Elchanan Poupko

Netanyahu, Godfather of Iran’s Nuclear Weapons 

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) with a bouquet of flowers and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin in Moscow on January 30, 2020. (Maxim Shemetov/Pool/AFP)

No prime minister in Israel’s history has spoken more clearly about the dangers of Israel’s enemy obtaining nuclear weapons than Benjamin Netanyahu. Tragically, no prime minister has failed so spectacularly and deliberately to prevent Israel’s worst enemy from obtaining nuclear weapons like PM Netanyahu either. Israeli PM Olmert put it best: “Netanyahu saw Iran coming close to getting a nuclear weapon, so he went to war with…Barack Obama in Washington, DC”, not with Iran itself. Yet besides Netanyahu’s failure to protect Israelis from a nuclear Iran, this failure has great implications for Jews and Israel’s friends worldwide. 

I remember vividly where I was when Netanyahu gave his famous speech to Congress about the dangers of a nuclear Iran in 2015. It was right before Purim. I was teaching in a large Jewish Day School in New Jersey; the entire school entered the auditorium, where we watched Netanyahu speaking to Congress in real time. When he began speaking, the room was electrified. No cord in the Jewish heart was left untouched during that speech. Netanyahu’s analogy between Iran and the wicked Haman seeking to destroy the Jewish people, the implication that Netanyahu was Queen Esther herself pleading for the very survival of the Jewish people, and the urgent call to stop this imminent existential threat of a nuclear Iran before it is too late could not have been better delivered. The extraordinary lead-up to the speech was also quite dramatic. As many Democratic members of Congress saw Netanyahu’s speech as a partisan jab against President Obama, several Democrats were planning on boycotting the speech. Yet to us, those advocating for Netanyahu, there was no question that on an issue so existential, there was no room for politics. We were talking about an existential threat to Israel, and there was no way in the world Netanyahu would be using a matter so sacrosanct for political reasons–or so we thought at the time. 

I remember talking with my local congressman, Congressman Charlie Rangel, who told me he was hesitant to go to this speech. Rangel told me Netanyahu chose as an ambassador a young Republican operative named Ron Dermer and that this whole speech in D.C. was just a Republican hit job against President Obama. In my mind, there was not a shred of credibility to that claim, and there was no way Netanyahu would be playing politics with the lives of millions of Israelis who would be living under the existential threat of Iran’s nuclear umbrella. 

I then led a group of rabbis in a letter to Mr. Rangel urging him to attend Netanyahu’s critical speech. Israel’s security and very survival were too important to ignore. I also went on to work tirelessly and help prepare a ten thousand-person large protest in Times Square against this Iran deal which was clearly an existential danger to Israel. I was not the only one doing this. Friends of Israel lobbied tirelessly to make sure that Israel had the bunker-busting bombs that it would need in case it needed to attack Iran and were on a lobbying frenzy to stop the Iran Deal from taking place. We all went above and beyond our responsibilities in this effort. 

But guess who did not go above and beyond or even meet his responsibilities in protesting Israel from a nuclear Iran? That is correct. Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Netanyahu’s courageous bravado in Congress and on prime-time T.V. did not only cover diplomacy. “Israel will stand alone and act if it needs to,” we heard countless times in countless ways over the years until this year. He, the Menachem Begin or Queen Esther of our time, would never let Iran obtain nuclear weapons, no matter what was meant. Tragically, at this point, we know that Netanyahu has embodied the reverse teaching of the rabbis in Ethics of the Fathers and has taken the path of saying a lot and doing too little.  

Yet to Netanyahu, despite the tireless efforts of many American Jews, myself included, our support in opposing Iran was insufficient. In the eyes of Netanyahu, American Jews simply did not do enough to stop the Iran deal and are thus complicit in Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons that can destroy Israel. Netanyahu took the matter so seriously that when I spoke to members of the Israeli government about his relationship with American Jewry, they told me Netanyahu was so offended by the lack of enough support from American Jews in opposing the Iran deal that he had written us off–all of us. Other reports also show how seriously Netanyahu and his associates took American Jewish lack of action on the Iran deal. In an on-the-record interview in 2019, Netanyahu’s ambassador Ron Dermer said the Iran Deal was a major turning point. “What we see here is a return to anti-Zionism even within the Jewish community.”

