PM Netanyahu and US President Obama tour a technology expo at the Israel Museum, March 21, 2013. Photo: REUTERS/Jason Reed
This is a deep, substantial and fundamental argument, and it defines the test of leadership for these two players, each in his own country, each facing the international community. This is a test that may end in the upcoming spring, or sooner, in the winter, in a regional war.
This test will, to a large extent, shape each of the leaders' legacy: In Obama's case, it will determine what kind of a president he will be remembered as, and whether the Nobel Peace Prize he received was an absurd joke and a mark of shame upon the judges' foreheads, or a brilliant leadership move of European diplomats that were able to shape the Middle East. In Netanyahu's case, this test will determine whether he can get re-elected as prime minister, and whether he is a leader with historical vision, as he and his advisers are convinced he is, or whether he is a hysterical politician, as his opponents claim.
This is why despite US attempts to alleviate concerns, the battle on public opinion and the message of the Geneva talks has yet to die down. The arguing and goading continues and will continue, even though Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague called on Israel to avoid undermining the agreement, and even though representatives of the six world powers asked Netanyahu to "move on," in common speak, and join talks on shaping the "end state" stage of the negotiations with Iran.
This isn't a personal matter, even though Netanyahu is from Venus and Obama is from Mars. This isn't an issue of emotions, despite the mutual dislike between the two. It's not a political matter, even though each side tries to interfere in the internal politics of the other and recruit it against the adversary. This is a matter of the perception and essence of the tools chosen to reshape the Middle East.
What Amidror said
The prime minister loves historic symbolism. And if it's coming from "the book," as he refers to the Bible, it speaks to him the most. These days, when Jews worldwide light Hanukka candles and retell the story of the Maccabees, Netanyahu wants to be portrayed as Yehuda Hamaccabi: a leader of a small yet determined force that manages to stop the Greek Empire and prevent the extinction of the Jewish nation.
He sees himself, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe told him and he himself has quoted it dozens of times, as the one who lights a candle and illuminates the truth. The Lubavitcher Rebbe told Netanyahu, before being appointed as the Israeli ambassador to the UN, that in a place where there is a lot of darkness, even a small candle can shine a massive light. Netanyahu is convinced that this is his historical role: To illuminate the truth in the great darkness of Western diplomacy, which is being led by Obama.
Netanyahu is right. The Geneva deal is a problematic agreement. It doesn't stop Iran's military nuclear program, it doesn't dismantle Tehran's enrichment capabilities, it gives international legitimization to the continuation of uranium enrichment even during the interim period, and it gives the Iranians a promise to maintain this "right" in the permanent agreement.
Whoever seeks to know what Netanyahu says behind closed doors needs to carefully read what Yaakov Amidror, who just a minute ago was still Israel's National Security adviser, says. Despite Amidror's outward dislike of the media in general, and his tendency to avoid speaking to the Israeli press in particular, he started singing in English to the Financial Times and the New York Times.
Even though Netanyahu claims Amidror did not ask for permission to give interviews and say that Israel has the military capability to strike Iran, the interviews fit strangely and remarkably well with the prime minister's effort to maintain the credibility of Israel's deterrence.
Netanyahu said at a cabinet meeting that "we are not bound by this agreement, and I will work to safeguard Israel's security interests." In Moscow, he sharpened the threat and said "I am committed to making sure Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons." At the same time, as if by accident, Amidror is giving an interview about Israel's military capabilities, without asking permission to do so. Strange.
"While the Obama administration maintains that the military option is still on the table in case Iran does not comply with the new agreement, that threat is becoming less and less credible," Amidror wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times under the headline "A Most Dangerous Deal." He claims that the possibility that international inspectors are able to keep track of Iran's nuclear activity is slim, and added that if the world powers' gamble on Tehran fails, "there will be only one tool left to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon," a clear hint of an Israeli military strike on nuclear facilities.
In other words, Amidror is saying what Netanyahu is thinking: That Obama failed diplomatically and missed a great opportunity to use the sanctions pressure to bring Iran to its knees and prevent a war. In his opinion piece, Amidror does not mention the disappointing result, as far as Israel is concerned, of Obama's move.
The result at the base of the argument: Iran received an opportunity from Obama to step up to the plate as a recognized and official player in the shaping of the Middle East. Obama reached out to Khamenei and allowed him to pitch in front of world powers on other regional matters as well, like the Syrian civil war. Before this week, Iran was throwing firecrackers from the stands, but from now on it is wearing official uniforms and takes the field as if it did not cheat, deceive, lie, send terror cells and aided in the massacre in Syria. This is the "historic mistake" Netanyahu is talking about.
According to this forecast, the criticism will continue, Obama's attempts to calm the Saudi king will come to naught, Iran will continue inciting against Israel, and the world will be silent. The stock market will keep rising, the rial will grow strong and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif's comments on talks with international gas corporations and on the continuation of construction at the Arak heavy-water reactor are just the first sign of the collapse of the sanctions regime.
