Has the prime minister overplayed his hand?

Mar 05, 2015 Published under Iran, Israel, Middle East, Mideast Negotiations

Three hours earlier, state comptroller Joseph Shapira had released a scathing report on the housing crisis in Israel. Housing prices rose by a staggering 55 percent between 2008 and 2013; Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister during all but one of those years, found “no solution” to the skyrocketing costs, Shapira wrote. Israel’s high cost of living drew hundreds of thousands of people to protests in 2011, and poll after poll shows that Israelis view the economy as the most important issue in this election.

You wouldn’t know it from this Feb. 25 debate. On stage, a senior member of Netanyahu’s Likud party has been talking for 10 minutes about the prime minister’s “courageous” stand against Iran’s nuclear program. A campaigner from the centrist Yesh Atid party rolls her eyes. “Maybe Netanyahu should just invite [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei to campaign with him,” she jokes.

Netanyahu’s whiplash-inducing response to the comptroller’s report, however, showed that he has no intention of getting distracted from his campaign’s central message: the Iranian threat.

“When we talk about the price of housing, the cost of living, I do not for a moment forget about life itself,” he said in a statement on Twitter last week. “The biggest challenge we face, to our lives, as citizens of Israel, as a state, is the threat that Iran will realize its goal of developing a nuclear weapon.”

That’s a message that the Israeli premier will drive home this week in Washington, when he delivers a speech on Iran’s nuclear program before a joint session of Congress on March 3. On March 2, he gave a speech at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), where he acknowledged his government’s friction with the White House, saying, “We disagree on the best way to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.”

At home, his political opponents have all condemned the forthcoming speech, as have the retired mavens of Israel’s security establishment. “It’s the culmination of six years of recklessness on Netanyahu’s behalf,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York. “He’s blown up every channel of communication with the administration.”

Yet here lies something of a paradox:

Never in recent memory has a prime minister done something so damaging to Israel’s key relationship — and the man doing the most to keep the controversy in the public eye is the prime minister himself.

This is political gamesmanship at its finest. The Likud Party believes that keeping the focus on Iran, and away from economic issues and Netanyahu’s personal scandals, could win it two additional seats in the March 17 ballot, enough to keep Likud as the largest party in the Knesset and give it the first opportunity to form a coalition government. Likud’s leadership has calledObama “our best campaigner,” for keeping Iran in the headlines.

Netanyahu’s opponents seem to agree: They are actively downplaying the subject, fearing that the prime minister will gain ground with each passing day that Iran dominates the news cycle. Isaac Herzog, the head of the center-left Labor Party and Netanyahu’s main challenger, wrote in a recent New York Timesop-ed that, while he opposes the speech, there is “no daylight” between him and the prime minister on Iran. He repeated that line at a campaign stop on Sunday, and quickly moved on. “It cannot be that Iran is the only issue of our life,” he said, shifting the conversation back to the cost of housing.

There is little substantive disagreement to discuss, anyway. If President Barack Obama is determined to sign a deal with Iran, politicians here admit that a disagreement would be inevitable, regardless of who occupies the official residence on Balfour Street.

“There is consensus from wall to wall in the Knesset,” said Dov Lipman, a Knesset member from Yesh Atid. “When it comes to the Iranian nuclear program, there’s no right and left,” said Michael Oren, Netanyahu’s former ambassador to the United States, now running for office with the new centrist party Kulanu (which means “All of Us” in Hebrew). Politicians across the spectrum want a deal that leaves Iran with no enrichment capability: Former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, for example, has summed it up as “no centrifuges and no plutonium.”

Instead, the argument is over tactics — speechcraft or statecraft. The American-born Lipman had been trying the latter, working with other Knesset members to lobby Congress to overturn Obama’s promised veto on a bill threatening fresh sanctions against Iran if talks collapse. “The moment we got caught up in the spat between Republicans and Democrats in Washington, that ended,” he said.

Netanyahu’s critics argued that the ongoing public spat with the White House was robbing Israel of the very influence that it would need to make the case against a bad agreement with Iran.

“Any other prime minister would go to D.C. every month and set himself up with a three-hour meeting with the president to talk about Iran and influence the decision-making,” Pinkas said. “He would keep it between them.”

With a looming end-of-the-month deadline for negotiators in Geneva to reach a framework agreement, Netanyahu’s allies counter that the prime minister had no choice but to make his grievances public. “It’s a last resort, because the Americans are now more eager to do this deal than the Iranians,” said Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu’s former national security advisor.

The Israelis have developed a laundry list of concerns regarding the current course of the negotiations. Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, a Netanyahu confidant, gave reporters an unusually long 90-minute briefing on Iran last month. He outlined eight key issues that will determine the success of the talks, including the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed to keep and the status of the heavily fortified enrichment plant at Fordow.

Iran had only made significant concessions on one of the eight, agreeing to ship its raw uranium feedstock outside the country, Steinitz said. “It’s a gloomy picture,” he said. “How much can change in one month? It’s still an agreement full of loopholes.”

The Israeli electorate overwhelmingly agrees with Netanyahu about the threat from Iran, and does not seem particularly bothered by his approach. Shortly after the speech to Congress was announced, 63 percent of Israelis told Army Radio that the controversy would not affect their vote; another 12 percent said it would make them more likely to vote for the prime minister.

Even if Herzog wanted to discuss Iran at length, he would win few votes by aligning himself with an unpopular American president: Three in four Israelis do not trust Obama on Iran, according to a recent Times of Israel poll, and just 33 percent have a favorable view of him.

The most salient criticism of Netanyahu’s approach has come from retired military officers and senior members of the Mossad and Shin Bet. On Sunday, as Netanyahu was en route to Washington, a group of nearly 200 ex-officials came out against the speech, denouncing it in stark terms. “When the Israeli prime minister argues that his speech will stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, he is not only misleading Israel, he is strengthening Iran,” Gen. Amnon Reshef warned at a press conference. (Likud dismissed them all as “leftists.”)

Meir Dagan, the previous Mossad director, told the Yedioth Ahronothnewspaper this weekend that Netanyahu had “caused the most strategic damage when it comes to the Iranian issue.”

Their criticism carries weight in a country where the security services are among the few trusted public institutions. Yet their complaints also remain largely abstract, because Obama has done nothing to show the Israeli public that Netanyahu’s actions carry a cost. Indeed, even as the Israeli premier was traveling to Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry was traveling in the other direction, to Geneva — to defend Israel before the U.N. Human Rights Council. “The prime minister of Israel is welcome to speak in the United States, obviously,” he said before departing. “We don’t want to see this turned into some great political football.”

Netanyahu struck a conciliatory tone at AIPAC, stressing his “great respect” for Obama. Yet he also rattled off a list of historical moments when Israel broke with the White House, like the 1981 decision to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor. He downplayed the rift with the United States — but remained defiant. “We have a voice. And tomorrow, as prime minister of the one and only Jewish state, I plan to use that voice,” he promised the rapturous crowd.

JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

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