Iran talks: Obama’s legacy, Netanyahu’s failure

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's focus this week on a coalition crisis and not on the nuclear talks in Vienna indicates the loss of his influence as much as the lack of US interest in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, now that Iran talks with the United States.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Nov. 23, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Jim Hollander.

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right wing, nuclear negotiations, israel-us relations, israel, iran, intifada, benjamin netanyahu, barack obama

Nov 24, 2014

On Nov. 23, one day before the nuclear talks between Iran and the superpowers were scheduled to end, US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Vienna preparing for another marathon session of meetings to extricate the negotiations from a dead end. Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was chairing the most volatile and turbulent Cabinet meeting since the current government was formed.

Netanyahu insisted on putting up for vote the potentially explosive nationality bill, born within the extreme right wing of his coalition. He insisted on that despite resentment on the part of his coalition partners, Ministers Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, who voted against it. Throughout the Cabinet meeting there was a steady stream of reports that Netanyahu, Livni and Lapid were exchanging harsh words.

The nuclear talks in Vienna were overshadowed by the storm surrounding the nationality bill, so that not one of the ministers even dealt with the latest developments in Vienna and the implications an agreement would have on Israel, should one be reached. It did not matter that the topic was of supreme importance to Israel’s security interests, especially given the priorities that Netanyahu had been preaching for over the years.

Netanyahu did inform his ministers at the beginning of the Cabinet meeting that he had been “anxiously monitoring” the latest developments in Vienna and clarified yet again that any agreement with Iran would be bad news — for Israel, the Middle East and all of humanity. Right after that, however, he dove back into the coalition crisis that he himself had provoked. If Justice Minister Livni and Finance Minister Lapid refuse to support the proposed law in a Knesset vote on Nov. 26, and Netanyahu decides to fire them, the crisis could lead to the dismantling of his government and early elections.

How ironic it is that when negotiations between Iran and the superpowers are about to reach a dramatic turning point, Netanyahu — the person who placed the struggle against a nuclear Iran at the top of his agenda — is caught up to his neck in a fierce coalition crisis, exchanging accusations and barbs with Livni and Lapid. Having contributed so much to the awakening process of the West in conjunction with the emerging Iranian nuclear threat, Netanyahu now finds that at the moment of truth, he is irrelevant. He's unable to influence the process, which is heading toward what seems to be a bad agreement for Israel. Perhaps that is why he has been so sparing in his comments on the Iranian issue over the past few days. Unlike in the past, he is in no hurry to be the source of provocative headlines

In the past few years, just about every speech that Netanyahu delivered in Israel and overseas focused on the danger of a nuclear Iran. He warned of a second Holocaust and even threatened to attack Iran. Now, however, he may well become the prime minister during whose tenure Iran actually became a nuclear threshold state. If that happens, the failure will carry exclusively his signature on it. While the United States is conducting negotiations with Iran and seems eager to reach an agreement that will lift the economic sanctions imposed on the Iranians, no one in the US administration is even worried anymore about Netanyahu leading an independent Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Not only has Netanyahu become a subject of scorn in the White House — as evidenced by the derogatory names for him revealed on Oct. 28 and attributed to President Barack Obama’s inner circle — it also seems now as if the president himself has finally lost interest in the negotiations with the Palestinians, and is focused on reaching an agreement with Iran. His attention is on Tehran now, not Ramallah.

In other words, Obama no longer regards the negotiations with the Palestinians as an important component of his foreign policy. Instead, he's trying to turn the agreement with Iran into his legacy, not solely in the sense of refusing to see Iran becoming a nuclear state under his watch. The legacy he wants to leave has a much wider scope, encompassing a lasting contribution to regional stability, the war against the Islamic State and positive changes within Iran itself, especially in terms of its economy and openness to the West.

Even if an agreement is not signed and the nuclear talks are extended instead, Netanyahu will find himself without any agenda and even without any real cards to play to advance his foreign policy. On the one hand, Obama, who already turned his back on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, will grow less and less interested in Netanyahu and Israel. On the other hand, the moderate Arab states, which regarded Israel as an ally against Iran and hoped that it would launch a military assault against their common enemy, will lose interest in Netanyahu as well.

Within Israel itself, Netanyahu is also expected to be hurt by these developments. During two election campaigns he promoted the Iranian nuclear threat to an immediate and obvious risk, while presenting himself as the only leader capable of fighting against it. Assuming that an agreement is signed between Iran and the superpowers, sanctions will be lifted and diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran will be restored. Should that happen, Netanyahu will appear to the Israeli public, and be presented by his political rivals, as someone who failed to stop Iran’s nuclear program — the very same objective that he has depicted over the years as overriding all other issues.

As someone known for his impressive abilities to analyze international trends and processes, it seems almost certain that Netanyahu now realizes the United States is no longer an ally for an assault on Iran, nor has it been one for a long time. The days in which Obama committed himself to standing alongside Israel in stopping Iran’s nuclear program and declared that all options were on the table have long since passed. And even though an agreement has not been signed yet, the overall direction is clear: Both the Americans and the Iranians are interested and intend to reach an agreement.

Netanyahu’s great failure is that he was unable to link the negotiations with the Palestinians to the struggle against Iran’s nuclear program, because he refused to make the concessions necessary to reach a historic agreement with the Palestinians. That was when his relationship with the United States was still tolerable, and Obama showed interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In the emerging reality, the diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians has completely collapsed, a third intifada is brewing, relations with the United States are troubled and Iran is about to become a nuclear threshold state.

Netanyahu can always find comfort in the fact that he can turn these failures into achievements, at least to his electorate on the right, and portray himself as an uncompromising prime minister. That is especially important now, with Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett breathing down his neck and threatening his status as the leader of the right.

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