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If there’s a general rule, it’s that timing is everything. Washington’s partisan flare-ups have left many a visiting foreign dignitary standing around looking foolish, like so many tourists arriving to find Disneyland closed for repairs. Bibi has a special reputation for manipulating American political crises to his own advantage, based largely on the Monica experience. But they can work the other way, too, as he learned this time.
It didn’t help the prime minister’s cause that he had a message nobody wanted to hear. It’s not just that the White House insists on pursuing a diplomatic track with Iran, which will inevitably mean both give and take. That’s old news.
True, Bibi might have flown into town and grandly taken credit for sounding the alarms that made the case for global sanctions and brought Tehran to the table. He could have congratulated Obama and the allies for following his advice — and encouraged them, by the way, to keep up the good work. But that’s not Bibi’s way. He has trouble being gracious when there’s an opportunity to be abrasive and hectoring.
No, Israel’s prime minister has two other problems that weaken him on the American and world stage at the moment. One is his longstanding alliance with the conservative wing of the GOP. He relied on Republicans in Congress for years to defend his settlement policy against White House and international pressure. The result wasn’t a legitimization of the settlements in any international arena, but rather a growing delegitimization of Israel itself.
Since Obama’s reelection last year Netanyahu has tried to create some space between himself and the GOP and foster an image of independence, but he’s been only partly successful. As a result, the current derangement of the Republicans in Congress and the resultant collapse of Republican credibility is hurting Netanyahu.
The other problem is that Netanyahu’s argument for maintaining an aggressive posture toward the new Iranian government is based on substantial Israeli intelligence, but his own intelligence professionals think he’s drawing the wrong conclusions from the data, and everybody knows it.
It’s been two years since Mossad intelligence chief Meir Dagan called a military strike on Iran, Netanyahu’s favored solution, the “stupidest idea” he’d ever heard. We’ve since learned that the rest of Israel’s military and intelligence leadership, the heads of the army and Shin Bet, felt the same way. All of them were retired in a clean sweep in 2011, apparently because Netanyahu wanted a new team that would back his adventures. But it turns out his new security chiefs are equally opposed to a solo Israeli strike.
If that weren’t enough, the head of Israel’s military intelligence during that Iran debate, Amos Yadlin, published an essay on the very day Netanyahu left for Washington in September, urging him to work with Obama and the allies for successful nuclear negotiations, rather than standing alone and making himself irrelevant or worse.
Yadlin, who now heads Israel’s main strategic affairs think tank, laid out 10 specific points to aim for or avoid so that if Iran ends up retaining a civilian nuclear program — as seems inevitable — the West has tools to ensure it can’t turn military later on. Yadlin, by the way, was one of the eight pilots in the squadron that bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. It’s true that flying a plane over a nuclear reactor doesn’t make you an expert on nuclear strategy, but going on from there to heading Israel’s war colleges and then its military intelligence does. It all adds up to a career path and a track record.
Netanyahu has his own track record. That’s why Yadlin warns him “not to paint himself into a corner and make himself an obstacle to an agreement.” His history contains a fair share of farce. If it repeats itself, it could be as tragedy.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org