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May 15, 2017

Will Trump and Netanyahu Continue to Misread Iran?

Iran will top the agenda when President Donald Trump visits Israel in a week.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will likely use it to celebrate America’s apparent shift against the Iran nuclear deal and further diplomacy with Iran. Yet the deal that the Israeli Prime Minister argues has bolstered Iran would not have been reached had it not been for Netanyahu himself. His mishandling of the Iranian issue is a major reason as to why the U.S. and Iran – against all odds – eventually reached a nuclear compromise.

Netanyahu committed three cardinal sins that ultimately worked in favor of the proponents of the nuclear agreement.

First and foremost, no Israeli leader pushed the idea that Iran was an existential threat more than Netanyahu. Twenty years ago, however, Netanyahu sang a different tune. During the early years of the Oslo agreement, it was Bibi’s Labor rivals that pushed the idea that Iran was behind the Palestinian violence facing Israel. Labor had a clear political incentive to blame Iran. How could it justify a peace deal with the Palestinians if they were so duplicitous that they were simultaneously negotiating with Israel and blowing up buses in Israel?

Netanyahu had the opposite political incentive. As an opponent of the Oslo Accords, it served his interest to blame the Palestinians and not Iran precisely because that would help reduce support for the land-for-peace agreement among the Israeli public.

But for the first nine months during his initial term as Prime Minister, Netanyahuwas conspicuously silent on Iran. Rather than paint Iran as an existential threat, he used back channels to explore whether he could find common ground with Tehran. Netanyahu began echoing Labor’s language on Iran only after being rebuffed by Iran, which didn’t take his outreach seriously, setting the Oslo talks on a course towards collapse. From this point on, he argued that Iran was a global threat, the center of Islamic radicalism and, of course, an existential threat to Israel.

Over the years, Netanyahu took this line further than any other Israeli leader and came to personify the argument that any compromise with Tehran would put Israel’s very survival in peril.

At first, the argument succeeded in convincing Washington to focus on Iran’s nuclear program and to further isolate Iran. Together with unending Israeli threats to take military action against Iran, it also compelled Washington and the EU to adopt increasingly harsh sanctions on Iran, and in the case of the U.S, consider the military option far more seriously.  

“The intention,” former Prime Minister Ehud Barak admitted last week,  “was both to make the Americans increase sanctions and to carry out the [military] operation.”

But here’s where it all went wrong for Bibi.

By defining the Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel, Netanyahu hoped to force Obama to take military action against Iran. Instead, Netanyahu’s strategy eliminated the status quo option of containing the nuclear program while neither resolving the issue nor acquiescing to Iran’s nuclear demands.

Once the status quo option was rejected, Netanyahu thought he could force Obama to take military action. Instead, Obama did something Netanyahu had discounted—he doubled down on diplomacy.

Bibi thought he was forcing Obama to go to war. Instead, he forced Obama to go to peace. Had Netanyahu not exaggerated Iran as an existential threat and eliminated the status quo option, Obama would likely never have doubled down on talks in order to avoid war.

Bibi’s second cardinal sin was his provocative address to Congress. By taking the fight against a sitting U.S. president to Congress, without revealing anything new in his speech or providing a better alternative to the nuclear deal Obama was completing, he only achieved two things, both of which worked to his detriment.

First, he made the nuclear deal a partisan issue, where lawmakers would vote almost entirely along party lines. Second, he made it a choice between him – the Prime Minister of Israel – and Obama, the president of the United States.

Making the issue partisan locked in all Republican votes in his favor, but made it very difficult win over any Democrats. He needed at least eight Democrats to come to his side, since a resolution rejecting the deal needed to pass with 60 votes (the Republican majority in the Senate was razor thin, only 52 Senators). But winning eight democrats was no easy task, particularly since Bibi had made it a choice between him and Obama. “For a lot of people, [choosing between Obama and Netanyahu] was actually pretty easy,” Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, a leading Jewish supporter of the deal, told me.

The irony of it all is that there was a much easier way for Netanyahu to kill the deal he claimed would pave Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb. All he needed to do was to hug the agreement. Failing to see this was his third mistake. 

The Iranians had no problem handling Netanyahu’s opposition to the nuclear talks—on the contrary, they welcomed it. But it would have been very challenging for them politically if Netanyahu had gone on a victory lap and declared the deal a defeat for Iran. “That would have been enough to kill the deal,” Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, admitted to me last year.

Luckily for Obama, Netanyahu’s arrogance made him blind to his own ineptitude.

This piece originally appeared in Haaretz.

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