with the Palestinians to nurturing relations with Eastern European authoritarians reeking of anti-Semitism, but it is at its most pronounced, and most fateful, in his attitude toward Iran in general, and the Iran nuclear deal in particular.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at press conference presenting documents on Iran's nuclear program, April 30, 2018.
Ofer Vaknin

Netanyahu is the one who decided, contrary to the recommendations of senior defense and foreign affairs echelons, to wage total war against the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action long before it was concluded. It was he who squandered the opportunity to influence the content of the JCPOA while it was being negotiated and to forfeit the dividends Israel might have accrued between its conclusion and its approval by Congress. Netanyahu, and only Netanyahu, decided to wage a bitter battle against the Obama administration, scarring relations with the Democratic Party for years to come. And it was Netanyahu and Netanyahu alone who decided to exploit the election of Donald Trump in order to sabotage the Iran nuclear deal, despite the inherent dangers of such a move.

Even if one appreciates or even agrees with Netanyahu’s original objections to the deal, his unabashed campaign for the U.S. to scuttle it is a dangerous gamble. Instead of utilizing the ten years - now less than eight - before Iran is allowed to partially renew its nuclear enrichment program in order to lobby for greater supervision and restrictions, Netanyahu prefers to break the deal and release Teheran from its commitments. Rather than collaborate with Washington in recruiting an international coalition that would pressure Iran to rein in its many other objectionable activities, Netanyahu is driving a wedge between the United States and its allies, casting himself and Israel as extremist warmongers in the process. Rather than build on the foundations of the JCPOA’s “robust” inspection regime, lauded by Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot as well as U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Netanyahu prefers to throw out the baby with the bathwater. He assumes that a U.S. abrogation of the nuclear deal would create economic hardships that could cripple the Iranian leadership and seems unperturbed that it might weaken moderates and embolden Tehran extremists. When it comes to the Iranian regime, Netanyahu does not recognize the term “moderate.”

Way before Emmanuel Macron began his courtship, Netanyahu realized that the key to Trump’s heart and mind lies in unloading unbridled flattery and heaping shameless superlatives on him, from Trump as heir to the Persian Emperor Cyrus, who allowed Jews to return home from exile, to simply the greatest friend of the Jewish people in human history. Netanyahu buttressed his flirtation with endless complaints about Obama, music to Trump’s ears. Finally, he reduced his arguments to their most basic and simplistic form to make them easier for Trump to digest. “There are some arguments so dumb only President Trump could take them seriously,” liberal commentator Paul Waldman wrote in the Washington Post this week. Netanyahu’s claim that the Iran deal is null and void because of Tehran’s lies about its past nuclear program, Waldman wrote, is like saying “You gave that guy a 10-year sentence for robbery? But he claimed he never robbed the store! And he could get out at the end of 10 years and just rob again! The only answer is to release him from prison immediately!”

Netanyahu may have hoped that his high-tech props coupled with the Mossad’s genuinely mind-boggling feat of moving thousands of secret documents out of a decrepit warehouse in Tehran would compensate for his relatively weak case, the essence of which was well-known to the world years before the nuclear deal was signed. Perhaps he truly believed his presentation would sway not only Trump but Western European signatories as well, as his spin doctors asserted, to repent for signing the JCPOA in the first place. In reality, and barring any bombshell last-minute proof that Iran was actually pursuing its nuclear ambitions under the nose of international inspectors, his presentation was perceived less as a winning argument and more as a failed effort to pull the wool over international eyes. Perhaps it was his exaggerated David Copperfield choreography that ultimately did Netanyahu in.

In Israel, on the other hand, as well as the American right - which admires Netanyahu less critically than his own Likud Central Committee - the prime minister’s message was received as gospel truth. His supporters in politics and the media accepted his assertion that Iran’s lies undercut the very foundations of the JCPOA, accusing anyone who thought otherwise of disloyalty to Israel and especially to its leader, as is their wont. This is how fans of strongmen conduct themselves, uncritically accepting their every word while ignoring their mistakes - such as Netanyahu’s decision to renege on a UN deal on asylum seekers within hours of praising it - and insisting that his true genius is yet to be revealed.

Netanyahu has earned his reputation as a cautious leader who often reverses Teddy Roosevelt’s famous dictum: He talks loudly but wields a small stick. Some are still convinced that his aggressive lobbying for Trump to abandon the nuclear deal is simply a ruse to pressure the U.S. and other signatories to the JCPOA to increase their pressure and supervision on Tehran. Iran, however, could be the exception that proves the rule. It has been Netanyahu’s main obsession for decades. Iran is the standard bearer for “Muslim fundamentalism,” which Netanyahu described 25 years ago in his book “A Place Among the Nations” as “a cancerous tumor that constitutes a dire threat to Western civilization.” One does not negotiate with tumors but wages total war in order to eradicate them.

Perhaps Netanyahu’s recently acquired “executive dominance,” as “elective dictatorship” is sometimes called, has eroded the sense of caution that characterized him in the past. Several political science researchers have shown unequivocally that among the various types of dictatorships, the personalistic one, built as it is on the supposed infallibility of the leaders, is the one most likely to declare and wage war.