The coverage of the Iran dispute between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama depicts Netanyahu as suffering a defeat. With global support, Obama reached a framework agreement on Tehran’s nuclear program that Netanyahu defines as bad. And Netanyahu, in opposing the deal, has damaged Israel’s all-important ties with the United States.
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But from a historical perspective, the agreement could be Netanyahu’s greatest achievement, perhaps his only legacy. If the agreement is kept, Iran will not be a nuclear power for the next decade. And the option that Netanyahu favors — continued sanctions and the threat of an attack — remains on the table if Iran tries to breach the agreement.
Even the demands by Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz for amendments to the deal don’t show a major gap between the Israeli position and the agreement. Moreover, the international community stands behind the deal — and that’s what Netanyahu has been seeking since the 1990s: to enlist the world to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear arms.
True, the world powers didn’t act only because of Netanyahu. The United States, Russia, China and certainly Europe have their own reasons to keep Iran from having nuclear weapons. Part of this involves the commitment to the Gulf states and the Sunni Arab countries, part involves other strategic considerations, and part is a principled position against nuclear proliferation. But since the late 19th century, Zionism's leaders have been tested by their ability to adapt the global situation to what is perceived as the good of the Jews.
This was the principle that guided Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann when they fought for the Balfour Declaration, and David Ben-Gurion when he supported the UN Partition Plan of 1947. Israel isn’t strong enough to bring the world over to its side by sheer willpower. Diplomatic savvy is needed to find shared interests that will help Israel influence international events.
This is what Netanyahu did, and he did it well. It could be that one day the archives will reveal that the Israeli threat of an attack and the unremitting campaign against Iran merged with Western interests. This approach may even have spurred the parties, including the Iranians, to close a deal.
One may argue over Netanyahu’s tactics, even over his obsessiveness and his evoking the Holocaust and the image of the ancient enemy Amalek. But the bottom line is that Iran’s program will be capped for at least a decade, and without a military operation.
The irony is that precisely those who think the deal is good aren’t complimenting Netanyahu on the outcome. And why doesn’t Netanyahu claim this achievement as his own? It seems he really does prefer a better agreement.
But at the same time it’s reasonable to assume that Netanyahu, as a seasoned statesmen, understands that the aspiration to completely quash the Iranian nuclear program isn’t realistic and won’t be achieved by negotiations or a military operation. And so one possible answer is that he decided that his role is to remain bitter until June, when the final agreement is to be signed, to make further undesirable compromises difficult.
Another, unfortunate, answer is that without Iran, Netanyahu’s target bank is empty. From a political point of view, he has no vision or plan other than maneuvers to maintain the status quo.
And that’s not easy. In those terms it may be said that it would have been better for Netanyahu to lose the election and be remembered as the man who made a significant contribution to prevent Iran from going nuclear.