Netanyahu's Mistake: Turning Iran Into Israel's Issue

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

Oh, the drama, the suspense, the "historic few hours". But what was the White House Obama - Netanyahu meet about? It was, in the words of the grand statesman George Costanza, about nothing.

The U.S. and Israel agree that: "It is paramount that Iran doesn't get nuclear weapons." A fascinating revelation.

When it comes to countries, political life often prepares you better for failure than for success.

When success is sudden and appears against conventional wisdom and prevailing expectations, confusion is exacerbated so we, naturally all look for the risks.

If Israel were told ten, five, three or one year ago that by September 2013 the UN Security Council would adopt a binding resolution disarming Syria of its chemical arsenal and at the same time, direct negotiations between the U.S, and Iran on curbing the Iranian military nuclear program would commence, this would be dismissed as a fantasy. Yet this is exactly the background to Prime Minister Netanyahu's trip to the U.S. A geopolitical triumph, possibly, is being spun as an "Oh my God! They killed Kenny" moment.

When it comes to grasping potential triumphs Israel is somewhat challenged. There are mitigating circumstances for a country mired in a permanent state of conflict and the absence of diplomatic normalcy for so long. Yet when things are looking good, out of habit, paranoia prevails.

Contrary to what the punditocracy claims, and with much fanfare, there has not been a substantial shift in U.S.-Iranian relations. Not yet anyway. Yes, there was that phone conversation between Presidents Obama and Rohani, analyzed ad nauseaum.

But in reality, the new phase in this decade-old saga of "What To Do About Iran's Nuclear Program" is only beginning. The U.S. did not - did not - offer new gestures, nor hinted in any way that sanctions may be eased. In fact, President Obama reiterated that a military option is no off the table. Iran, for its part, mellowed compared to the incendiary, inciteful and hateful rhetoric of the Ahmadinejad days (yes, we all miss him) but presented absolutely no new policy.

Effectively, the Iranian "charm offensive" is over. Those who accuse Prime Minister Netanyahu of party pooping the U.S.-Iranian temporary "Entente Cordiale" are forgetting two things: First, you can't poop a party that ended before you showed up and secondly, this entente has been a U.S. policy objective ever since President Obama articulated it in 2009, calling it then "engagement".

The multilateral approach, through the UN Security Council as a mechanism or as a group, with the addition of Germany, succeeded in pressuring Iran and generated sustained global awareness of the Iranian nuclear program, but could not alter the trajectory of Iran's ambitions and policy. Severe sanctions were imposed, exacting a high price on Iran's economy, but sanctions were but a means to coerce negotiations. It took the U.S. nearly five years (since President Obama enunciated the "engagement" policy) and the election of Rohani this June to launch such talks, but here we are.

Yes, Iran has an impressive and consistent track record of duplicity and deceit. Yes, it would be reckless to assume that Rohani is a born-again anti-proliferation wonk who will forgo Iran's nuclear aspirations. But the only way to reach a deal and install an intrusive inspections regime is through negotiations. Mr. Netanyahu is right to express his doubts. The cost of miscalculation is too high a price to pay, particularly for Israel. However, he is wrong to dismiss this casually as just an Iranian ploy. Rather than "declare victory" and announce that while Israel has reservations, it welcomes negotiations and prefers a diplomatic path, Israel is turning the Iranian issue into an exclusively Israeli issue. This is not and should not be the case.

Former Obama Administration arms control expert, Gary Samore, currently with UANI (United Against Nuclear Iran, an agile New York-based advocacy group that Iran itself concedes has caused it significant political and economic damage) said to Foreign Policy magazine: "Nobody is fooled by the charm offense; everybody understands the Supreme Leader is seeking nuclear weapons. No matter how many times Rohani smiles, it doesn't change the basic objective of the program."

Samore is right, but direct negotiations, coupled with a credible, serious, tacit and quiet military threat is the only modality that can work. When 76% of Americans, in a CNN poll, say they favor a diplomatic solution that indicates not a profound understanding of Iran, but a critical mass of fatigue with military adventures in the greater Middle East.

Before Netanyahu is dismissed as some habitual "party pooper", his fundamental, historically-rooted approach needs to be understood. Netanyahu has a messianic strain in him and thinks of himself as a historical figure put at the helm for meta-historical reasons. This is 1938, we are facing the "Gathering Storm", and the part of Hitler is played by Iran.

Alas, he is forgetting that after "The Gathering Storm", Winston Churchill's opening volume in his history of the Second World War, he wrote (Volume III): "The Grand Alliance".

Alon Pinkas was Adviser to four Israeli Foreign Ministers and was Consul General of Israel in New York. He is currently a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum.

Obama and Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House, September, 30, 2013.Credit: AP