Benjamin Netanyahu, the Man Who Brought Iran to the Nuclear Threshold

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Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in January 2020.

In March 2018, Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition faced a crisis, and the prime minister threatened to call an election that summer. In a hallway conversation, Yair Lapid accused opposition leader Isaac Herzog of not leveraging the crisis into an election.

Herzog said something like: Drop it, it’s better for us not to have an election this summer, Netanyahu is only getting stronger. Three months later Netanyahu reached the peak of his power and Lapid admitted that it was a good thing not to angle for an election.  

Netanyahu’s stronger position was linked to Iran. It began with a dramatic press conference where Netanyahu revealed Iran’s nuclear archive. The following week the drama heightened further when Donald Trump announced that the United States was withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal. Netanyahu was rightly perceived as the one who pushed the U.S. president into this policy, with the prime minister winning embraces all around.

President Reuven Rivlin declared that this was “a significant step for ensuring Israel’s security.” Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman called it “a bold leader-style move that will lead to the downfall of this terrible and cruel regime,” adding that “this is a great victory for the policy spearheaded by Prime Minister Netanyahu … in light of the short-sightedness of Lapid and other opposition leaders.”

Lieberman was referring to the fact that a bit earlier, Lapid said he was against a unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear accord. Trump’s decision forced Lapid to hone his stance; he congratulated Trump for his “strong support of Israel.” As Lapid put it, just as in the past he had agreed with the government to get the accord annulled, he would now join the effort to restore the sanctions and stop Iran.

Senior Likud officials competed over who could flatter Netanyahu the most. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and cabinet members Yisrael Katz, Gilad Erdan and Yariv Levin all did their best. Miri Regev took the cake: “The Balfour Declaration ensured a Jewish homeland, the Trump declaration protects this homeland forever.”

It’s depressing to see how few dared to think differently. Defense officials maintained their silence, understandably, even though most believed that Israel shouldn’t have pushed Trump into withdrawing from the accord, which they considered the least bad option.

After the decision was made, there was no point in expressing objections, and even opposition members such as Itzik Shmuli and Amir Peretz welcomed Trump’s move. The only ones daring to object were Meretz chief Tamar Zandberg, Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich and the usual suspects, the Joint List’s Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi. Today, their position is the new consensus: It was a mistake that brought Iran closer than ever to a nuclear bomb.

In May 2018, the joyous Netanyahu forecast that within a few years “the deal would have allowed Iran to enrich enough uranium for an entire arsenal of nuclear bombs.” Well, now there is a consensus: Until Trump’s withdrawal, Iran meticulously adhered to the accord, which would have kept it a safe distance from a bomb at least until 2025.  

But the withdrawal has left Iran able to assemble its first bomb whenever it wishes. More gravely, it’s reasonable to assume that no one will know until it’s too late.

The supporters of that decision now say: Who thought that Trump wouldn’t be reelected in 2020? Moreover, they were hoping the Iranian regime would fall. Well, basing the most important plank in Israel’s defense policy on the identity of the next U.S. president amounts to criminal negligence. Basing policy on wishful thinking such as “the regime's about to fall” is total folly.

In 2008, Sara Netanyahu screamed over the phone: “Only my husband can save Israel from a nuclear Iran.” Now it seems he’ll go down as the person who brought Iran to the nuclear threshold, something the world had managed to prevent for 30 years.

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