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Netanyahu’s Real Iran Legacy: Right Diagnosis, Failed Prognosis

Netanyahu made Iran his signature issue over the past 12 years. But while he gave bombastic speeches, Iran continued to build its nuclear program and Israel got into fights with its most important ally

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exiting the stage after revealing a cache of Iranian nuclear documents removed from the Islamic republic, three years ago.Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

Iran, or more precisely Iran’s military nuclear program, has been the formative issue of Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career, and the defining issue of his tenure as prime minister.

Political interlocutors, allies, rivals and observers in both Israel and globally disagree over his motivations and calculus. Some maintain that Mr. Netanyahu was a prescient statesman who had the clairvoyance, persistence and resolve to identify Iran as a dangerous menace and threat, and to pursue policies accordingly.

Others describe a man with messianic fervor, obsessed with Iran, who became so immersed and invested in the issue that it blurred his judgment and prevented the formulation of an effective policy to confront the threat Tehran poses.

Supporters will argue that Iran was his lasting redeeming quality. Detractors assert that it was deliberately exaggerated, serving political expediency. Some will stress that Iran was a legitimate, self-evident, strategic objective and that he was right to allocate so much time, energy and resources to it – including twice confronting American presidents.

Critics will contend that it was merely a convenient, evergreen political instrument whose main purpose was to single Netanyahu out politically as “the only one who can deal with Iran” and navigate international diplomacy to do so.

While both sides may have valid arguments, Netanyahu’s actual policy on Iran can be subject to critical analysis and assessed on an objective cost-effective basis. It may be premature and inconclusive to deliver a clear verdict on Israel’s Iran policy under Netanyahu, but some questions already have at least partial answers.

■ Has Iran curbed its nuclear ambitions during the last 12 years? No.

■ Is Iran closer today to possessing sufficient amounts of fissile material (enriched uranium necessary for a nuclear weapon) than it was 12 years ago? Or three years ago, when the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aka the Iran nuclear deal? Yes, according to U.S. and Israeli intelligence, and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

■ Is Iran’s “breakout” time (the duration from the point of having the required materials and technological capabilities to the point of actually being able to manufacture a military-grade nuclear device) shorter or longer since Netanyahu pushed President Donald Trump to withdraw from the JCPOA? Based on that same intelligence, it is shorter.

■ Was the JCPOA really detrimental to Israel? Was Netanyahu’s campaign against it successful? The JCPOA was never a perfect or flawless agreement. Far from it. But it provided Israel with a precious 10 to 20 years to devise a strategy. The deal never covered Iran’s missile program, its sponsoring of terrorism or its destabilizing regional behavior, but it was never designed to do so. It focused on the greatest threat: the military nuclear program. In that respect, Netanyahu’s opposition to the agreement failed to amend it.

The front pages of Iranian newspapers responding to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress regarding Iran's nuclear program, in March 2015.Credit: AFP

■ Was the trade-off between raising world awareness about Iran’s nuclear program and aggressive intentions, and “Israelizing” the issue, necessarily beneficial to Israel? This is open to debate. The awareness was achieved, hence the JCPOA, and Mr. Netanyahu deserves credit for it. But the world has increasingly begun to see the Iranian threat as an almost exclusively Israeli issue.

■ Does Netanyahu’s current and vocal opposition to any U.S. deal to reenter the JCPOA serve Israel’s interests? It is doubtful whether he can prevent or influence such a deal if the United States is set to conclude one, so no.

Before assessing his policy on its merits, it is important to understand where Netanyahu is coming from on this issue.

There’s a deeper, more elaborate explanation to Netanyahu’s fixation and emphasis on Iran. He perceives himself as being a historical figure, the protector, or “Lord Protector,” of Israel and Jewish civilization.

His late father, the noted historian and Spanish Inquisition scholar Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, introduced a unique interpretation of Jewish history, predicated loosely on the passage “In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us,” from the Passover Haggadah dating to the ninth century.

He instilled in his son the concept of Jewish history having a distinct cyclical pattern, in which every few centuries Jewish civilization is existentially threatened with annihilation: the ancient Egyptians, the Greek Hellenists, the Roman Empire, Christian Crusaders, the Spanish Inquisition, fascism and Nazism, Arab enmity.