Dermer later went on to advocate for the state of Israel to spend less time on American Jews and more time on cultivating more relationships with Evangelical Christians, who, from Dermer’s perspective, are a more reliable ally. Ignoring for a moment the antisemitic implication of the belief that American Jews must be held accountable for what the government of the United States does as if American Jews are the last say on America’s foreign policy, here we are today, and despite the Iran Deal being scrapped, Iran has reached its goal and Israel’s existence is imperiled. It is at this point that American Jews–especially those who are most strongly pro-Israel – should be asking Netanyahu for an apology. 

It is fair to say today that in hindsight, we were all played, or more accurately, betrayed by Netanyahu. By all of us, I mean first, us American Jews who were played by Netanyahu and then dumped for not being supportive enough, and then the Jewish people living in Israel being betrayed and now forced to live under the nuclear umbrella of Iran thanks to Netanyahu. 

This would make Netanyahu the first Israeli prime Minister to betray the Begin doctrine. For those who don’t know, the Begin doctrine is the unwritten policy put into place by Menachem Begin, ensuring that no enemy of Israel will have nuclear weapons. It was put into place when Begin bombed Iraq’s nuclear facilities in 1979 and continued when PM Olmert bombed Syria’s nuclear facilities in 2007. The place history will find for Netanyahu within the Begin doctrine is Netanyahu’s admission that in 2019 he gave Germany the green light to sell Egypt – not a friend of Israel or America – nuclear submarines. 

At this point in history, Iran has long crossed the red line in the graph Netanyahu famously presented at the United Nations in 2012 and, according to professional estimates, has enough nuclear material to make a nuclear bomb within twelve days and enough material to make seven(!) nuclear bombs within three months. If you do not appreciate what Iran having nuclear weapons means, take a look at what Russia is able to get away with. From bombing Kyiv nightly with impunity to destroying dozens of towns by exploding the Kakhova dam, having a nuclear umbrella is not just about the nukes; it is what those nukes can let you get away with. 

Netanyahu’s nuclear diagram, presented at the UN General Assembly in September 2012. (photo credit: IBA screenshot)

While the U.S. is renewing talks with Iran and Netanyahu seeks to focus attention on Washington, it is time for Jews to start asking him tough questions about Teheran, Isfahan, and Natanz rather than about Washington or Fox and Friends. Netanyahu can turn all the attention he wants to Washington, but that will never change his catastrophic failure in preventing a nuclear Iran. Three groups of Jews should begin asking Netanyahu for answers. Those who did everything we could to prevent a nuclear Iran and ensure Israel had the bunker busters it did should ask Netanyahu why he put all of our work and good reputations to waste. Why did he make fools of us and the tireless work we put in attempting to prevent a nuclear Iran? The deal was indeed undone in 2018, and now Iran is in possession of everything it needs for a nuclear bomb. 

Jews who did not oppose the Iran deal or even supported it have the right to start asking Mr. Netanyahu, who explicitly made them a party to the issue, if he might want to apologize to them. Many American Jews who did not take part in what Netanyahu considered saving the Jewish people by opposing the deal now see that the deal being scrapped in 2018 didn’t stop a nuclear Iran. Those Jews might want to ask why they were portrayed as turning their back on the Jewish people by a person who has overseen Iran’s nuclear progress for the past 14 years. 

Ronen Bergman, the most authoritative writer on all matters Mossad-related and someone who enjoys a far better relationship with the truth than Netanyahu does reported that it was, in fact, Netanyahu’s demagoguery of his planned attack on Iran that drove Obama to the very same Iran Deal Netanyahu’s claimed endangered Israel. From this perspective, if Netanyahu can write off American Jews who didn’t oppose Obama’s Iran Deal, he should have started with himself for bringing it all about. It is fair to say that Netanyahu did far more harm to Israel’s security vis-a-vis Iran than JStreet or any of the other Jewish organizations that did not follow his wish in opposing the Iran Deal and even promoted it.  

Finally, deserving the greatest apology are Jews living in Israel, who will now live under an Iranian nuclear umbrella and deserve an answer from Netanyahu on how that has happened. For someone who branded himself as “the guardian of Israel’s security,” “Mr. Security,” “Bibi-sitter” who will protect your children, and other claims for caring about Israel’s security, to have Iran turn into a nuclear superpower under his watch, is something that requires an explanation. 

