Netanyahu is the Iran deal’s victor, he’ll just never admit it

For 20 years the Israeli prime minister has been demanding the U.S. and the world put a stop to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and that’s exactly what Obama delivered. And no, there won’t be any consequences for the public fight with the American president.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress, May 24, 2011. (Photo by Avi Ohayun/GPO)
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress, May 24, 2011. (Photo by Avi Ohayun/GPO)

It has become somewhat of a trope in recent months to warn of the damage Benjamin Netanyahu has done by so openly and directly working to oppose the Iran deal, the flagship foreign policy achievement Barak Obama’s legacy. Most of those warnings, however, can be attributed to either wishful thinking or veiled politicking surrounding the deal itself.

Benjamin Netanyahu is a political mastermind. The Israeli prime minister may have made some faulty assumptions and made questionable moves in the United States, but the consequences have never approached anything of substance. In fact, nearly every move he has made regarding Iran in recent years has resulted in an achievement.

Benjamin Netanyahu has been pushing the United States to do something about what he then termed an imminent threat of a nuclear-armed Iran for two decades. In a 1996 speech to a joint session of Congress, then Prime Minister Netanyahu implored the United States to assemble and lead an international effort to put a stop to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. He has made similar speeches at any and every opportunity ever since.

Domestically, Netanyahu has used the Iranian threat to craft and perpetuate a brilliant and resilient political career based almost entirely on fear-mongering (periodically substituting the Palestinian threat when timely or expedient). He made the Iranian nuclear threat a mainstay of his Mr. Security political persona, which has helped him become Israel’s second-longest-serving prime minister. (If Netanyahu manages to stay in office for three more years, he will surpass David Ben-Gurion.)

The threat of war

Internationally, Netanyahu has demanded the world take action for years upon years, warning of a second Holocaust. When that didn’t work, he added his own threats into the mix: that Israel would unilaterally attack Iran. If you don’t stop Iran from getting the bomb, Netanyahu told the world, I will.

And so it was for the good part of the past decade. As I wrote a few weeks ago:

It seems like just yesterday that the news was dominated with headlines like: “Will this be the year that Israel goes to war with Iran?”; “How Israel’s War With Iran Will Be Fought”; “Israel ‘prepared for 30-day war with Iran’”; “Pentagon predicts Israel will drag US into war with Iran”; “Israel stepped back from brink of war with Iran in 2010”; and, “Ex-ambassador to Israel: U.S. will go to war with Iran in 2013.”

And the war mongering worked. Part of Barak Obama’s appeal in the 2008 elections was his promise to go down the warpath, instead pledging to give diplomacy a try with Iran. It took Obama years and serious political changes in Iran before he had a chance, but ultimately, just as Netanyahu demanded 19 years ago, the United States assembled the great powers of the world to force Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

That is not to say that Netanyahu was never interested in a military strike and war against Iran. I honestly believe that he has a whatever-it-takes approach to the Iranian threat. But somewhere deep in the back of his mind the Israeli prime minister must be happy with what he has accomplished: he pushed the world to eliminate the “Iranian threat.”

The ‘great negotiator’

But let’s head back to Washington and the futile fight in Congress. Netanyahu could not ever have expressed satisfaction with any Iranian deal. It is simply not in his nature. Whether facing the Palestinians or the Iranians, the Israeli prime minister will always demand more. In a recently published email from Martin Indyk to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the former wrote of Netanyahu: “Believing that he is a great negotiator, and that he is operating in the Middle East bazaar, he inflates his requirements well beyond anything reasonable in the belief that this is the best way to secure the highest price.”

In other words, Netanyahu won’t ever admit satisfaction with the terms of any deal until he is absolutely convinced it is the best he can possibly get, and even then he probably wouldn’t do so for fear of appearing weak. So the Israeli prime minister sicced AIPAC and split the American Jewish community, insisting on fighting the deal in Congress to the very end, even after it was clear to everyone that the war was lost.

And to those who worry Netanyahu has done damage to the special relationship with the United States or that there will be negative consequences for Israeli interests as a result of the head-on clash with Obama?

The future of the U.S.-Israel relationship

As Shemuel Meir wrote in these pages on Wednesday, the United States is unlikely to make any renewed push on the Palestinian issue until the middle of next year once sanctions on Iran start to be lifted. Washington will continue to push the French to hold off on their UN Security Council resolution until then so as not to put the nuclear deal in jeopardy.

Whatever peace push Obama does decide to make after that will likely be modest, at the very least aiming to leave a legacy not entirely devoid of hope for Mideast peace, and at most hoping at creating some momentum for his successor to pick up. By the time the next president takes office in early 2017, the bad blood with the Obama administration will be ancient history.

Furthermore, the two areas where Israel most needs the United States are the same two areas where Washington will never abandon it. The U.S. will continue to ensure Israel’s “qualitative edge” in the Middle East by providing it with American weapons, even increasing the size and quality of its arms packages as compensation for the Iran deal. Secondly, Washington will continue to help fend off growing international isolation and sanctions as the occupation turns 50 years old. Unshakable bonds.

Make no mistake: Benjamin Netanyahu got exactly what he wanted, albeit 20 years later, and he got it for free.