When former Prime Minister Netanyahu took to social media recently with public accusations against the traditional “no surprise” policy between the Lapid-Bennett government and the United States, it became even clearer that even while in opposition Netanyahu is still determined to use the Iran issue to promote himself politically — even at the cost of aiding the Iranian nuclear program, and damaging Israel’s relations with our best ally.
Not to mention Netanyahu’s willingness to lie to the Israeli public and the sheer audacity of his claim against the “no surprise policy” — which has been a cornerstone of all former Israeli governments including Netanyahu’s.
I remember the trembling that gripped me when I heard Netanyahu at the meeting of the Jewish Federations of North America in Los Angeles declaring: “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany.” An assertion that ignores the achievements of 100 years of the Zionist movement and the fact that today, unlike 1938, Israel has a well-armed, trained and professional military defense force, which is dozens of times stronger than all the countries that threaten us and, according to foreign media, has strategic capabilities including effective second-strike capability.
It has taken me a while to realize that Netanyahu has not merely a habit of excessive obsession and alarmism, but simply his political interest lies in presenting Iran as the most important challenge facing Israel, and himself as the lone savior of the State of Israel. Since Netanyahu has succeeded over the years in convincing a large segment of the Israeli public to think he is right, a number of facts must be presented.
During the Clinton and Bush administrations, Netanyahu pressured the Americans to attack Iran, while those of us in the diplomatic corps, were asked at the time to claim that there was no advantage to implementation of sanctions since they would not change policy in Iran.
When Obama managed to bring Iran to the negotiating table, by recruiting an international coalition that included the leading countries in the UN Security Council, plus Germany, Netanyahu argued that a negotiation should not include any regional issues, out of the fear that the US would compromise in the regional arena in favor of an Iranian nuclear deal. In addition, Netanyahu fatally undermined Israel’s ability to influence the negotiations when it became clear to the Obama administration that Netanyahu was pressing Republicans in Congress in order to damage President Obama politically using what he heard from the Administration on the Iran issue.
Netanyahu’s decision to pursue an invitation to speak in both houses of Congress against Obama’s policies and turn the issue into partisan politics led Democratic lawmakers, who historically had supported the Israeli government’s position to align with their President and Party leader and helped pass the agreement Netanyahu so publicly opposed. Suddenly, the Netanyahu government argued against the Obama administration that the regional issue was not included in the agreements even though the same government had previously argued that these elements should not be linked. In addition, suddenly the Israeli position claimed that sanctions should be continued because they would eventually cause Iran to surrender and abandon its nuclear program.
Subsequently, Netanyahu succeeded in persuading former Pres. Trump through his evangelical supporters to unilaterally withdraw from the nuclear deal and thus lift the restrictions on Iran. The unilateral exit of the US shattered the international coalition that the Obama administration recruited to isolate Iran and thus instead of isolating Iran, Trump and Netanyahu soon found themselves isolated while Iran progressed to increased uranium enrichment. According to experts, Iran now has 12 times the amount of enriched uranium it had when Trump withdrew from the agreement, including enriching part of the uranium to 20 and even 60 percent.
The two main allegations made by Netanyahu’s highly effective spin against the agreement were: first – that the agreement does not include the issue of Iranian subversion in the region and its ballistic missiles, and second – that the sunset provisions allow Iran to legitimize its nuclear program after 10 – 15 years.
The first one is a false claim, because it was clear from the outset that it would not have been possible to reach an agreement that would include both the ballistic missiles and Iran’s regional activities. The Obama administration understood that the most urgent and important issue was to deny Iran nuclear capabilities, that if Iran could truly achieve there would be no way to get Iran to refrain from both its subversive activities in the region and developing means of launching, as Iran would become immune from pressure, like North Korea has since it achieved military nuclear capabilities.
Regarding the clauses of the expiration of the agreement, the spin is even bigger, because what the agreement actually says is that Iran is not the only one who’s limited by the agreement only until 10 to 15 (years depends on the field), but also the international community is no longer limited in its commitments when the agreement expires.
Which means that the same pressure Trump exerted on Iran when he withdrew from the agreement, the international community could have exerted after the agreement expires, but much more effectively, because both China and Russia had remained in the coalition and would join the pressure. In practice China has opened its own channel with Iran after the unilateral withdrawal of the US. The Chinese channel has made all of Trump’s pressure ineffective at the decision-making level of the Iranian ayatollahs׳ regime.
Netanyahu’s false spin has taken root in the Israeli public opinion as indisputable truths while in reality, Netanyahu exploited the Iranian issue, while leveraging the natural Jewish anxieties, for his political purposes. The Iranians also used Netanyahu for their political purposes, as he helped them present the nuclear program as directed against Israel and not against its neighbors.
The ayatollahs’ regime in Iran and Netanyahu have a common political interest as Netanyahu had with Hamas when he strengthened it vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority.
Iran’s ambition to achieve nuclear capabilities does not necessarily stem from a desire to eliminate Israel. It stems from the existential anxiety of the Iranians as a Persian minority within a “sea” of Arabs and Turks. As a Shiite minority within a “sea” of Sunnis on all sides and as a lesson from the Iran-Iraq war in which millions of Iranians were killed and the West supported Saddam Hussein. The Iranian focus on Israel stems from their desire to curry favor from the millions of Muslims in the region and Netanyahu gave them exactly what they wanted. He also gave them what they wanted when he helped persuade American neoconservatives during the George W. Bush administration to invade Iraq and thus turned Iraq from balancing Iran in the region into an Iranian protectorate. Iran does have ambitions to spread the revolution in the region just like the USSR did in spreading communism, but this is not directly related to Israel.
In an interview with Shimon Riklin (channel 20) this week, he asked me why don’t I understand that the Iranian regime is irrational because of its religious roots. I did not understand why Riklin, a religious guy wearing the kippah, asks me, a secular guy, this question and claims that religious people are irrational. I see a lot of rationality, which means cost-effective calculations, among the Iranian regime. I recognize such rationality in Hamas and Hezbollah too, that if it did not exist, we would not have had the ability to deter them. Even the religious power groups here in Israel can teach us, the seculars, how to obtain by rational means what they want from the state
The pretension of Netanyahu and his supporters to declare that Israel has the ability to act militarily against Iran without coordination with the United States is another dangerous spin. Although we have one of the best military defense forces in the world, we have no capabilities to operate so far away from home without coordination with the Americans and no armor weapons capable of penetrating the Iranian bunkers that only the Americans possess. Nor do we have a way of preventing a response from Iran and its proxies from Lebanon and Syria, and we have just recently seen how Israel relies on the Americans in refilling the ammunition that was emptied in the recent operation in Gaza. Israel has the ability to delay the Iranian project, but not eliminate it and the price will be unbearable if we do this military nonsense, without support and coordination with the Americans.
Lapid, Gantz and Bennett do well by understanding that even if they oppose Biden’s intention to return to a modified JCPOA agreement, Israel could influence the terms of the agreement in a quiet private dialogue with the administration much more than by defaming it in the media and siding with the Republicans against it. In addition, they understand that close relations with the United States are a cornerstone of Israel’s national security and that Netanyahu has done tremendous damage by neglecting the bipartisan approach and severely damaging trust between the two countries. We can all do well by no longer listening to what Netanyahu is saying today on the Iranian issue, by not rewarding Netanyahu for the dramatic damage he has done to our national security for his political purposes and by allowing the new government to return to the good old close and coordinated Israel-US relationship.