Less than a week after finally acknowledging Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired a shot across the bow of the president-elect. "We must not go back to the 2015 nuclear deal," Netanyahu warned on Sunday, proving that he, like the French Bourbons, had learned nothing and forgotten nothing from his previous back-to-back failures on Iran.
Because notwithstanding his prescient alerts 30 years ago about the imminent danger of a nuclear-ambitious Iran and his theatrical flair in drawing the world’s attention to it, Netanyahu blew it, twice. He swung and missed with Barack Obama, is about to go 0 for 2 with Donald Trump after being caught looking and, judging by his imperious admonition to the president-elect, could be on the verge of striking out altogether with Biden.
“Mr. Iran,” as he is often dubbed in Israel, could have taken an active role in the original nuclear talks with Tehran and might have thus helped the Obama administration avert some of the pitfalls that Netanyahu later claimed plagued the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The prime minister, however, preferred to sulk on the sidelines and to then launch an unprecedented assault against Obama and his deal, culminating in his March 2015 speech to Congress, which continues to poison his ties with the Democratic Party.
Netanyahu was misled to believe he had a reasonable chance of convincing enough Democratic senators to join their GOP colleagues and to reject the JCPOA. His open challenge to the president, however, achieved the opposite effect, pushing sympathetic Democratic lawmakers into supporting the deal as a mark of loyalty to Obama.
If Netanyahu’s warning to Biden that the U.S. “must not” rejoin the JCPOA signals the start of a concerted campaign, it could have a similar boomerang effect. If there’s anyone that can galvanize Democrats to push Biden to try and rejoin the nuclear deal ASAP, it is Netanyahu. Many Democrats view the prime minister not only as the man who disrespected Obama but far worse, adroitly pressing Trump’s buttons in order to get him to abandon the deal, mainly out of spite.
When Trump came to power in January 2017, Netanyahu could have urged him to leverage his opposition to the nuclear deal in order to try and extract the kinds of concessions he will press Biden to seek today. Never one to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, however, Netanyahu repeated his mistake with Obama and pushed Trump to renege on the deal from the get-go, no ifs or buts, without giving negotiations a chance. When it comes to Iran, Netanyahu does not believe in negotiation, only capitulation.
With less than two months left to go before Trump vacates or is evicted by force from the White House, it is clear that Netanyahu’s strategy is on the verge of collapse once again. Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign has hurt the Iranian economy and brought suffering to the Iranian people, but it has not caused Tehran to capitulate, as Netanyahu had hoped, and there is scant chance that the ayatollahs will decide to do so before January 20 even if Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo manage to tighten the screws just a little bit more.
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Pompeo’s talks with Netanyahu in Jerusalem this week were meant, inter alia, to shore up the Trump administration’s reputation as “tough on Iran” in the wake of the New York Times report that the president’s closest confidantes had nixed his request to consider a military attack on a nuclear facility near Tehran.
Reports of harsher sanctions and covert operations against Iran serve Netanyahu’s purposes by raising the bar for the incoming Biden administration. But they are also meant to cement a Trump/Pompeo narrative by which Iran was about to cave to U.S. pressure before a weak Biden and his treacherous Democrats gave away the store and allowed Tehran to get back on its feet.
In any case, by coincidence or not, It took less than 24 hours after the New York Times reported that the option of a military attack was not off the table for Netanyahu to address Biden as “president-elect” for the first time. That chapter, it seemed, had been closed.
A few days later, Netanyahu was already telling Biden what he must and must not do, conjuring for many Democrats his unprecedented and, in their eyes, disrespectful campaign against Obama and the JCPOA. If making a good impression on Democrats was the sole criterion for becoming an Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu would be more or less last in line.
Netanyahu would do well to curb his weakness for arrogant and pompous sermons on Iran, but the exact measure of his required restraint will only be ascertained on January 5, when Georgia heads for double runoff elections that will decide the fate of the Senate. The races between Jon Ossof and David Perdue and between Reverend Raphael Warnock and Kelly Loeffler are not only critical for Biden’s agenda but for Netanyahu’s as well.
If the Republicans retain at least one seat and thus control of the Senate, Netanyahu would have a power base from which to try and influence talks with Iran, if they materialize, and to scuttle a new nuclear deal, if one is achieved. If both Ossof and Warnock win, Netanyahu will be left with very little leverage over an administration and ruling party that have it in for him anyway.
Netanyahu, along with the entire GOP, will be praying for the success of both GOP candidates in Georgia, but it is the Ossof vs. Perdue race which has taken a bizarre twist in recent days, at least as far as Netanyahu is concerned, and it’s not because of the 33-year-old Jewish liberal candidate running for the Democrats.
The Daily Beast reported last week on Perdue’s involvement in a ‘submarine’ scandal that eerily echoed Netanyahu’s infamous ‘submarine affair’ dubbed “Case 3000” by the Israeli police.
According to the report, the Georgia senator bought and sold stocks of a company that manufactures a critical component for Virginia-class submarines Perdue himself is charged with approving and budgeting as chairman of Senate sub-Committee on Seapower. Netanyahu is alleged to have owned stocks in his uncle’s company, which manufactures critical parts for the submarines made by the German ThyssenKrupp company – which Netanyahu ordered for the Israeli navy while circumventing normal purchase channels.
Thus, the January 5 runoffs will have both strategic import and personal relevance for Netanyahu. Diplomatically, Netanyahu can make do with victories by either Loeffler or Perdue. On a personal level, he will be following the Perdue race much more closely to see if submarine scandals can make or if they are bound to break political careers, particularly his own.