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‘Mr. Security’ goes to Washington, exposes his true psyche

In Netanyahu's psyche the world is in a similar situation to the one of the 1930s

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

It is hard to recall so much discussion and anticipation of a speech, as to the one delivered yesterday in Washington to U.S. Congress by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In his speech the self-proclaimed ‘Mr Security’ shared what he sees as his “magnus visio” on the strategic threats that the world is currently facing. To no one’s surprise, the Iranian regime and their nuclear programme topped the list.

He left no doubt as to his conviction that the deal they are making is a bad one, and that Israel is not afraid to oppose it even if it has to do it all alone.

Netanyahu’s speech further exposes that his approach towards Iran ranges from sheer political opportunism, to his self-important fantasy about his role in saving the world from existential threat.

Netanyahu is completely oblivious to the fact that his position lacks credibility

In his psyche the world is in a similar situation to the one of the 1930s and Iran represents the threat that Nazi Germany posed back then.

Aspirations

To make the analogy even more compelling he and his close advisors perceive an agreement on Iranian nuclear as similar to the Munich agreement of 1938 with potentially similar consequences.

In this fantasy Obama is playing the role of Neville Chamberlain and Khamenei as Adolf Hitler. Netanyahu’s role in this script is to avert this danger.

He aspires to play a Churchill like figure, but one that prevents the disaster from taking place, instead of rolling it back. One can only hope that even he must understand deep down, that when he wakes up from this ‘heroic’ dream, he will discover a historical analogy which is fundamentally flawed.

Furthermore, his intervention damages the efforts to reach an agreement with Iran that will block the military aspects of the Iranian nuclear programme by mutual consent.

One of the ironies of the current dispute between the Israeli government and the international community over Iran’s nuclear program is that both agree that Iran should not develop nuclear military capability.

"Danger to international stability"

There is a consensus, which unites most countries in the Middle East, the permanent members of the Security Council, the European Union and many more, that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction poses a serious danger to international stability.

For years international sanctions have been imposed on Iran, playing a crucial role in ushering in a more pragmatic president and increasingly a religious leadership more willing to engage in negotiations over its nuclear programme.

Netanyahu’s approach weakens this unity. It has also emerged that deep disagreements prevail between the Israeli intelligence community and their prime minister.

They differ on the questions of how advanced the Iranian nuclear programme is, and what the best way to approach it is.

Meir Dagan, the former head of Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, Mosad, accused the prime minister of endangering Israel’s security with his posture on the Iranian nuclear programme.

He was quoted as saying that: “The person that has caused Israel the most strategic damage when it comes to the Iranian issue is the prime minister.”

In an interview with the biggest selling newspaper in Israel Yediot Haronot, he went as far as calling the Israeli voters to oust Netanyahu in the next elections because of the damage he causes with his reckless foreign policy.

Moreover, on the eve of his departure to Washington, 180 very senior Israeli security veteran commanders called Netanyahu to abandon his plan to speak to the American Congress, citing concerns of the potential rift with Israel’s most important and loyal ally and the damage to the international efforts to reach agreement with Iran.

He was not deterred even when told by Secretary of State John Kerry that his attitude causes damage to an agreement which will benefit Israel’s security, or when Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, described his planned speech in front of a joint session of Congress as “destructive" to U.S.-Israel relations.

One of the reasons for this is that the Israeli alarmist policy concerning Iran’s nuclear programme has proved itself to be quite effective along the years.

"Completely oblivious"

It succeed mainly because it resonated with international concerns about Iranian capabilities, intentions and subversive activities.

However, the readiness of Iran to negotiate with the P5+1 and sign an interim agreement in which it consented to limit its nuclear programme for civilian purposes and accepted stringent inspections of her nuclear sites, leaves Israel’s current position less than convincing.

Netanyahu is completely oblivious to the fact that his position lacks credibility. This is not because there are no legitimate concerns about Iran’s intentions and capabilities, but because the Israeli prime minister does not offer any constructive or coherent alternative options.

On the Iranian nuclear issue in particular, Washington and most other capitals, view his approach as lacking flexibility and complexity when both are in great need in order to reach a solution.

He offers only extreme rhetoric, suggesting that the diplomatic route should be abandoned in favour of tightening sanctions, or the use of military force. The issue is a complex one that requires diplomatic skills and a nuanced approach.

Netanyahu shows all the opposite traits. His rigid approach towards peace negotiations with the Palestinians and the continued expansion of the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, also harm his international standing on the Iranian nuclear issue.

It has been a long time since an American administration was as incensed with an Israeli leader as Obama is with Netanyahu.
His decision to speak to the U.S. Congress was an attempt to score points with Israeli public opinion two weeks before the Israeli elections. Predictably, the speech was a direct and bold challenge to the U.S. administration on a policy which is central to current U.S. foreign policy.

Consequently it strained relations with the American administration and the Democratic Party.

The Israeli prime minister was shunned by the White House during this visit, and Vice President Biden did not attend the speech. Moreover, cracks in the customary bi-partisan support of Israel in Congress were apparent as dozens of Democrat legislators avoided this event.

The Israeli prime minister carelessly forced Democrats to choose between their support for Israel and their loyalty to their leader, President Obama.

In addition, Netanyahu’s decision to ignore Obama’s urging not to visit Washington at this sensitive time, played a major part in the decision of Democrat representatives to block advancing a bill, which would have imposed tougher sanctions on Iran.

The Jewish community also feels extremely uncomfortable being pushed into a corner of choosing between its support for Israel and loyalty to their president.

Election driven?

Furthermore, the last thing the negotiators with Iran need at this stage of the negotiations is to be seen as driving a hard bargain on behalf of the Israeli government. This is bound to weaken their hand in the negotiations, not strengthening their bargaining position.

It remains a mystery what motivated Netanyahu to ignore, even defy, requests to tone down his criticism of the negotiations with Iran and the United States’ role in them, especially when it becomes apparent that his stance harms Israeli interest?

The forthcoming elections and diverting attention from his failed premiership provides only part of the answer. His political opportunism is complemented by his fantasy of himself as a statesman, who single-handedly saves the world from the evil intentions of Iranian leadership.

Regrettably, this attitude might lend him another term as prime minister, however, at the expense of Israeli interests of avoiding a rift with the U.S. and European Union, and in the process might spoil an agreement with Iran on its nuclear programme.

His speech might look to his supporters as an act of brave leadership, but in reality it was one which played on fears and emotions, offering no solutions, and leaving Israel internationally rather isolated.


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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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