The most recent and current cycle is approximately 50 years old: “Islamofascism.” It has been expressed by the Islamic Republic of Iran since 1979, with its rampant support and exporting of terrorism via a network of proxies, absolute theological negation of Israel and, most dangerously, its quest for nuclear weapons.

The coupling of state-based Islamist extremism with weapons of mass destruction is an existential threat that dwarfs every other facet of life or peril facing Israel.

One man was destined by history to prevent that: Benjamin Netanyahu. Through a unique set of historical circumstances, international and regional conditions, the political environment, Jewish history and perhaps divine intervention, history designated Mr. Netanyahu to stand up to this ominous cycle of possible destruction.

This, in part, also explains Netanyahu’s infatuation with Winston Churchill. Standing alone, in splendid isolation, pointing at Berlin/Tehran, accusing everyone else of myopic and reckless appeasement, only to be proved right with a vengeance.

A demonstrator holding a caricature of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a pro-Palestinians gathering in Tehran last month.Credit: Vahid Salemi/AP

The year is 1938 until further notice. Iran is Nazi Germany and the threat is patently existential. There was Mr. Netanyahu during the wilderness years when he was not prime minister, tirelessly warning, imploring and yelling at the top of his lungs that Germany/Iran was an imminent grave and lethal threat.

It is undeniably true that Netanyahu was prescient and clear on Iran – but he was far from the first or the only one. Years before, Yitzhak Rabin, Ephraim Sneh and Ehud Barak (among others) defined a nuclear Iran as a major threat, and allocated great resources and diplomatic and military attention to it.

Unlike them, Netanyahu turned the Iranian nuclear threat into the be-all and end-all of his years in power. He would warn a lax and lazy world; he would make this Israel’s prime strategic objective.

He had 12 successive years in power, from 2009 to 2021, in which the gap between rhetoric and policy, between accurately identifying the problem and devising a coherent and effective strategy to solve it, became evident.

His diagnosis was accurate. His prognosis much less so.

It should be stressed again that it is premature to conclusively assess Netanyahu’s Iran policy. However, several shortcomings stand out. First, his opposition to the original JCPOA, in 2014-2015, led to an inevitable if not deliberate confrontation with then-President Barack Obama, culminating in Netanyahu’s speech before Congress in March 2015. This deprived Israel of offering any input or influence into the drafting of the agreement, as well as creating ongoing tensions with Obama and his vice president, one Joe Biden.

Second, Netanyahu’s pressure on Trump to withdraw from the agreement and reimpose sanctions on Iran in 2018, as if America’s unilateral withdrawal would dissolve the JCPOA altogether, further “Israelized” the issue. The failure to introduce a better, improved agreement meant that the framework stayed intact for a year until, in 2019, Iran started violating it and rebuilt its uranium-enrichment capabilities.

Third, flirting with an Iran attack – first in 2011-2012, and again in statements between 2018 and 2021 – generated a debate on the military limitations and cost-benefit of such a strike. That turned the Iran nuclear issue into an almost exclusively Israeli matter.

Fourth, throughout the process, Netanyahu’s relations with Trump further alienated Democrats in Washington. Now, with Biden president, Israel’s input and reservations about the Americans reentering the JCPOA are barely heard, and Netanyahu is exacerbating that disconnect through a series of harsh statements against any kind of deal.

Fifth, Netanyahu believed he was constructing an Israeli-Sunni Muslim anti-Iran coalition with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Biden’s win, coupled with a cool policy toward Saudi Arabia and reservations about Netanyahu, pushed the Gulf states into a dialogue with Iran, at the expense of this short-lived coalition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointing to a red line he drew on the graphic of a bomb used to represent Iran's nuclear program, at the UN General Assembly in New York, September 2012.Credit: Lucas Jackson/REUTERS

The former, and late, Mossad chief Meir Dagan told Yedioth Ahronoth in 2015 that “Netanyahu caused the most strategic damage to Israel in respect to the Iran issue.” While Dagan was referring to the prime minister’s threats of military action, lack of discretion and chaotic management style, Netanyahu’s most enduring failure was drifting apart from the United States and twice – in 2015 and again this year – confronting U.S. presidents on the topic instead of initiating a quiet, intimate and discreet discussion.

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