Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cast himself on Monday night in his favorite role: Under the spotlight, at center stage, as the leading actor in a sweeping historical drama. Here he is standing in front of the world, as his hero Winston Churchill before the British Parliament, warning it against the deceptions and lies of a demented and murderous regime. The Iranians are liars, Netanyahu said. They have been bamboozling the international community for decades, and will continue to do so in the future. Everyone must realize - including U.S. President Donald Trump, if he has the slightest of doubts - that the horrid nuclear deal with Iran must be tossed forthwith into the dustbin of history.
Netanyahu, however, did not supply the smoking gun. After one is duly impressed by his Ted Talk choreography and wide array of technological gimmicks, after giving full credit to the Israeli Mossad for getting its hands on such a treasured trove from what Netanyahu described as Tehran’s “atomic archives” and after the high anxiety generated by the prime minister’s office spin about an impending earth-shattering event finally dissipates, one is left with much ado about nothing. If lies were a reason to disqualify leaders, surely Trump and Netanyahu would be candidates for dismissal no less than Ali Khamenei or Hassan Rohani. And if the Iranians are indeed hell bent on concealing their nuclear program and deceiving the world about it, perhaps one might consider an agreement that ignores the rhetoric and imposes strong supervision and “robust’ international inspections, as James Mattis put it, that could forestall Iran’s nuclear designs for a decade at the very least. Something like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, perhaps, that Trump seems determined to kill.
Netanyahu performed on Tuesday as a pre-game cheerleader for Trump, but also as the star quarterback who was the first to call the Iranian game in the first place. Netanyahu would like to cushion Trump’s way to his expected withdrawal from the nuclear deal and to make sure that the president doesn’t get second thoughts at the very last minute. Netanyahu is well aware of the growing apprehension in Washington of a serious crisis of confidence with its three major allies in Paris, Berlin and London, if and when Trump decides, as expected, to ignore their pleas to save the deal.
Netanyahu sought to bury the nuclear deal before Trump actually orders its targeted assassination. Even if his hi-tech showmanship was only meant to help Trump make his case, Netanyahu appeared to be pushing the U.S. President to complete his crossing of the Rubicon. Netanyahu’s speech might earn him points among Israelis and many Americans but it also casts him and Israel as the international community’s prime suspects when things go south and as a convenient scapegoat for those who will later disavow their current support for snuffing out the nuclear deal, and that could include Trump himself, if and when the U.S. gets embroiled in another Middle East conflict it never bargained for.
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Under the circumstances, the timing of Netanyahu’s presentation was intertwined with the escalating tensions with Iran in Syria in the wake of the reported Sunday attack on Iranian missile sites and in advance of possible Iranian retaliation. Any last minute reversal of Trump’s expected decision to nix rather than fix the deal could leave Israel alone to face Tehran and Moscow behind it. It’s a completely different story if Washington smashes the nuclear deal and threatens Tehran with horrid reprisals if it dares renew its nuclear enrichment program. The U.S. would then be more supportive of Israeli actions against Iranian expansion in Syria, more aggressive in fending off Russian efforts to curtail Israel’s freedom of action and possibly find itself fighting with Israel shoulder to shoulder against the Islamic regime.
Has Trump already made a final decision to abandon the deal? Depends whom you ask and what you listen for. Most people who have spoken to Trump in the past few months have come away convinced that his mind is made up. But perhaps Netanyahu isn’t completely convinced, and for good reason. If one listened to the nuances of the statement made by Mike Pompeo during his Sunday talks in Tel Aviv, it’s not completely clear why he would still be floating the possibility of “fixing the deal”, unless he was referring to the ongoing U.S.-European talks in Geneva on supplemental steps against Iran. And when Pompeo noted the vital importance of working closely with allies to stop Tehran, he mentioned Israel specifically but might have been thinking of France, Germany and Great Britain as well.
In Netanyahu’s speech, one could hear faint echoes of his truly dramatic appearance before Congress in March 2015. Netanyahu, his supporters might argue, has closed a circle: the deal he tried so desperately to kill when Obama was in power is now getting formally executed by his successor Trump. Then as now, cold calculations of domestic politics, along with Netanyahu’s eternal belief in the power of his speeches to change history, complemented his legitimate national-security considerations. Netanyahu was signaling police investigators and government attorneys who are considering his criminal indictment that they may be removing the one and only indispensable Israeli leader with the savvy and experience to handle the imminent crisis.
But a different video clip of a Netanyahu appearance before Congress, this one when he exhorted the U.S. in 2002 to make the “good choice” of invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein, might prove more popular and go viral over the coming few days. “There is no question” Netanyahu asserted then, that Saddam is hell bent on building a nuclear weapon, which means that “the terror network” would soon have its hands on a bomb. Netanyahu went so far as to “guarantee” American lawmakers that Saddam’s removal would have “positive reverberations” throughout the Middle East, a prediction that did not pan out as expected. Far from reassuring skeptics, Netanyahu’s reliance on top secret intelligence material to prove Iran’s sinister designs could not but conjure the same kind of impeccable info that misled the U.S. to invade Iraq in the first place.
For many viewers around the world, Netanyahu’s speech was a reprise of sorts, but the difference is that then he was a private citizen and now the elected leader of Israel. This time, the price for Netanyahu’s overconfidence, tendency to ignore doubts and dismiss criticism as well as his theatrical compulsion to cast himself in a leading role whether it helps his cause or not, may ultimately have to be paid by Israel as a whole.