“Tragic” — this is the word Arieh Eldad chooses to describe the situation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after his Oct. 1 speech at the UN General Assembly.
Eldad, formerly a member of the Knesset from the Ichud Leumi party and a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, argues that Netanyahu lost out on both ends: On one end he remains alone in the struggle to stop the Iranian nuclear program, and on the other end he missed the window of opportunity for a military strike on the nuclear facilities in Bushehr. He’s also disappointed that Netanyahu adopted the Israeli left’s program to divide the country in order to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.
Eldad serves as the chair of Professors for a Strong Israel, a non-profit organization identified with the right wing, and he is considered one of the most articulate speakers and writers on the ideological right. When he looks at Netanyahu, he sees a huge missed opportunity.
Former Knesset member Arieh Eldad of the Ichud Leumi party in a 2013 picture (Photo by Gila Levin)
How would you rate Netanyahu’s speech before the UN General Assembly?
“The speech was mostly unnecessary. Netanyahu missed his moment when he spoke so long after [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani’s speech. While he said the right things, his response was no longer relevant and missed the world’s attention. He didn’t say anything new or earth-shattering.
“My critique of Netanyahu is on the strategic level. His speech was well crafted, and it expressed in the best possible way that the military option is still on the table. But Netanyahu faced this exact dilemma a year, and a year and a half ago, and because of American opposition — and the opposition of the security establishment on our end — he ultimately decided against an independent Israeli action. The struggle against the Iranian nuclear program is undoubtedly Netanyahu’s main strategic focus in recent years.
“At the same time, despite domestic pressure to tie the Palestinian issue to the Iranian issue, at least Netanyahu initially argued that there’s no connection between the two issues. But in the last few years he capitulated to making this connection. Beginning with the Bar-Ilan speech he has talked differently. The clearest indication of this in my mind is that a few months ago, Netanyahu said that we do not want to be a binational state, and therefore we have no choice but to move in the direction of a Palestinian state.
“The significance is that he not only adopted the program of the Israeli left, but also its conceptual world. That is, it’s become his plan, not a plan imposed on him.”
Has he crossed the Rubicon?
“Yes, but he’s stuck when facing his voters, facing most Likud voters, and HaBayit HaYehudi, and thus his associates spread messages in the subtext that in order to win support on the Iranian issue we have to sacrifice the Land of Israel.
“Netanyahu understands that he’s in a tragic situation: He gave up on the Land of Israel, but he also understands that he lost the battle over the Iranian nuclear program. He understands that we missed the opportunity for an Israeli military strike because their nuclear facilities are deep underground, and even if we strike militarily, we can no longer cause significant damage.
“Netayahu understands that [President Barack] Obama won’t do anything, and that Israel can no longer do anything on its own. Thus Netanyahu lost on all counts, and what he has left is to give a nice speech at the UN.”
So it was a statement for the sake of making a statement?
“It’s like [former Prime Minister] Ehud Barak used to say, 'Israel will know how to act' – a statement that means 'We have no idea what to do.' In my understanding, Netanyahu’s threat that we would strike alone is meaningless today. He already gave up on the chance for a significant military accomplishment.
“Netanyahu wasn’t strong enough to decide on this issue by himself. In his meeting with Obama, he should have said, 'If you have lost interest in the Iranian nuclear program, as far as we are concerned, the Palestinian issue is also off, because it’s all one package, and if you take it apart we won’t continue to pay the price you expect us to.' But Netanyahu finds it hard to do because he became convinced that this is also the Israeli interest, and he’s not even able to play poker.”
If, according to you, the balance of power has shifted, have the strategic threats facing Israel also changed?
"It’s clear that Iran has no intention to disarm its nuclear capabilities. It intends to work in secret and to announce it to the world once it has a nuclear facility. Then, the rules of the game will change. There are already senior figures in Israel who speak behind closed doors about a nuclear era in the Middle East. There’s no way I can read Netanyahu’s mind, but I think he understands that his primary strategy has failed: to recruit the whole world to the fight against the Iranian nuclear program.
“Iran is one decision away from creating a bomb. At the moment the regime decides, they can get the facility, and if they don’t make a strategic mistake, I don’t see the world intervening. It’s tragic in my view, because Netanyahu has already accepted the reasoning of the idea of two states. It’s tragic because he’s given up on his father’s legacy and on what’s written in his brother Yoni’s letters [published by his family, after the death of special forces commander Jonathan Netanyahu during the Entebbe operation]. After all, he aspired to go down in history as the one who saved Israel from the nuclear threat, and today he lost both this struggle and that struggle.”
When do you think Netanyahu started to understand that he’s in a “catch-22”?
“He started to understand it when Obama retreated from the red line he drew for Syria, and then at the moment Rouhani started smiling. At that point it was clear that the worldwide reaction to the Iranian nuclear program changed its tone. Now Netanyahu can draw a new red line based on Rouhani’s smiles: When the smile reaches his ears, that will be the new red line.”
So from the start you don’t give diplomacy a chance?
“This diplomatic era stems from the weakness of the West and from Obama’s strategy. There’s a similarity to the Munich Agreement of 1938: There’s one party that wants to grow stronger, and on the other side a party that wants quiet and is willing to pay any price, and that’s what’s happening now. The United States is giving up on leadership, and Russia is turning into the influential world power in the region.”
As a man of the right, is there someone today who represents your positions in the Knesset and the government?
“To a very small extent. HaBayit HaYehudi tends to close its eyes. This is pretense because they also know that Netanyahu is headed toward reaching an interim arrangement based on temporary borders with the Palestinians, and it does nothing to stop it. [Knesset member] Uri Ariel, too, while I don’t question his loyalty, still prefers to influence from within because he hopes that he could stop the process, but this is a mistaken strategy. Unfortunately the parliamentary right is very weak.”
Mazal Mualem is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor and formerly a chief political analyst for Maariv and Haaretz. She also previously worked for Bamachane, the Israeli army's weekly newspaper.