Bibi's Iran nuclear talks blunder

Israel's failure to influence the emerging agreement between the world powers and Iran should be cast on Prime Minister Netanyahu, who failed to adapt to the evolving reality of a new Iranian regime, in which the West sees a potential partner.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a navy base in Eilat in front of a display of M-302 rockets that he said were Iranian-supplied missiles bound for militants in the Gaza Strip, March 10, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

Topics covered

right wing, p5+1, nuclear negotiations, israel, iran, diplomacy, benjamin netanyahu

Oct 23, 2014

On Nov. 24, 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood before the news cameras and responded aggressively to the interim agreement that was signed in Geneva between the superpowers and Iran. “What was concluded in Geneva last night is not a historic agreement. It is a historic mistake,” said Netanyahu. He went on to clarify that Israel is not committed to the agreement, and that “Israel has the right and the obligation to defend itself by itself against any threat.”

Almost a year has gone by since then. Over the last few days, the parties participating in the talks in Vienna have shifted gears, as the target date for a permanent agreement approaches. According to reports coming out of the Austrian capital, negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program have reached a critical phase, with the superpowers showing greater flexibility in their positions. And what has Netanyahu been doing? He got up in front of the cameras yet again to warn against a bad agreement that would endanger Israel.

On Oct. 19, at a ceremony marking the naming of a road at the entrance to Jerusalem after late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, a stern-faced Netanyahu declared, “Today, we are facing the danger of an agreement by the powers that will leave Iran a nuclear threshold state, with thousands of centrifuges through which it can produce a nuclear bomb in a short period of time.” In the spirit of the latest developments in the Middle East, the prime minister added, “This is a threat to the entire world, and first and foremost to us. This threat is far more serious than that posed by the Islamic State.”

Netanyahu has never given up an opportunity to exploit the Iranian nuclear threat for internal political purposes. On this occasion as well he used the security issue, apparently to neutralize the “Milky protest,” which brought socioeconomic issues such as the cost of living back to the headlines in Israel. Senior officials surrounding Netanyahu kept journalists posted about “concerns in Jerusalem” over the possibility of Iran and the superpowers soon reaching a deal, trying to divert attention from the failings of Netanyahu’s reeling government.

Even Israeli Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz, a loyal Netanyahu supporter, participated in what seemed to be a lost battle to avert the agreement that appears to be in sight. He wrote an editorial in The New York Times on Oct. 19 to that effect, and reiterated his concerns in a series of interviews, stating that there is no plausible scenario that would be good for Israel. As the minister charged with handling the Iranian issue on behalf of the government, Steinitz said that he plans to meet in London with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond as part of Israel’s efforts to influence the superpowers to reconsider. “We don’t expect to get everything we want, but we hope for limited achievements that will turn the agreement into the least bad possible,” a senior official in Jerusalem told Israeli daily Haaretz.

Is that so? The truth is, and it's no secret, that Israel just about failed to have any influence on the emerging agreement, as evidenced by open declarations from Israeli senior officials expressing their dissatisfaction with it. Most of the blame for this failure should be cast at the prime minister. Netanyahu made the struggle against a nuclear Iran the primary goal of his tenure, but he did not know how to adapt himself to an evolving reality in which the world powers decided to negotiate with the new Iranian regime.

Netanyahu deserves credit for placing the issue of a nuclear Iran at the top of the international agenda, and for transforming it from an Israeli problem into a Western one. He can also take credit for the economic sanctions that the West imposed on Iran, which contributed significantly to Tehran’s decision to come to the negotiating table. On the other hand, everything that has happened since the crisis that was redirected to a diplomatic track has been a resounding Israeli failure.

Netanyahu has never missed an opportunity to damage his rapport with US President Barack Obama. Now that the moment of truth has come, he is paying the price for an overburdened relationship with the person who should be one of his closest allies. Over the past few years, Netanyahu has proved time and again to the United States and the other world powers that he is not interested in negotiations with the Palestinians, and that he would rather ingratiate himself with his right-wing constituents by building in the settlements. Just as there is a clear and proven connection between diplomatic negotiations, peace agreements and a thriving economy, there is also a connection between Netanyahu’s diplomatic intransigence and his inability to influence the emerging agreement between the superpowers and Iran in a way that would benefit Israel.

If Netanyahu really does consider the Iranian nuclear program to be an existential threat, then he must take every possible step to eliminate that threat, or at least to diminish it. Once again, however, the prime minister is unwilling to make any significant concession for the sake of Israeli interests. Such behavior could be considered as a dereliction of his duty to stop the Iranians from developing a nuclear bomb for the sole purpose of preserving his right-wing electorate. If that is really the case, then Netanyahu is sacrificing Israel’s national interests for the sake of his personal political interest.

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