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Netanyahu's Longtime Obsession With Iran's Nukes Is Finally Paying Off

With Trump's exit from the Iran nuclear deal, the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem and Israel's campaign deep in Syria – these are Netanyahu's glory days

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Netanyahu takes selfies with Putin and Trump.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

In poker terms, Netanyahu is holding a royal flush. Consider U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision this week to withdraw from the nuclear agreement with Iran; the inauguration of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem next Monday; and the aerial attack deep into Syria in which a large number of Iranian targets were destroyed, after 20 missiles were fired from Syria at Israel. That’s a great hand for just seven days. He’s riding high, higher than expected.

This week, Israel has probably entered – officially this time, and not according to foreign reports – its much-talked-about campaign against Iran. In the meantime it’s not a full-scale “war.” There are no dogfights or thousands of Hezbollah missiles or prolonged stays in bomb shelters, but only sporadic spats in luxury conditions with total control of Syrian airspace by the Israel Air Force.

“Why are Netanyahu and [Defense Minister Avigdor] Lieberman looking for the confrontation with Iran now?” one member of the security cabinet wondered rhetorically this week, before the operation in Syria. “Because under the current conditions, the IAF is capable of doing pretty much whatever it wants. When advanced Russian missiles are deployed there, everything will be more complicated and more dangerous.”

Netanyahu’s years-long obsession with Iranian nuclear armament finally gained sweeping support from an American president who is totally coordinated with him. When the prime minister presented his one-man audio-visual show on Iran’s nuclear project about 10 days ago, he erased the memory of the Mossad’s failure to assassinate ranking Hamas official Khaled Meshal in Amman in 1998, during Netanyahu’s first term.

These are his days of glory, as long as nothing goes wrong (and something always does, in the end). The premier’s rivals at the political table are mere shadows of themselves. Holograms. Present and yet not present. Flickering, like a blurry memory.

A few hours after Trump’s announcement on Tuesday, Zionist Union and Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay chose to post a humorous clip on his Facebook page in which he wished good luck to Netta Barzilai, Israel’s representative in the Eurovision Song Contest. As if Gabbay is in such good shape politically that he can sit back and allow himself to make fun of himself. It was a splendid example of how to shoot yourself in the foot and demonstrate your irrelevance.

But Gabbay and his party aren’t even on the playing field, in any case. By contrast, the blow that Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid suffered this week can be measured in strategic terms. His gamble failed across the entire front. For three years he’s been making the rounds of European capitals in a virtual diplomatic top hat and matching coat and tails, meeting with ministers and legislators like some kind of volunteer “foreign minister” who is chivalrously sacrificing himself to rebuild the ruins Netanyahu leaves in his wake.

We still remember the speeches in which Lapid explained with overblown theatricality that “Netanyahu no longer understands America.” Or the glut of recent interviews in which he asserted that the prime minister was damaging the Israeli intelligence community and the struggle against Iran by revealing material that the Mossad had removed from a warehouse in Tehran.

Lapid’s clownishness reached a high point on Tuesday. At midday he declared that a U.S. withdrawal from the agreement with Iran would be a bad idea. That evening, after Trump’s declaration, he immediately tweeted: “Congratulate President Trump for his firm stand alongside Israel. After the president’s decision, we need to muster all of Israel’s diplomatic forces in order to ascertain that the Europeans, the Chinese and the Russians will join the move and prevent Iran from returning to develop nuclear arms.” Both for and against in less than seven hours.

Has Lapid lost it? This smooth politician – part human and part robot, the walking weather vane and decoder of Israeliness who has turned hedging one’s bets and preserving the consensus into an art form – tripped up twice: in blasting revelation of the nuclear archive and in expressing opposition to withdrawal from the nuclear agreement.

But if, for one fleeting moment, we considered the idea of appreciating Lapid’s courage and determination to express unpopular views, along came his rapid his swift capitulation (exceeded in the panic it expressed only by Netanyahu’s flip-flop in the matter of the agreement over the refugees), and brought everything back into proportion. He regained his composure – and so did we.

Bibi’s bait

In numerous areas, Netanyahu is a problematic leader. He’s up to his neck in corruption accusations and investigations. He lacks statesmanlike vision. He lies both orally and in writing, and it’s no longer clear whether he does this knowingly, is dragged unknowingly into mendacity – or is convinced that “it’s not a lie when the prime minister says it” (to paraphrase Richard Nixon). He’s divisive, an inciter and perhaps suffers from megalomania. But there’s no disputing his international status and no point in even trying to do so. Certainly not when the challenger and pretender to the crown is a featherweight ex-TV presenter without even one iota of authority or validity in the realms of politics or diplomacy.

