Analysis

Netanyahu Sets Israel Up as Fall Guy for U.S.-Iran Clash

Even when Israeli leaders, unlike Netanyahu, kept a low profile, it took years to shake off the accusation that the country pushed for the Iraq war

U.S. President Donald Trump listens while Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a statement during the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 18, 2017, in New York.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP

If the Israeli prime minister were at his best right now, he wouldn’t insist on putting the nuclear deal with Iran at the top of his public agenda. He would leave it for his most private discussions. He would go along with the tone set by Donald Trump on Monday night, at the start of his meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, by ignoring Iran and talking exclusively about peace with the Palestinians. If Netanyahu were focused only on efforts to push the U.S. to abandon the nuclear deal - even at the risk of war - he would do whatever he could to convince everyone that this was the furthest thing from his mind.

Because the last thing that Trump wants is to be seen as Netanyahu’s stooge. The last thing that’s good for Netanyahu - and for Israel - is for international and American public opinion to suspect that he cajoled the U.S. president, whom many people see as a fool, to abandon an agreement that most of the world supports. The last thing that Israel needs is to be seen as having shifted attention away from North Korea’s ballistic missiles, which pose a far more acute danger to America’s national security, that it forced Washington to deal with two major crises at once, or that it played a key role in sparking a clash that ultimately leads to U.S. soldiers being killed in battle.

Israel needed many long years to refute the allegation that, together with its neo-conservative lackeys in Washington, it pushed George W. Bush into the war with Iraq, and this at a time when, unlike Netanyahu, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon maintained a low public profile. If there is a sudden and serious deterioration in relations between Washington and Tehran over the next few weeks, Israel will be hard-pressed to deny that this is what it wanted to achieve all along. When things get complicated, as they always do, it will be easy to point an accusatory finger at Netanyahu and his country.

Trump and Netanyahu's full comments before their meeting

But even in more normal times, when it comes to Iran, Netanyahu can’t help himself. Just as he once anointed himself Mr. Terror, he now casts himself as the only prophet of doom on Iran. With impressive historical creativity, Netanyahu and his allies have convinced themselves that his controversial March 2015 address to Congress opposing the Iran deal was a stroke of genius, even though it was actually a complete failure. The speech was too arrogant and too confrontational. It left Democratic lawmakers no choice but to back their President Barack Obama and his nuclear deal, it tarnished Israel’s standing in the liberal wing of American politics, perhaps irrevocably, and it soured the relations, which Netanyahu has since poisoned, between Israel and parts of American Jewry. But we showed everyone how just we are, the right-wingers tend to say in such situations, and that’s the only thing that matters.

In March 2015, Netanyahu had elections in mind; now he has police investigations to worry about. The public focus on the existential threat posed by Iran diminishes and makes a mockery of petty concerns about the boxes of cigars or crates of Champagne he received as “gifts” from his billionaire clients. It casts Netanyahu as a courageous leader with a vision rather than as a small-time pilferer of state funds or a sucker for expensive gifts, as he is sometimes is seen by the press. It compels the media to give him the respect he and his wife think he deserves, rather than consigning him to the sidelines, as he whined, during his recent visit in South America, which he described as unimaginably historic.

UN General Assembly 2017

At the same time, if the president of the United States were at his best now, he would remind Netanyahu that Washington, D.C., is known as a one-crisis town. That it cannot concurrently handle two major international confrontations, which could both descend into violent clashes. He would bargain with Netanyahu about the degree of U.S. resoluteness in trying to distance Iran from Israel’s northern border with Syria, promise to make sure Tehran is kept to its end of the nuclear deal and tell the Israeli prime minister to get off his case, and quickly. The American expression is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and the Iranian deal, with all its deficiencies, ain’t broke right now. Talk of changing or improving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is pure fantasy; Iran would never agree to it, such a president would tell Netanyahu, given that most of the world would view Tehran as the victim and take its side against the American bully.

The current U.S. commander-in-chief, on the other hand, is the unguided missile known as Trump, whose strategic views are shaped by the contest between the thought-out counsel of his advisers and the irrepressible demands of his ego. Trump is bent on erasing whatever memory he can of Obama, whose lingering popularity drives him bananas, including the Iran accord. He wants to be able to say that he kept all of his campaign promises, no matter how ludicrous they were. He seeks to show the world he couldn’t care less about all of the diplomats, experts and foreign dignitaries who are urging him not to renege on a deal that the U.S. worked hard to achieve and which most of the world continues to support. He knows much better, believe me.

If one relies solely on his opening statement in New York on Monday night, Trump intends to proceed carefully and not to seem too eager to take on Iran, at least not while Israel’s prime minister is seated next to him. But if one takes into account Trump’s record, it’s only a matter of time before he starts threatening Tehran with fire and fury and the worst destruction in all history while he starts insulting Supreme Leader Khamenei as Man in Black or something, just as he called Kim Jong-un "Rocket Man." A sudden spike in tensions with Tehran, never mind an eventual deterioration to actual war, would exact a steep price from Trump and the U.S. If that happens, you can forget about the beautiful friendship between the two leaders: Trump will quickly blame Netanyahu for pushing him into such a dangerous adventure. If Netanyahu isn't around by then, Israel will have to foot the bill for him, as it always does.