Throughout the negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, the division of roles was clear. Netanyahu and Israel played Bad Cop. Obama and Kerry were the Good Cops bearing carrots. Back when the process was just getting underway, this even worked. “If we don’t tighten sanctions,” the Americans could say to their superpower interlocutors, “who knows what those ‘crazies’ in Jerusalem will do.”
In any negotiation, it helps to have a bad cop to point to and, of course, what role would anyone expect the prime minister of Israel to play in this negotiation?
But Netanyahu refused to take the American administration’s stage direction and play a supporting role as a flashlight-wielding Mall Cop. Instead, he played it to the hilt, a Terminator: the modern day destroyer, armed to the teeth, running red lights without seeing what’s in front of him, and willing to pay a heavy price to achieve his single-minded objective.
Unlike a Mall Cop, a Terminator is liable to coordinate activities with the Republicans, meddle in US elections, lecture President Obama in the Oval Office, allow his associates and official representatives in the US to leak information against the US president, and even arrive in Washington uninvited in order to deliver a provocative speech before Congress.
The Israeli public, by the way, evidently prefers Netanyahu as a raging Terminator, but even rage eventually has its limits. In diplomatic terms, Israel was the loser in this battle over the nuclear agreement. In negotiations, the true job of the bad cop is not to terminate the talks, but rather to help the good cops get the best possible deal.
When it came to the talks, we didn’t even count
In terms of the nuclear threat, Israel’s situation is better than it was before the historic treaty was announced in Vienna. Instead of an Iran suffocating under sanctions while persisting in its nuclear arms race, the Islamic Republic has now been accepted as a legitimate member of the international community. We still face a terrorism-sponsoring state outspokenly hostile to Israel, but it’s a terrorism-sponsoring state without a nuclear bomb in the foreseeable future.
In contrast, look where Israel now stands: We’re not even on the map. No one took us into account in the talks. The White House has already made clear that there will be a veto if needed to overcome any congressional action that obstructs execution of the agreement, and even before Netanyahu could respond in English, John Kerry completely dismissed his remarks, calling his criticism of the deal “way over the top.”
Kerry was trying to say that the bad cop with whom the US cooperated at the outset turned out to be a prophet of doom at best, or an out-of-control Terminator at worst, one who cannot read the map correctly.
Many officials in Jerusalem and in the security establishment here in Israel share this assessment. To outsiders they join the chorus bemoaning the disaster that befell us, but behind closed doors they talk about the alternative that never came to be, about Israel’s increasing isolation, and primarily about why Israel should not sacrifice its foremost strategic asset – its relations with the United States – precisely when we have absorbed a blow vis-à-vis Iran.
Obama’s lesson in leadership
While the Israeli government’s Security Cabinet is busy declaring that Israel is not committed to the agreement, and government ministers are encouraging their colleagues in the opposition to attack the agreement in English and storm Capitol Hill, it seems all the talk about bunker-busting bombs and secret underground facilities is keeping the new reality from breaching the Prime Minister’s Office and adjacent Cabinet conference room.
There is an agreement. Six superpowers have signed it. The American public supports it. Democratic congressmen are also politicians, and they will not oppose the president as they approach an election year. There is an opportunity to get another defense package. And, believe it or not, a window of opportunity has just opened for a political initiative leading to a new regional order in the Middle East.
There is also room to reflect on the manner in which we read the map and the global balance of power throughout this period. Indeed, despite the sanctions and dire warnings of a looming holocaust, under Netanyahu’s watch Iran reached a point at which it is three months away from a nuclear bomb. There are always dangers. But perhaps rather than insulting the American president and accusing him of naiveté and lack of understanding regarding the Middle East, we should try to learn something from him with respect to his approach as a leader.
Barack Obama was elected because he offered hope and change, and he currently enjoys relatively high support ratings because he is finally offering dividends as well. Meanwhile here in Israel, we have a leadership that plays up fears and promises to defend us against tomorrow, while neglecting other pressing items on today’s agenda.
The real choice facing the Israeli public is whom to believe and whether we will throw our lot in with the seemingly naïve West, which prefers creative diplomacy and changing horizons over another war, or go it alone and hunker down in our admittedly difficult neighborhood, depend primarily on force and announce to the world that we have the power to defend ourselves, even if that means that we march alone in this battle – all the way to the top of Mount Masada, if it once again comes to that.