‘There is this ebb and flow in politics,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told me in an interview back in 2011. “You just have to be experienced enough – and I think I have experience enough – not to take too much heart when the tide is rising and not to be disconcerted when the waters are falling. Be steady as you go, that is my advice to myself.”
It’s advice, however, that Netanyahu might be tempted to ignore this week – a week when his tides were definitely on the rise.
This was a week that saw US President Donald Trump walk away from a nuclear agreement with Iran that Netanyahu viewed as a catastrophe; a week during which he spent 10 hours with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, and upon returning to Israel okayed a widespread air-attack on Iranian positions inside Syria following Iranian missiles fired on the Golan; and a week when the polls showed the Likud winning a decades-high 35 to 42 seats in the Knesset, were elections to be held today.
And on Monday, this winning streak is expected to continue with the formal transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Not bad for a man whose critics and political opponents claimed that with all the various affairs he is allegedly involved in and that are currently under investigation – Cases 1000 to 4000 – that he was politically a dead-man-walking; that the end of the Bibi era was nigh.
Affairs? What affairs.
With the Iranians at the gates, and the doors of a US embassy in Jerusalem to be sprung wide open, who remembers Nir Hefetz, Ari Harow, Arnon Milchan or James Packer? Nobody remembers them.
At least not right now. But as Netanyahu rightly pointed out in that interview in 2011, there is an ebb and flow in the life of a politician. The waters are currently flowing in his favor, but he is experienced enough – as he himself pointed out – to realize that this high tide is not permanent.
For example, what if the expected Palestinian riots near the Gaza border fence get out of hand this week? What if the fatalities there mount? What if “Nakba Day” activities in the West Bank and inside Israel lead to deadly clashes? What if an air sortie over Syria goes sour, leading either to a downed plane or a clash with the Russians? Many scenarios could ruin Netanyahu’s current party.
A few years back, when Netanyahu publicly and continuously butted heads with president Barack Obama over the Iranian nuclear issue, his critics said he had sacrificed Israel’s relations with the US; that by speaking against the deal in Congress in 2015 he had irreparably strained ties with Washington; and that he was simply expending all of Israel’s political capital on a losing battle.
And then Trump steps up to the podium in the White House on Tuesday and delivers a speech that Netanyahu himself could very well have written, all the way down to the president’s turning to the Iranian people – as Netanyahu often does – and assuring them that they are not the enemy, but rather the victims of a dictatorship.
For more than a quarter of a century, Netanyahu has made preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb his overall purpose.
In 1992, as a relatively junior MK, he warned the Knesset that Iran was only a few years away from nuclear capability. In 1993 he wrote in Yediot Ahronot that “the most dangerous threat to Israel’s existence does not lie in the Arab countries – but in Iran.”
In 1996, during his first address to Congress as prime minister, he chastised Iran and warned of catastrophic consequences were it to acquire nuclear weapons.
And ever since taking office for a second time in 2009, he has said repeatedly that the three biggest threats that Israel faces are Iran, Iran and Iran.
Wake Netanyahu up in the middle of the night, ask him why he is in office, and his instinctive reply would likely be, “to keep us safe from Iran.”
WHILE YITZHAK Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, and even – perhaps – Ariel Sharon might very well have defined their goal in power as reaching peace with the Palestinians, Netanyahu would define it differently: preventing an Ayatollah bomb.
Netanyahu has made no secret of his admiration of Winston Churchill. And what he appreciates the most in the wartime leader – an attribute he has praised time and time again in his speeches – was the British leader’s ability to foresee the Nazi menace in real time, even as others were downplaying the threat, and his willingness to act strongly against that threat to save the West.
In Netanyahu’s mind, his own 25-year struggle to prevent Iran from getting a bomb is made of similar, Churchillian stuff.
Therefore, the prime minister must have felt a great sense of vindication listening to Trump on Tuesday. Suddenly a new era on Iran had dawned.
While Trump’s announcement obviously does not mean the end of Iran’s nuclear program or ambitions – and it remains unclear how Tehran will respond to Trump’s move – at least it was proof that Netanyahu’s 25-years of yelling and screaming were heard, and that his arguments were now accepted by the most powerful nation in the world. The tide had turned. Yes, vindication.
Netanyahu could very well have sat and listened to Trump’s speech with pen and paper, checking off all his arguments against the deal that appeared in the president’s comments.
Iran as leading sponsor of terror? Check, Trump said that.
Iran as catalyst of conflict and supporter of terror proxies? Check.
The deal allowing Iran to continue enriching uranium and reach the brink of nuclear breakout? Check.
The deal allows Iran, if it fully complies, to be on the verge of nuclear breakout when the sunset provisions set in? Check.
The deal fails to address Iran’s development of ballistic missiles? Check.
And on, and on, culminating with these words that could have come right out of Netanyahu’s notes: “If we do nothing, we know exactly what will happen. In just a short period of time, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror will be on the cusp of acquiring the world’s most dangerous weapons.”
Or, as Netanyahu said at the UN in 2014 arguing against the nuclear deal that was being negotiated at the time, “In the future, at a time of its choosing, Iran, the world’s most dangerous state in the world’s most dangerous region, would obtain the world’s most dangerous weapons.”
Even as harsh a Netanyahu critic as Ma’ariv columnist Ben Caspit wrote after Trump’s announcement on Wednesday, “Every rational Israeli needs to cheer Trump today, and admit honestly, without any connection to their political affiliation, that this is also a resounding victory for Benjamin Netanyahu.”
But now what? Now that Trump has essentially done what Netanyahu called on him from the UN podium in September to do – either fix the deal or nix it – what course of action will Israel follow? First of all, Israel will continue to keep up the diplomatic pressure. Netanyahu can be fully be expected to keep slamming Iran in speeches and statements, and keep underlining the instability the Islamic Republic is sowing in the region.
He will do this in meetings with US legislators, and with visiting statesmen in an effort to get them to back the US move and support the sanctions. The EU has come out strongly against Trump’s step, Netanyahu – in his meeting with European leaders – will do his best to convince them otherwise.
Also, expect to see Israel push for full implementation and enforcement of the sanctions.
There are many laws on the books in the US – and in every nation in the world – but that does not mean they are implemented. It is one thing for Trump to announce that the sanctions will be reinstated, and quite another to actually do so.
JERUSALEM WILL work behind the scenes to try and push the US system – the Treasury, the State Department and the Justice Department – to active enforcement of the sanctions, so that not only will US companies be punished if they continue to do business with Iran, but also so that European firms who continue to trade with Iran will risk the prospect of losing US contracts.
And Jerusalem will also, as was witnessed clearly early Thursday morning, continue to enforce its own strict redlines through military action against Iranian positions in Syria.
Beyond the primary and immediate goal of trying to prevent the transformation of Syria into another southern Lebanon, a region on Israel’s border armed with over a hundred thousand missiles aimed at Israel’s heart, these actions – as long as they continue to be successful – poke holes in the aura of Iranian military might.
If Iranian positions can be blasted in Syria with relative ease, then the argument that an end-of-the-world conflict would accompany a wider action against Iran to stop it from building a nuclear bomb does not look as compelling as it once did. These attacks expose Iranian vulnerability, a point Israel has an interest in highlighting, especially if – after a US withdrawal from the nuclear deal – Tehran begins a sprint to the nuclear finish line.