Few leaders – you can count them on the fingers of one hand – enjoy the same access Netanyahu has to those holding the reins of power in the United States, Russia, China, India. On Tuesday evening, Israelis watched the president of the United States, sitting in the White House, as he echoed the list of Iranian talking points prepared by the prime minister of Israel. The next evening, they saw Netanyahu standing next to the president of Russia at the annual ceremony in that country marking the victory over Nazi Germany.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu watch a military parade celebrating 73 years of the victory the WWII in Red Square, Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2018.Credit: Maxim Shipenkov/AP

Actually, even someone who totally disagrees with this man from head to toe could not help being impressed. And many people, including those who don’t vote Likud, asked themselves whether, at such a tense time, they would sleep better knowing that it was Gabbay or Lapid who was running the show in the Prime Minister’s Bureau. The impression that stuck this week was that Gabbay, Lapid and all the others are dealing with nonsense, while Bibi is running the world.

The tension in the north following the operations in Syria’s skies, the high alert in the Jerusalem area ahead of the opening of the U.S. Embassy, and the roiling front near Gaza on the eve of the weekly “March of Return” protest at the fence and in advance of May 15, Nakba Day, assure an agenda focused on political-security matters for the foreseeable future. At least in the coming weeks.

Historically, that agenda, as long as it doesn’t slide into a security catastrophe, serves Likud. All the more so, when the opposition is unable to field realistic candidates who possess stature in matters of security. For Netanyahu, whose dominance consumes, sucks in and emasculates all dialogue that doesn’t involve him, this is an ideal platform from which to ask for the nation’s renewed trust.

With his rivals evaporating (Lapid lost the equivalent of six-seven seats in the latest polls, and not one of them landed in the court of Zionist Union), it’s interesting whether Netanyahu regrets not carrying out his intention to precipitate an early election two months ago, during the crisis over the army-draft bill. Politicians who met with him afterward, during the Knesset recess, say he does. They say a certain regret is discernible in him.

If he’d dissolved the parliament on the eve of its spring session, the election would have been held in another five weeks or so. The current atmosphere bears a potential for Likud winning 35 seats. Now the earliest possible date for an election, if Netanyahu is contemplating that move, would be in early September, before Rosh Hashanah.

I asked two ministers who head coalition parties whether they think we’ll see a renewed early-election initiative by Netanyahu in the coming weeks – on the assumption, of course, that Israel is not locked in a military confrontation then.

One minister admitted that he has no idea. He thinks it’s possible and even logical, but, he notes, Netanyahu would have to coordinate such a move with his coalition partners, whom he also sees as his future partners.

The second minister disputes that view. “Bibi in his situation today doesn’t owe anyone anything. If he wants an election, there will be an election. To him, we don’t exist. We’ve become dwarfs, we are like grasshoppers.” Both ministers expressed the hope that the election scenario will not come to pass.

I turned to Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud), the prime minister’s political operative. He wasn’t in any hurry to contemplate the optimistic script, in hindsight, of “what would happen if the election were scheduled to take place in another month.”

“By their nature, polls reflect a momentary frame of mind, correct for the day on which they are taken,” he said. “An election campaign has a completely different dynamic. Things happen every day. Look what happened in the election in Britain, and in a far shorter period of time.

“My opinion was and is,” Yariv added, “that an election should be held at the end of the full term of office. There’s no doubt that at this point in time, Likud and the prime minister are getting substantial support, but that doesn’t guarantee anything about the actual results of an election.”

Oval Office Likudnik

Netanyahu entered his first term as prime minister with a spate of negative messages – like the Israeli children’s story about Teddy-No-No, the bear who said no to everything. The Likud’s slogan in the 1996 election was, “Peres will divide Jerusalem.” At present, the premier plans to win his fifth term with the aid of a slogan along the lines of “Netanyahu has strengthened Jerusalem.”

The U.S. Embassy’s move to Israel’s capital – an election promise broken by many presidents, from both parties – will also take place on his watch, thanks to a Likudnik who landed in the Oval Office 16 months ago.

