Iran nuclear deal: Benjamin Netanyahu should make most of this 'stunning mistake'

Netanyahu could actually claim – with some justice – that his own focus on Iran’s nuclear ambitions had helped to bring us to this point

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The Independent Online

For an authentic flavour of reaction on the Israeli right to the nuclear agreement with Iran, this is from a Tuesday column on the website of the daily newspaper Israel Hayom. “The US government has been engaged in a delusional sword dance with Iran that will culminate with the death of all civilisation,” wrote Dr Haim Shine.  “The West is committing suicide... and it is now enslaved to the whims of the leading perpetrators of terrorism around the globe.”

While only somewhat more apocalyptic than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s designation of the deal as a “stunning, historic, mistake”, it is worth quoting if only because of where it appeared. Israel Hayom, the country’s biggest circulation daily newspaper, is owned by the billionaire US gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson. Not only is his paper strongly supportive of Netanyahu, but Adelson is also the donor for whose favours Republican presidential hopefuls are currently queuing up. It is yet another reminder of the close bond Netanyahu enjoys with some of the Republican legislators, who have either already opposed the deal or who will be targeted in what Israeli officials have indicated will be continued lobbying by the Prime Minister.

For Netanyahu, the campaign to stop Iran becoming a nuclear military power has long been little short of a raison d’etre. He is hardly the first Israeli PM to worry about Iran becoming a nuclear military power – wholly understandably given Tehran’s sponsorship of Hezbollah across the border in Lebanon, its hegemonic ambitions, and the ferocious “Death to Israel” rhetoric of many of its leaders over the years. But Netanyahu took the issue to a new level. He has repeatedly invoked comparisons with 1938 – Chamberlain’s appeasement of the Nazis and the then impending Holocaust – to berate those seeking an accord with Iran, never mind that some of his Israeli critics have argued that this cheapens the memory of the murder of six million defenceless Jews in the Second World War.

Israel is, after all, a major military power with world class assets, including a nuclear arsenal (undeclared and uninspected, as it happens). But it is a testament to Netanyahu’s success in making Iran so central an issue way beyond his own government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history, that leaders of the official opposition have joined forces with him in condemning the deal.

Their main (dubious) criticism has been over whether Netanyahu could have forestalled, or at least improved, the deal if his relations with Barack Obama had not deteriorated so badly.

But Isaac Herzog, leader of the Zionist Union (which embraces the old Labour party), said that he would join Netanyahu in doing everything he could to ensure the “state’s security” in the face of a bad deal. There are even suggestions he could join a new “unity government” to oppose it. 

But is there a danger that the Prime Minister could overplay his hand among his Western allies? In an interview with the New York Times, Obama acknowledged that Netanyahu “perhaps thinks he can further influence the congressional debate”, but added that he was “confident” of getting the deal through Congress. He went on to point to his own undoubted record in military aid to Israel – one of the ironies of Netanyahu’s fractious relationship with the US – and to hint that once a deal is ratified he would be considering additional “security assurances” to Israel, for example for the interdiction of Hezbollah missiles pointed at Israel.

There was no quid pro quo, let alone a threat, in the terms used by Obama. The suggestions from Jerusalem are that Netanyahu will not be deflected from his opposition to a deal by such offers. But it is surely not in Israel’s interests to strain the tolerance of an administration which still has more than 17 months to run.

Nor are the persistent claims by Israeli leaders that the Iranians are “the leading  perpetrators of terrorism around the globe” particularly well timed. Besides Hezbollah, Israeli politicians frequently mention Hamas in this context; yet Hamas, as a Palestinian nationalist organisation, is in a rather different category. You don’t have to be a Hamas fan to regard its sometimes both lucrative and uneasy relationship with Iran as in a large part due to its isolation by Western powers since it won the Palestinian elections in 2006, or that Israel will eventually have to talk to Hamas, as many Israelis think it should. But the real problem is that in the capitals of Europe the main worry at present is not Iranian-sponsored terrorism, but Isis, which Iran is fighting. 

All of this helps to explain why, outside the current mainstream consensus, Israeli voices – including those of some strategic experts and former intelligence chiefs – are suggesting Netanyahu makes the best of what he purports to consider such a bad job.

To take just one example, Meir Javedanfar, a leading Iranian-born Israeli commentator, has strongly criticised Netanyahu’s “exaggerated” depiction of the deal’s perceived deficiencies. Critics will no doubt find it easy to point at these – particularly the question marks over the robustness of the inspection regime. But it’s far from clear that Netanyahu has a better answer, unless he really harbours the fantasy that bombing Iran is going to achieve his goal.

Maybe it’s too early to say that this agreement will be Obama’s greatest foreign policy legacy, though it could well be. Netanyahu could actually claim – with some justice – that his own focus on Iran’s nuclear ambitions had helped to bring us to this point. That is not his way. But he needs to consider whether trying to sabotage the deal is in the interests of Israeli security, even if it means forfeiting the great cause that has sustained him for so long.