Analysis from Israel

For weeks, even people who share Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s suspicions of Iran have been loudly proclaiming that his tactics are all wrong: He’s alienating the world with his negative attitude toward the Iranian charm offensive. “His bombastic style is his undoing,” proclaimed Haaretz military analyst Amos Harel. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former head of the Union for Reform Judaism, similarly warned that Netanyahu “should lower the tone, dispense with bluster,” since “In America, Israel is losing the debate on Iran.”

Given that nobody else on the planet even comes close to Netanyahu’s record of success in generating movement on the Iranian issue, I never understood why anyone would think they knew better than he how to do it. But I hadn’t noticed how effective his recent “bombastic bluster” has been until today, when a senior Israeli official pointed out something I’d missed: “We changed the conversation in which everyone was talking about easing the existing sanctions to a conversation in which everyone is discussing the need for preventing additional sanctions,” he said.           

Nothing proves this better than President Barack Obama’s decision to convene an urgent meeting with American Jewish leaders last week to ask them not to press for more sanctions (two of the four groups present laudably refused). And while much of the credit for this goes to Congress, which has refused to take the threat of new sanctions off the table, there’s no doubt Netanyahu’s pressure contributed significantly.

First, that’s because nobody can be more Catholic than the pope: If Israel, which views Iranian nukes as an existential threat, weren’t vociferously objecting to the removal of existing sanctions and demanding new ones, it would be much harder for anyone else do so–certainly for American Jewish groups, but to some degree even for Congress.

Second, Israel’s track record shows that if it feels pushed to the wall by an existential threat, the chance of it taking military action can’t be ruled out. And since the world doesn’t want an Israeli attack on Iran, it has consistently tried to keep Israeli angst below that line. Netanyahu’s current campaign was thus aimed at convincing the world that easing sanctions would risk pushing Israel over the line–and he seems to have succeeded.  

This isn’t the first time Netanyahu has successfully used similar tactics. His credible threat of Israeli military action is what originally persuaded Europe to impose an oil embargo on Iran, as a French official acknowledged openly at the time: “We must do everything possible to avoid an Israeli attack on Iran, even if it means a rise in the price of oil and gasoline,” he said. This same credible threat is what bought time for negotiations by persuading Iran to curtail its 20 percent enrichment–as even the Washington Post, not usually a Netanyahu fan, acknowledged in April. And finally, it helped bring Iran to the negotiating table–something Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel acknowledged this week, but which Iran’s own Intelligence Ministry acknowledged a year ago, when it issued a report advocating diplomatic negotiations over its nuclear program to avert the threat of a “Zionist” attack.

None of this means the danger of a bad deal with Iran has passed; far from it. But the first step toward preventing a bad deal was to prevent a hasty removal of sanctions, and that, Netanyahu seems to have accomplished.

He certainly knows that threatening military action and dismissing Iranian charm offensives as meaningless won’t make him popular. But so far, it has proven effective–and as long as that remains true, he will quite rightly be prepared to dispense with being loved.

One Response to Netanyahu’s Nay-Saying on Iran Is Working

Subscribe to Evelyn’s Mailing List

Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

Read more