The inaugural ceremony of the embassy will take place Monday afternoon in the presence of a U.S. delegation headed by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, along with his wife, Ivanka, the president’s daughter. Hundreds of guests will participate. The 120 Knesset members were not invited, with the exception of party leaders. MKs are the “A Team” and should get pride of place on the guest list ahead of many other fine folks – including ambassadors, the mayor of Jerusalem, former prime ministers and others – who actually have been invited. But because this is an American event, organizers are not subject to the local rules of protocol.

MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin (Labor-Zionist Union) took umbrage in the name of her colleagues. She fired off a letter to U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, whose office is organizing the event and deciding the guest list, in conjunction with Washington.

“I was saddened to learned that a decision was taken to exclude members of Knesset from this historical ceremony. As representatives of the public in Israel, I believe we should be there to pay gratitude for the long-lasting friendship and be witness to the unveiling of the new embassy,” she wrote.

As of Thursday evening, six days after that letter was sent, she hadn’t received a reply from the ambassador.

On Sunday, a reception will take place in the minister-less Foreign Ministry, to which MKs have been invited, constituting a representative sample from the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee (which doesn’t include anyone from the Joint Arab List, though its members wouldn’t come to the reception even if they were invited).

Nahmias-Verbin asked Foreign Ministry director general Yuval Rotem why committee members who are worthy of taking part “in a reception to mark the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital,” as written in the invitation for the Sunday event, were not recognized as such when it came to the ceremony itself. Rotem, she says, replied that he was working on it with the Americans – who, again, have the final and only word on the subject. By the way, the invitation was signed by “Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mrs. Sara Netanyahu.” Their names appear on the invite in bright Israeli blue as if they are the ones running the show. When one of the invitations for the Sunday event landed in Nahmias-Verbin’s own inbox, her staff didn’t even slot the event into her schedule.

A political source put forward the following explanation for the lack of MKs at the inaugural event: The U.S. Embassy maintains good relations with MKs from many parties. But engraved in the Americans’ consciousness is the memory of the shameful and obnoxious incident at Ben-Gurion International Airport last year, when MK Oren Hazan (Likud) manhandled President Trump and forced him into a joint selfie, explaining to him that he, Hazan, is known in his country as “the Israeli Trump.”

The Americans drew conclusions. They imagined Hazan doing the same to the wafer-thin Ivanka and the reedy Jared, planting a wet slurp on their cheeks, holding them close the way Culture Minister latched on to Sara Netanyahu at the torch-lighting ceremony, and ordering them to say “Cheese!” No, no. Once was too much.

Victory photo

On Tuesday evening, the Knesset held a festive session to mark the anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. But there was little festiveness to be seen. Very few MKs showed up. The government was represented by Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver (Yisrael Beiteinu). The prime minister was a no-show. He was on his way back from Cyprus, or perhaps had already landed, and hurried to his office to get ready for the announcement by Trump, and for his trip the next day to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin.

The gallery was occupied by dozens of World War II veterans from the former Soviet Union (also known as Yisrael Beiteinu voters), proudly wearing their colorful medals and ribbons. In the middle of the session, during the speech by opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Labor-Zionist Union), Defense Minister Lieberman strode into the chamber. He didn’t take his place at the government table, but, rather, sat next to the four MKs from his party, on the back benches.

Landver, seeing that her boss was present, leapt from her chair and betook herself to the MKs’ section. She took out a cellphone and took a picture of her colleagues. She then also sat down next to them, and someone from the gallery photographed the whole crew smiling at the war veterans.

Tensions were high at the time: Lieberman already knew that there would be an attack in Syria that night (the one that preceded by 24 hours the broader assault on Iranian targets in Syria). An alert had been called in the north, the Golan Heights settlements were told to open their bomb shelters.

Instead of sitting in his office in the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv and holding a marathon of operational discussions, Lieberman, who does not often come to the Knesset (he’s not even an MK), took the trouble to come to Jerusalem and visit the Knesset chamber. The photo-op is critical for him; after all, May 9 is the most important date on the calendar for these immigrant veterans. They’re his most loyal voters, the hard core of his party.

Within minutes, the image of the MKs and ministers was uploaded to Russian-language news sites, with a caption stating that only members of Yisrael Beiteinu took the trouble to honor the session with their presence – which was a lie. Other MKs were also present, including Tzipi Livni and Ksenia Svetlova from Zionist Union. The latter was updated in real-time about the libelous claim, and dispatched the party’s spokesperson to the Russian community to issue a denial. Wonder how you say “fake news” in Russian.

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