Two and a half years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a provocative speech before the U.S. Congress, denouncing the pending agreement to curtail Iran’s nuclear program.
“Denounce” may be too kind a word here. Actually, he trashed it, employing every emotional weapon at his disposal. He said the agreement could threaten the very survival of the State of Israel and of Jews everywhere. He appealed to Nobel laureate and Holocaust conscience Elie Wiesel, conveniently seated among the friendly crowd. Netanyahu did all this by going behind the back of President Obama, a stunning slight.
And it didn’t work. Even with Netanyahu’s combative appeal, buttressed by an estimated $40 million of lobbying from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and all manner of maneuvering by Republican opponents, there were more than enough senators who supported the deal to enable Obama to sign it.
Now, President Trump, a vociferous critic of the deal (and most everything else that Obama accomplished), has declined to certify the agreement and has ordered Congress to improve it or resume sanctions, in effect putting the deal in limbo without killing it off entirely.
And among the very first of the few foreign leaders to praise his decision? Netanyahu.
“I congratulate President Trump on his courageous decision today,” the prime minister quickly posted on Twitter after Friday’s announcement. Trump, he said, “has just created an opportunity to fix this bad deal, to roll back Iran’s aggression.”
Trump claimed that Iran is not complying with the agreement, though he offers no credible proof, and even those in his own party are skeptical. The top Republican and Democrat of the House foreign affairs committee say it should be enforced, not discarded. Even Trump’s own secretaries of state and defense urged him not to scrap it.
Still, if Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress can actually renegotiate a more comprehensive and verifiable deal with a newly recalcitrant Iran and the five other world powers whose signatures are also on the dotted line — well, Netanyahu will deserve a hearty mazel tov for making a very wise bet.
It strains the imagination, however, to think that this White House and this Congress could accomplish the herculean task of making a better Iran deal when they haven’t been able to pass a single major piece of Trump’s legislative agenda all year. And the deal is a joint pact, not a bilateral one: Britain, France, Germany and Russia remain enthusiastically committed to the landmark agreement, with backing by organizations like the European Union and the United Nations.
But Netanyahu’s tweet may be more than crowing. Indeed, the prime minister skillfully (and dismayingly) turned Iran into a wedge issue in American politics, something that Trump gleefully exploited. And both men seem to share a perverse delight in being against anything that Barack Obama was for.
There are other reasons, too, that Netanyahu remains committed to the deal’s demise. Ever the opportunistic politician, Netanyahu has an embrace of Trump’s decision that not only fits his ideology, but also makes sense domestically. As Dan Arbell wrote for the Brookings Institution, focusing on Iran allows the prime minister to change the subject from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a series of criminal investigations into his conduct that are set to resume next week. As Arbell noted, Netanyahu “has a political survivor instinct, which leads him to play the Iran card to his political base and beyond, as well as send a subtle message to Israeli law enforcement that now is not the time to undermine his leadership.”
Netanyahu also may be thinking of gaining some political points with the president in an area where he and Trump are in dispute: Syria. Though the Islamic State group is in abeyance, the Syrian war has left one of Israel’s oldest foes –- Hezbollah –- with a stockpile of weapons. And, as Dennis Ross, a former Obama administration official now at The Washington Institute, pointed out to me, “when it comes to Syria, where the administration has done little to stop the Iranians and the Shi’a militias from creating a military infrastructure land bridge to the Mediterranean, an issue of deep concern to Netanyahu, Trump has not been responsive.”
Yet in continuing to rail against the Iran agreement, Netanyahu — like Trump — is ignoring the advice of many in his own security establishment, who believe it is in Israel’s best interests for the agreement to continue. Ehud Barak, the former prime minister known for his hawkish views on Iran, warned a few days ago that it would be a mistake for Trump to decertify because it would embolden Iran and scuttle any hope for a diplomatic solution to the standoff with North Korea — North Korea, which does pose a threat to American national security at this very moment, as opposed to Iran, which is constrained from developing nuclear capability for varying lengths of time as stipulated in the agreement.
The fact that many restrictions do end in 10 or 15 years is one of the worrying aspects of this deal, true. But remember: Before this agreement was signed, Iran was on the verge of nuclear-weapons capability. Now, those paths are stopped or reversed.
What Netanyahu wants is for Iran to stop doing all the terrible things it does in the region when it supports terrorist organizations and corrupt regimes. That, indeed, would be a welcome outcome.
But that’s not what the pact was meant to do, and there’s little reason to believe that Iran will agree to even more constraints and concessions when only an isolated, erratic America is demanding them.
“It was bad enough that the prime minister intervened in 2015 in such a blunt and partisan manner in an internal American policy debate,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, told me. “His continued efforts to undermine the deal in 2017 are potentially even more damaging.”
“Today, he is going against the opinion not only of the majority of Jewish and other Americans,” Ben-Ami went on. “He is clearly going against the consensus of both the U.S. and Israeli security establishments. Today, even more U.S. lawmakers support keeping the agreement than supported its approval in 2015.”
In 2015, Netanyahu made a bold play that seemed to fail. But by 2017, it’s clear that it’s paying off.
Contact Jane Eisner at Eisner@forward.com or on Twitter, @Jane_EisnerSign up here to receive her weekly newsletter, Jane Looking Forward
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.