Netanyahu will also have to explain to Israelis someday his warm relationship with Iran’s greatest supplier of nuclear weapons, anti-aircraft missiles, and partner for deadly drone development–Purin and Russia. The humorous yet tragic contrast between how free Netanyahu and his advisors feel going head to head with American presidents and their sheer reverence for Vladimir Putin is the sweet poison Netanyahu has been putting in Israelis’ mouths for a few years now. 

A picture taken on July 28, 2019, shows a giant election poster on the Likud party headquarters showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin shaking hands. The writing on the billboard reads ‘Netanyahu, in another league.’ (Tal Alovich)

Imagine what would happen if Yair Lapid took a campaign photoshoot smiling with Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah or hugging Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh? The immediate disqualification would be well deserved. And yet, Netanyahu has boasted about his relationship with Israel’s enemy several times and continues to fail to do so again and again. The man who took on the president of the United States of America in Congress and whose advisors continue to smear President Biden cannot muster the courage to condemn Russian crimes against humanity in Bucha—or even simply condemn Russia’s arming of Iran with nuclear weapons. The man who told the world they must all care about a nuclear Iran because it would threaten everyone could not be found when his self-professed good friend Putin sent Russian forces to occupy Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, which almost led to a real-time nuclear fallout. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) leaders’ summit in Samarkand on September 15, 2022. (Alexandr Demyanchuk / SPUTNIK / AFP)

Once again, as Israeli Prime Minister Olmert said: “Netanyahu saw Iran getting nuclear weapons, so he went to war with Washington DC.”

But what if Netanyahu is right? Maybe Israel has no ability whatsoever to confront Iran on its own, and Netanyahu should be picking all of his fights in Washington rather than in Isfahan, Natanz, Bushhere, or Teheran. Maybe all the answers to Israel’s existential threats can be found in D.C., where Netanyahu likes to focus his attention. 

If indeed all answers were to be found in DC, Netanyahu’s choice to burn so many bridges with the Biden administration, to burn so much of Israel’s social and political capital on an epically divisive and unpopular judicial reform, sew so much chaos in Israel’s foreign ministry, turn himself into a persona non grata in every Western country, become the first Israeli PM to be told not even to visit the United States, and include in his coalition so many people who simply cannot be welcome in polite company have further endangered Israel. 

If Iran was Netanyahu’s highest priority and Washington DC was the answer to all of his troubles, Netanyahu would not oversee week after week of diplomatic crises, international embarrassments, and unnecessary culture warriors spoiling relations with Washington. Netanyahu would not liquidate his credibility in endless internal battles inside Israel or undermine Israel’s strongest bridge to the West–democracy itself. In the past week, Netanyahu announced that he will restart his judicial reform legislation, which has earned him so much scorn in Western governments and brought Israel as close to civil implosion as it has ever come to. If Iran’s nuclear program was Netanyahu’s top priority, he would not have allowed Hezbollah to build two armed posts inside Israel’s territory without consequence. Showing he has no control whatsoever over Hizbullah, MK Tali Gotleib, Itamar Ben Gvir, record high crime inside Israel, violent hilltop youths and much more makes it hard to believe Netanyahu can accomplish anything himself over Iran. 

With such indecisive weakness, it is no surprise that just recently, ToI’s Jacob Magid reported W.H. officials do not believe Netanyahu is in control of what is going on in the Israeli government. Sacrificing normalization with Saudi Arabia for West Bank construction and being pushed around so helplessly by Smotrich and Ben Gvir have shown Netanyahu’s weakness in a way that would evoke pity had it not been so dangerous. 

There are many poetic and historical tragedies about the life and legacy of PM Netanyahu; there are proud moments as well. Yet the greatest one to haunt Netanyahu even from the right will be his more than a decade in which Iran grew its nuclear abilities exponentially. Sure, Netanyahu is not the one who produced Iran’s nuclear capabilities, but he was the one to see it happen in slow motion, to make countless bombastic statements, and fail to prevent it from happening. In his bombasticness lays his abject powerlessness. The man referred to in 2015 as the Churchill of the Middle East is now most often referred to as the Victor Orban, if not the Neville Chamberlain of the Middle East. Netanyahu’s most extraordinary gift has become his greatest peril–he is a gifted man of words with a superb English. Perhaps if Netanyahu were more of a Levi Eshkol or an Olmert whose actions were far more significant than their oratory abilities, history would not record him as the godfather of Iran’s nuclear weapons– the man who saw it all happen and could not stop it from happening.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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