Netanyahu plays the Iran card in Israeli politics

Can Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adjust to the possible change offered by the agreement with Iran?

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement at his office in Jerusalem, Nov. 24, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Baz Ratner.

Topics covered

israeli politics, israel-us relations, iranian threat, iranian nuclear issue, iran nuclear weapons, geneva ii, ehud barak, benjamin netanyahu, barack obama

Nov 26, 2013

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared before the cameras on Sunday morning (Nov. 24) at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting, and, with severe demeanor, denounced the agreement between the superpowers and Iran as a historic mistake, he was speaking to Israeli public opinion.

That very same morning, the agreement with Iran, which was signed in Geneva, was already a fait accompli, and the Israeli Prime Minister’s expression of outrage and offense couldn’t change a thing.

Netanyahu knew this, of course, but with his outcry he attempted to earn points among the Israeli public. He wanted to maximize his unique position as the responsible adult in the government of Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, and to portray himself as a leader who puts himself and his international stature at risk in order to fulfill the task of ensuring the security of Israel, the well fortified bulwark against evil and against the world.

Netanyahu actually did what he has been doing for years, since his time as chairman of the opposition (2006-09) and later as prime minister: He's using the Iranian nuclear project for internal political needs.

This is not to say here that Netanyahu does not really and truly believe that Iran poses an existential threat, unprecedented in its scope, with the potential to bring down a second Holocaust on us, nor that he does not consider the stopping of the Iranian bomb as his life’s mission.

Netanyahu, as can be seen in every action and deed that he makes as prime minister, both public and covert, really does meet the description in its entirety. But like every politician, there comes a stage in which things are also judged through the public prism, through polls, and through political profit.

Having said that, this statement is not put forward to claim that Netanyahu’s struggle against the Iranian nuclear program is cynical and instrumental. Rather, it notes that at a certain stage, Netanyahu recognized the enormous political potential inherent in the topic, so he promoted it, increasing or decreasing the level of media involvement in accordance with his needs at that time. In general, he conducted so intimate a relationship with the Iranian bomb that it became the be all and end all of his political and public existence and the be all and end all of his very leadership.

Although it is highly doubtful whether a small percent of Israelis even understands the agreement signed between the superpowers and Iran in any depth, or that they should ponder the question as to whether, despite everything, there is anything good in the agreement as far as Israel is concerned, they are convinced that Netanyahu’s outcry is justified, as is the manner in which he is acting as a Don Quixote facing off against Iran as it goes nuclear.

Why is that? Because the Israeli public has been taught over the past few years to align itself with the narrative led by Netanyahu, sometimes with the cooperation of former Defense Minister Ehud Barak and most of the time with the help of the senior ministers in his previous and present governments – the narrative according to which the task of stopping the Iranian bomb in any way possible is an existential obligation, and if necessary, Israel will launch a military strike on its own.

The secrecy that necessarily surrounds any dealings with the Iranian issue, as well as the issue’s importance, enabled the previous and current Netanyahu governments to enjoy political and public benefits for having shown public responsibility and standing in the breach against the entire rest of the world.

Testimony to the extent to which this narrative has become entrenched among the Israeli public can be seen in public opinion polls conducted over the years, which indicated that the public trusts Netanyahu on the Iranian issue.

Furthermore, Netanyahu enjoys very high marks compared to all his political rivals on any index measuring suitability to be Prime Minister, not least because of his war against the Iranian bomb. 

The last example of this is a poll that was published in Netanyahu’s home paper, Yisrael HaYom on Monday [Nov. 25], two days after the signing of the agreement, and whose results featured prominently on the front page. To the question, “As a result of the agreement, do you believe that Iran will halt its nuclear program?” 76.4% of the respondents answered no; to the question, “Do you think the United States caused damage to Israeli interests when it signed the agreement with Iran?” 58.8% answered yes; on the question, “Are you happy with the prime minister’s handling of the issue?” 55.3% answered yes.

The Iranian bomb was also politically expedient to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, since he could use it to whitewash his entry into Netanyahu’s second government in March 2009, when he was forced to explain to the members of the Israeli Labor Party why, despite the embarrassing thirteen seats he received in the election, which sent him into the opposition, he was joining the right-wing government. Barak hinted and sometimes even said explicitly that there is a much greater task than any petty dealing with his promises to remain loyal to the voters’ decree. “Time is running out. It is slipping between our fingers … This project has the potential to pose an existential threat to us,” said Barak on the eve of his joining the government (Feb. 25, 2009), when relating to the official statement from Iran concerning the launching of the nuclear reactor in Bushehr.

Netanyahu himself waged entire political campaigns based on raising the banner of war against the Iranian nuclear program. He did it in 2009, and even more so in the last election, with Liberman at his side – the two of them sold the Israeli public a powerful partnership that could stand up against the Iranian threat, a role that none of the existing political forces, and certainly not novices Lapid and Bennett, could fulfill.

Most of the time, Netanyahu could also raise his various other achievements, chief among them the West’s economic sanctions, which put a stranglehold on Iran and ultimately led it to the negotiating table.  The issue now is that Netanyahu has not learned in the past few weeks and month that he must embrace the spirit of change and act within a changing environment. He continued to fight the same war, including hinting at a military strike, while the United States switched tracks and conducted diplomatic negotiations with Iran, which ended in Geneva on the night between Saturday and Sunday, and which left Netanyahu behind, squeezing every last drop out of the Iranian lemon to achieve political stability internally.