The (justified) jubilation over normalization with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain must not blind us to the biggest failure of “King Bibi,” a flop that dwarfs even the government’s egregious mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. It is in the very area that for years Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touted as paramount from his perspective: dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.
This failure is resounding and prolonged, leaving us today at a serious disadvantage in confronting a real and very troubling threat, precisely because of the way Netanyahu has been handling it for years.
Netanyahu has repeatedly (and unjustly) blamed his predecessors for badly mishandling the issue, in order to position himself as the great savior. But a sequence of errors for which he bears responsibility has needlessly brought Iran closer than ever to obtaining nuclear weapons while leaving Israel with far fewer and riskier options to implement.
On numerous occasions Netanyahu, who framed the Iranian nuclear threat as portending the danger of another Holocaust, has consistently shied away from initiating a military strike against the Iranian facilities. Instead, he opted for coercive diplomacy, designed to make Iran suffer economically. But instead of operating mostly below the radar like his predecessors Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert to mobilize broad international pressure against Iran, accompanied by imposition of tough sanctions until it agrees to painful nuclear concessions following negotiations, Netanyahu opted for a polarizing policy, dominated by bombastic speeches at the United Nations and the U.S. Congress, coupled with categorical opposition to any negotiations with Iran.
Drawing a red line in the UN speech for Iran’s nuclear enrichment enabled Tehran to confidently advance its activity up to that line, knowing that Israel would refrain from attacking it unless this line was crossed, in the process signaling the United States with what level of Iranian enrichment Israel could actually live.
It is therefore hardly surprising that this red line later made its way to the package of Washington’s outsized concessions to Iran in the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) negotiations – concessions that Netanyahu subsequently rushed to criticize. Public diplomacy consisting of speeches and news conferences leveraging impressive intelligence achievements are no substitute for focused diplomatic campaigns, both quiet and overt, directed at influential countries, coupled a determined effort to build the capabilities to take care of the problem by ourselves, should it prove absolutely necessary.
When Netanyahu learned about the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran, he strove to undermine them, in part by making demands that were extreme to the point of absurdity. And when the problematic nuclear deal was finalized, Netanyahu did his best to lobby the U.S. Congress to reject it.
But it did not take long for President Barack Obama and his staff to recognize Netanyahu’s intentions and to conclude that the Israeli premier had allied with the president’s political foes to stymie the deal. Obama thus girded his loins and unsurprisingly prevailed over Netanyahu. Congress thus went along with the deal, hardly attaching any meaningful (and desirable) reservations or amendments to it. Worse still, the crass way Netanyahu and his emissary, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, conducted themselves in the process has created a rift with the Democrats in Congress that is proving hard to mend, in the process alienating even moderate Republicans, who saw in Netanyahu’s behavior a blatant attempt to undermine a sitting U.S. president.
Netanyahu’s calls on U.S. President Donald Trump to pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran left Israel (and the United States) with the worst of both worlds: without constraints on Iran’s enrichment program, and without any real ability to influence the deal’s implementation or use its mechanisms to tighten restrictions on Iranian activity of concern. Naturally, in the process they have also deprived Israel (and the U.S.) of effective leverage on the other countries party to the agreement.
Commensurately, this behavior has also alienates the agreement’s many supporters in the United States, chief among them former vice-president (and current presidential frontrunner) Joe Biden. Even worse, although the United States (going at it alone) has reimposed painful sanctions on Iran, (which are indeed exacting a series toll of the Iranian economy), America’s isolation and Trump’s stated desire to reach a new nuclear deal with Iran, are hardly likely to induce Iran to moderate its stance. On the contrary, they have reinforced Iran’s determination to make progress on its nuclear ambitions. According it legitimacy to greatly exceed the enrichment limitations imposed on it by of the agreement, in the process they shortened the time Iran it would need to attain enough fissionable material for nuclear weapons from about a year to roughly three months.
It would have made far greater sense for Prime Minister Netanyahu to instead leverage the achievements of Israel’s outstanding intelligence services in gathering information and apparently also in hitting Iran surgically where it hurts, to create a coalition that could press the Islamic Republic to accept additional constraints on its nuclear and missile programs. He opted for generating headlines rather than press for open ended extension of the duration of the agreement to imposition of limitations on the program for dual capable missiles, and tighter verification regime on the Iranian weaponization activities.
Netanyahu has tied our fate to the impulsive Trump, who with a wave of his hand cancelled the JCPOA well before he could negotiate a replacement – and in so doing triggered a frontal confrontation with the other parties to the JCPOA, not only Russia and China, but also the EU and the EU3, which had heretofore been receptive to Israel's push to tighten some of the loopholes in the JCPOA.
It’s therefore unsurprising that the clumsy diplomatic effort by Trump and Netanyahu to extend the arms embargo against Iran (which expires next month) ended up as a humiliating flop. In addition, Trump for his part keeps on boasting that he will reach a new deal with Iran within weeks of his reelection.
We all know that Trump’s chances of reelection do not presently look great. But just think how a deal he would make with Iran would look like, given how badly he wants it combined with his explicit desire to withdraw American troops from the region, leaving the U.S. with little leverage over Iran to go along with a more stringent deal than the JCPOA.
Joe Biden on the other hand stated this week that he would aim to revive Obama’s JCPOA without making any more stringent demands on Iran – myopia directly attributable to a blindness caused by Netanyahu’s total identification with Trump, as well as the absence of any meaningful effort on Israel’s part to present him with both the deal’s loopholes and implementation weaknesses and suitable alternatives for negotiations.
We must now all realize that the Iranian cloth used by Prime Minister Netanyahu to tailor (predictably at our expense) his royal wardrobe does not exist, and never did. We thus have to wake up from the comforting illusion that he will be our great savior on Iran. Our future hangs in the balance.
Ariel (Eli) Levite is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.