Netanyahu's Lesson in Losing Iran-deal Fight: You Can't Beat Something With Nothing

Will the Israeli prime minister heed this lesson in future battles, like the Palestinian issue?

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Congress, March 3, 2015.
AP

For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it is now perfectly clear what he needs to learn from the debacle of the Iran debate: You can’t beat something with nothing. It remains to be seen whether or not this will be a lesson that he will remember in the battles that lie ahead.   

We now know that U.S. President Barack Obama will get his way on Iran, but this was hardly a foregone conclusion when the debate began. The deal was flawed, and the Obama administration has been inclined to oversell it. Democrats in both the House and the Senate had their doubts about the terms of the agreement and expressed those doubts without hesitation.

But while the president has been wrong about many things, he has been right about the most important thing of all:  There is no alternative to the agreement that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated. “We want a better deal” was the war cry of the Republicans, AIPAC and other deal opponents in the Jewish community. But as Democrats waited to hear what that better deal would look like and how exactly it would come into being, the anti-deal voices fumbled, stumbled, and ultimately looked partisan and silly.

In thoughtful public statements and in private conversations as well, Democrats made it clear that it was the absence of an alternative that ultimately convinced them. Obama had presented a far-from-perfect plan that would, nonetheless, keep nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands for many years. And the Republicans, Jewish groups and Netanyahu countered with, well, nothing—at least nothing realistic that had any reasonable chance of ever being implemented. Given those choices, the Democrats, not surprisingly, chose their president and his plan.

In short, the president did not win, as some have suggested, simply because he is the president and the president gets his way on foreign policy. (That is usually true, but not always.) He won because the visceral appeals from his opponents that resonated so strongly among some Jews and the hawks of the far right were not enough. Emotional slogans were never going to carry the day among Democratic moderates searching for actual answers to real problems. 

As Netanyahu gears up for his next diplomatic battle, which will be on the Israeli-Palestinian question, he will face another version of the same dilemma. And it will be interesting to see how he responds.  Will he try, yet again, to “fight something with nothing”?  Will he demand “a better deal” from the Palestinians without offering a deal of his own?

There is, it needs to be said, something bizarre and even absurd about the Israel-Palestine issue returning to the top of the international political agenda at this moment. The Middle East is in chaos.  The Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, remains as brutal and threatening as ever. Syrians are dying in horrifying numbers, and refugees are inundating Europe. While occupations are by definition oppressive, Israel’s occupation included, the occupation of the West Bank is preferable to a Hamas takeover there. Is this really the best time to talk about Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation?

Nonetheless, that is what will happen at the upcoming session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. France seems intent on presenting parameters for a settlement that will be acceptable to the Palestinians and could be approved by the UN Security Council. And the European Union is renewing its efforts to exert pressure on Israel, beginning with a plan to label all goods that originate in Israeli settlements.

Given Israel’s rather perilous position in the international arena, not to mention her tense relations with the Obama administration, how best to proceed? Netanyahu need not solve a problem that, for the time being, is probably insoluble. But if he learns from experience, he will recognize that in dealing with skeptical allies, he cannot continue to appear as an evader and procrastinator. He will realize that almost 50 years after the occupation began, even Israel’s friends are not content with vague promises, emotional appeals, and empty words. And he will therefore put forward a plan to demonstrate that he is serious about a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, even if the Palestinians are not yet ready for the compromises that need to be made.

The Americans and Europeans have some questions for Netanyahu. What does his government want, exactly? What does he see as the borders of the Jewish state? What territory does he expect to annex and what to return? Where will settlement building continue and where will it be halted? The only strange thing about these questions is that in his fourth term as prime minister, Netanyahu has never seen the need to answer them. 

It is not the prime minister’s job to deliver an agreement. For that he needs Palestinian buy-in that he does not currently have. But he does need to provide a political vision that he has stubbornly refused to offer. As we have seen from the whole sorry Iran spectacle, “fighting something with nothing” is a losing strategy, and it is a strategy that Mr. Netanyahu needs to change. 

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism.