At the end of last week (Nov. 8), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put on his best frown and reiterated that Israel would know how to defend itself — in other words, to attack Iran’s nuclear sites. Netanyahu’s stormy diatribe against the United States and the five other members of the forum conducting negotiations with Iran is reminiscent of the incident dubbed “the hot cassette affair” of January 1993.
Netanyahu, who was running for Likud party leader, confessed in a live television interview to having had an extramarital affair. He claimed that “one man, surrounded by a small gang of criminals” had threatened that if he didn’t pull out of the race, a tape would be revealed showing Netanyahu allegedly having sex with a woman who was not his legally wedded wife. A police investigation launched after Netanyahu filed a complaint did not come up with any indication that Netanyahu had been the victim of extortion or that there was any sign of a cassette.
Now, as then, Netanyahu was quick to run off at the mouth about the “deal of the century” that the Iranian regime had managed to squeeze out of world leaders, before an announcement emerged in Geneva that a deal with Iran had been born. In fact, a day later it became known that an agreement had not been signed. In an interview with CBS, Netanyahu said, “Iran maintains its capability to enrich material for a nuclear bomb, … so Iran effectively becomes a threshold nation, threshold nuclear power nation. … Iran gives practically nothing and it gets a hell of a lot.”
One cannot discount Netanyahu’s claim that the agreement being negotiated in Geneva will enable the Iranians to enjoy a significant easing of sanctions and to continue developing their nuclear program. What’s more, many experts are warning that a six-month time period will allow Iran to reach the stage where a bombing of its nuclear sites will involve environmental damage similar to the proportions of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. This would mean giving up on the military option and enabling the Islamic Republic of Iran to become a nuclear power. On the other hand, these same experts have said again and again that bombing the reactors would delay completion of the Iranian nuclear program by no more than two years.
The United States was effectively faced with two options: The first, a rejection of Iran’s request to gradually lift sanctions in return for a temporary freeze of the nuclear program, a military strike against the nuclear sites without backing and perhaps at the cost of confrontation with Russia and China, and heavy casualties from Iranian retaliation against Israel, American and Jewish targets. All this to “gain” two years. The second option — an easing of sanctions and a limited trial period, taking a chance that Tehran is bluffing and that Netanyahu will go back to blaming the West for abandoning the Jews to their fate. The United States appears to prefer the second option.
Either way, as I noted in one of my previous articles, the opening of negotiations with Iran closed the door on an Israeli nuclear strike against Iran. If negotiations end in an agreement that will put the minds of the P5+1 at rest, but not that of Netanyahu, it’s doubtful whether even the right-wing government which he heads would authorize a military strike against Iran without international support. The prime minister will be hard pressed to find senior figures in the Israeli defense establishment — past and present — who would sanction a move that runs counter to international law and be so confrontational with the United States, Israel’s central ally. On the other hand, President Barack Obama has promised that should negotiations fail, the United States would not rule out any option to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Israel will be asked to watch from the sidelines, as was the case in the Gulf wars, while the US military and its European partners do the job.
Netanyahu believes that even if Iranian President Hassan Rouhani swears in the name of Allah and the Prophet Muhammad that Iran has given up its plan to develop nuclear weapons, and even if he signs an agreement in this spirit before the eyes of the world, he is bluffing. For many years, Netanyahu has claimed that the Iranians only understood force, and that the most severe sanctions would not stop their ambition to develop a nuclear bomb that could wipe Israel off the map.
Since realizing that the international community was unhappy, to put it mildly, with his threats and the way he expressed them, Netanyahu has focused his diplomatic and media effort on preventing the erosion of the sanctions. And now, it’s not enough that there’s no more talk of a military attack, the naïve American patron is giving a hand to the watering down of the sanctions in return for an interim agreement which provides the crafty Iranians with an opportunity to get closer to a bomb. That’s how things appear from Netanyahu’s vantage point.
The publicized confrontation between Netanyahu and the Obama administration over the Iranian nuclear program took place almost at the same time as the heating up of the public dispute between the prime minister and Secretary of State John Kerry over the settlements plan that Netanyahu insists on promoting. Netanyahu claims that the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb constitutes a violation of international law. Kerry claims that development of the illegitimate settlement enterprise will result in a new wave of violence in the region. One can add to the above revelations in the new book Double Down, Game Change 2012 by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Referring to Netanyahu’s demand to draw “red lines” for Iran, Obama told his aides, according to the book, “We all know that Bibi Netanyahu is a pain in the ass.”
The definition “pain in the ass” is appropriate to describe Netanyahu’s opinion of Obama, as well. The prime minister hasn’t bothered to say a kind word about the US president’s determination to remove the chemical weapons from Israel’s northern border — weapons whose real danger was many times greater than that of the Iranian nuclear program. Netanyahu is bothered by the US threat to present a peace plan that will force him to decide from what he would rather take his leave: from most of the occupied territories and the diplomatic, defense and economic support of the United States, or from most members of his Likud party and governing coalition.
The prime minister appears to want to have his cake and eat it, as did late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir 20 years ago, on the recommendation of then-deputy foreign minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when he was forced to choose between freezing settlement construction and getting US loan guarantees. Both of them hopped over to Capitol Hill, over the head of President Bush the elder (who was also considered a “pain the ass” because he dared place US interests ahead of those of the Likud) in an attempt to force the president to provide Israel with the guarantees, while at the same time continuing to build in the settlements at the height of negotiations with the Palestinians.
The double confrontation of Netanyahu with Obama and with Kerry fell like a ripe fruit into the hands of Netanyahu's neo-conservative friends in Congress. Those friends do not miss on any opportunity to humiliate their loathed White House rival.
President Bush was at the time in the midst of a serious battle over being elected to a second term. Nevertheless, he refused to give in to politicians dubbed “friends of Israel” and to Jewish lobbyists dubbed “pro-Israel.” Shamir lost the guarantees and the Likud party lost the government. The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who in the twilight of his years understood the limits of power, rehabilitated the strategic ties with the US administration and decided to bring about a peace agreement with the Palestinians before Iran was to complete its nuclear program.
A week ago, Nov. 4, marked the 18th anniversary of the Rabin assassination — after which Netanyahu brought the Likud and the settlers back to the leadership of the state. Under his rule relations with the US administration are gradually eroding, peace with the Palestinians is growing distant and the Iranian bomb is growing closer. Will Obama — who already won his battle for a second term — manage to save Israel from its own leader?