Iran deal, a rallying point for Netanyahu

Iran deal, a rallying point for Netanyahu

The Israeli PM's belligerent, us-against-the-world approach resonates in a profoundly insecure country

Iran deal, a rallying point for Netanyahu

Israeli commentators have described the recent Iran nuclear deal as a “personal failure,” a “stinging failure,” and a “colossal failure” for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Yair Lapid, a rival who heads an opposition faction in Israel’s Parliament, called it “the greatest failure in foreign policy of any Israeli prime minister since the state’s establishment” and demanded his ouster.

Netanyahu has framed his career over two decades around Iran and battered Israel’s critical alliance with the United States by alienating President Barack Obama with his aggressive approach. Since the deal was announced, he has seemed lifeless, gray, even in deep despair during public appearances this week, analysts said.

Yet there is little indication Netanyahu will shift his focus, or change his tone, during the final battle of congressional review in the next two months. And perhaps most surprising, even some of the prime minister’s critics say that while his international standing has suffered, he is likely to survive relatively unscathed at home, and in the short run may actually benefit.

That is because Israelis across the spectrum see the deal as a dangerous one that only increases the threats the state faces, softening the ground for a politician like Netanyahu whose campaigns play on voters’ fears.

In the short term, the sense of national crisis could actually help Netanyahu expand his religious and conservative coalition beyond its single-seat majority in Parliament. Neither Lapid nor any other opposition figures have the credentials, these analysts say, to mount a serious challenge to a leader whose belligerent, us-against-the-world approach resonates in a profoundly insecure country.

“It will be seen as a heroic failure,” said Yehudit Auerbach, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University. “He is the only one, the big hero, who handled a war against all the powers in the world. Even if he loses, he’s still the hero who didn’t succumb, who didn’t give in, and what for? For his career? No. For his personal reputation? No. Everything for the security of Israel.”

Netanyahu’s office did not respond to interview requests from The New York Times, though he continued his blunt campaign against the agreement on NBC, ABC, CBS and National Public Radio, and plans to make the rounds on Washington’s Sunday talk shows.

In recent days, he has changed his public statements somewhat, suggesting he never promised to stop the deal between Iran and six world powers, only to prevent Iran from making a bomb.

He claims credit for highlighting the nuclear threat throughout the years, for rallying the world to impose the crippling sanctions that brought Iran’s leaders to the negotiating table, and for pushing members of Congress to challenge the agreement.

“The deal agreed to in Vienna, I regret to say, paves this terrorist regime’s path to the bomb,” Netanyahu said in a meeting with Britain’s foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, describing the agreement as “not a triumph for diplomacy, but a failure of diplomacy” that “threatens the survival of Israel, the security of our Arab neighbours and the peace of the world.”

But some analysts say Netanyahu, who recently began his fourth term as premier, will eventually suffer from having little to show on his signature issue, having presented the fight against a nuclear Iran as nothing less than his life’s mission.

Perhaps more pointedly, he may struggle to define himself once the agreement takes hold and Iran fades from the headlines, leaving him to pass a difficult budget and confront Israel’s housing crisis and high cost of living.

“There’s no question that he’s been weakened,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York who is a longtime foe. "His idea of his tenure as prime minister was all about Iran, and in that test – even if you give him credit for being genuine and honest and truthful about Iran–- he screwed up if you judge him by his own standards.

“The fallout is going to be gradual,” Pinkas added. “He’s not going to politically collapse within weeks; he’s going to haemorrhage, he’s going to dissipate, disappear. He just has no agenda.”

Tamar Hermann, a political scientist at Israel’s Open University, was one of several experts who said Netanyahu’s international standing had been severely wounded by what she called “a mega-defeat.”

“He was marginalised,” she said, and “he might be left out of the room on other issues of relevance.” The prime minister “proved wrong in reading the international leadership climate of opinion,” Hermann added. “If there is any renewed debate over the Palestinian issue, he might find himself in the worst situation ever in his career.”

But not right away. Hermann and even Pinkas said Obama and European leaders were unlikely to pressure Israel on the Palestinians immediately after signing the Iran deal for fear of seeming to pile on.

Strengthening his hand
At home, Netanyahu might be able to leverage the situation to strengthen his hand. Though Lapid and Tzipi Livni, another centre-left rival, have harshly criticised Netanyahu’s tactics, the Israeli media has been rife with rumours that Isaac Herzog, the official leader of the opposition in Parliament, may use the deal as a pretext to join Netanyahu’s government.

That, or a similar move by Avigdor Lieberman, the ultranationalist former foreign minister who abandoned Netanyahu in the final hours of coalition negotiations in May, would expand the parliamentary majority and make him less vulnerable to the whims of various lawmakers.

Mitchell Barak, a Jerusalem pollster and political consultant who once worked for Netanyahu but has since been among his critics, called the Iran defeat “a very big bump in the road” but said the prime minister’s core supporters, conservative constituents, would reward him for taking the risk of speaking out so forcefully against Obama.

Though Barak was among many Israelis who thought Netanyahu should not have spoken in Congress in March against White House wishes, he said most here think “he did it brilliantly” and is unmatched in his ability to make Israel’s case in international forums.

“I don’t think Israelis judge here on succ-ess; I think they judge on effort – when it comes to this, he’s shown that he made the effort,” Barak said.

Nahum Barnea, the dean of Israeli newspaper columnists, said in an interview that Netanyahu would probably spin his failed advocacy as, “I explained, I struggled, I was at my best and only I could get so far, and the rest of it is anti-Semitism, very simple,” adding that for Israelis, “it’s a sad story, but Netanyahu will manage to put the blame on others.” “Netanyahu is failure-proof,” Barnea wrote in the daily Yediot Aharonot last week. “In his world, there are only two possibilities – either he is a winner or he is a victim.”