Netanyahu fears and predicts that the agreement reached in Geneva this week is a permanent agreement, and not an interim stage, because Tehran understands that Obama is not determined enough to be of any threat to it. Iran is buying time to develop the delicate military components of a nuclear weapon, and he who sleeps with dogs will wake up with fleas.
If Netanyahu is right, things will become very bad for Israel, and Jerusalem will have no choice but to act militarily. And maybe, and this is just speculation, Netanyahu is already working to prepare public opinion in Israel to the possibility of a strike on Iran without the US, a dangerous and crazy move that is currently not winning any support among Israelis.
The American president is not denying that he is playing with the Iranians. On the contrary. A second after the Geneva accord was signed, American officials leaked details about a secret channel between Obama and the Iranian supreme leader.
It began a year ago, even before the presidential elections in the US. Covert understandings and trust-building actions were made, mediated by the Sultan of Oman. Obama is definitely proud of taking the Middle East's problem child, the one with whom no one was willing to speak, and offered him a different option. Instead of fighting, a partnership. Instead of pressure, an opportunity.
The American administration did not spare any measures of public relations even here, in Israel, using US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro and the president's close aide Ben Rhodes, who spoke mostly of moderation. This is a level-headed game. The representatives of the six world powers are showing patience to Netanyahu's cries of foul play, but claim he is exaggerating. All they did was remove some sanctions and got a freezing of Iran's military nuclear program in return.
Except that Obama's perception is completely different. "Diplomacy is making someone else do something he did not want to do," a senior American official familiar with the talks said. As far as the American president is concerned, Iran has agreed to freeze its uranium enrichment in exchange for a time out on general trifles that do not include the core sanctions on oil and money. As far as he is concerned, he was able to put Iran on the western track leading to an accord. And then, he either stops the nuclear bomb, or derails Iran and forces it to fall on the sword of the West's harsh sanctions.
Diplomats from the world powers have been anonymously talking as of late with a little more criticism towards Netanyahu. "His issue is that he compares what was achieved to what he thinks could have been achieved. This is a wrong, childish attitude," a senior diplomatic source said and added "the question is what was the situation before and what is the situation now. And, no offense, what kind of experience does Netanyahu have in negotiating? What accord can he present as an example of diplomatic insistence and creativity?"
Simon Gass, the head of the British negotiating team at the nuclear talks in Geneva, stressed that the interim agreement is an addition to a series of bans and limitations imposed on Iran, both by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and by the UN Security Council. Gass's comments were made after Israeli officials claimed the agreement releases Iran from previous limitations.
Gass arrived in Israel to brief officials in Jerusalem ahead of the beginning of talks with Iran on a permanent agreement, and told reporters that Britain will continue consulting and cooperating with the Israeli government on Iran. "Israel can form an opinion on the Iranian issue on its own, but we agreed on a need to work together and look forward towards the future," he said.
In a charity event organized by former Israeli Haim Saban, Obama said that boastful talk on the use of power may be politically convenient, but we must give a chance to diplomacy. What Obama didn't say is the following simple truth: America is tired of wars. After two exhausting wars, that cost a trillion dollars, the American public is not in favor of another surgical strike. The Americans think that if one can pressure and lure Iran into a deal that will dismantle its nuclear program, that is great. If that doesn't work out, freezing the nuclear program is also an option. And if the price is allowing them to play a part in shaping the Middle East, it's a reasonable price to pay that may bring to an internal change in Iran.
This is another meaningful point in the argument between the two leaders: Obama is convinced that there is a chance these moves are creating an internal crack in Iran. He thinks the Iranian public will now expect additional relief, and this will tell Khamenei that he must compromise. Netanyahu is convinced this is all a game, and that the player is playing Obama - and not the other way around.
The results are in
If in the final analysis talks will achieve an agreement, a freezing or dismantling, postponing or preserving the current state, the guys at the Nobel committee can note that their gamble on their player paid off. They may have given Obama a prize for nothing, but that prize obligates him to pursue the path of peace. He did not attack Syria, they will note to themselves, and he reached an agreement to dismantle its chemical weapons. He avoided war, stopped Netanyahu from attacking, and reached an agreement with Iran. The target was marked in advance and the goal was reached.
Despite the understandable bitterness of the one who got the world to isolate Iran and pressure it, but at the last moment was unable to influence the nature of the deal that was reached, Netanyahu must recalculate his actions with regards to his player. If his prediction is correct, and only a strike or a credible military threat can help reach the goal, he must remember that the US does not attack without wide backing - both internal and external.
Meaning that for the chess player Obama to sacrifice his Iranian knight, the American public must be convinced that the US did all it could to avoid a military confrontation and that there is no other choice but to draw weapons, like in the old westerns. For that to happen, Israel must work with determination and sensitivity, because we are not the only player in the field.
This article originally appeared in Hebrew in Sof Hashavua magazine, published by The Jerusalem Post Group. Translated by Yaara Shalom.