With elections coming in Israel, I have a suggestion for Israel’s voters: When deciding whether or not to vote for Benjamin Netanyahu, decide on the basis of how he’s done on Iran.
This seems fair to me. After all, for the last ten years, Bibi has made Iran and her threat to build a nuclear weapon the central focus of his premiership. In countless speeches, in Israel and around the world, he has proclaimed that Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb is an existential threat to the Jewish state and a blow to the vital interests of civilized countries everywhere.
He has asserted that he, personally, will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. And he has made the Iran question the dominant theme of his relations with the United States.
All this being so, it is surely reasonable to make the Iran question the litmus test for determining whether Bibi deserves the support of Israel’s citizens. And it seems reasonable as well to ask: How are things going right now on the Iran front?
And the answer is: Not well at all.
On Monday last week, the official Iranian news agency announced that the country had exceeded the limits for enriched uranium set by the 2015 international nuclear deal. This Sunday, Iran announced it was raising its level of enriched uranium, breaking another limit of the nuclear deal.
These announcements don't mean that an Iranian bomb is imminent, but they do suggest that Iran is once again actively pursuing the materials needed to produce a nuclear weapon.
And Bibi must take his share of the responsibility for the way things have developed.
The primary villain, of course, is not Israel or her leaders, but Iran and her ruling clerics. Iran is a cunning and vicious enemy of Israel and no less dangerous a foe of Saudi Arabia and the Sunni states in the region. Iran exports terror, encourages mayhem by radical groups, prefers theocracy to democracy at home, and targets Jews around the world.
But precisely because Iran is so dangerous, a sane and sensible strategy is needed by Israel and the West to limit Iranian subversion and to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Bibi professed to provide such a strategy, but didn’t; indeed, misled by ego, ideological blinders, and just plain miscalculation, he made things worse rather than better.
Let’s consider some paths that were not taken.
After Bibi’s election in 2009, he could have chosen to establish friendly and cooperative ties with the Obama administration, which had just taken office and was looking closely at the Iran question. Bibi could have built a relationship of trust with the new administration, sharing intelligence and security concerns, and developing influence with the Obama security team.
Obama, after all, had a straightforward strategy: prevent an Iranian bomb without an Iran war - which in theory is the same strategy now followed by the Trump administration.
But in private and sometimes in public, Bibi’s team described Obama as weak and naïve, if not flat-out anti-Israel. And John Kerry was characterized by Bibi as an incompetent negotiator, regularly outmaneuvered by Iranian diplomats.
Taking his cues from his patron Sheldon Adelson and from the Obama-hating right-wing segment of the American Jewish community, Bibi managed to enrage the mainstream elements of the Democratic party, which was incensed at the attacks on their president.
And the Netanyahu line was nonsense. Kerry cared deeply about Israel and produced a not-so-bad agreement, balancing the competing claims of the European allies against those of Russia and China.
And sensitive to the profound weariness of the American public to wars in the Middle East, Kerry crafted a nuclear deal that provided reasonable protection for Israel against a nuclear threat from Iran while also protecting American interests.
Still, while it was a pretty good deal, it was not - Democrats take note - a perfect one. There was no ban on ballistic missiles, which Iran continues to test. There was no inspection permitted for certain sites within Iran. And most important, there was a 2025 expiration date on many of the deal’s terms.
But let’s imagine that Bibi, instead of infuriating Democrats and attacking Obama and Kerry, had worked with Democrats in good faith, presenting himself as a supportive partner rather than a partisan critic.
Let us imagine as well that he had refrained from attacking the American president and his staff, and pushed hard with Israel’s many backers in the Democratic establishment to revise the Iran deal before it was finalized.
Would this have worked? It may have. But it would have required Bibi to distance himself from Adelson and his ilk, listen to the centrist voices in the Jewish community, and play the role of quiet but forceful bipartisan diplomat - a role, to say the least, that he is unaccustomed to playing.
Netanyahu’s second mistake was his disastrous misreading of Donald Trump.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump proclaimed that, if elected president, he would withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and impose economic sanctions on Iran. While the responsibility was Trump’s, Bibi played a role; Trump, who had clearly not read the actual agreement, was responding to his evangelical base, which in turn was responding to Netanyahu.
And the result has mostly been catastrophic. Trump expected the Iranians to be bullied into renegotiating the nuclear deal, and Bibi assumed that either the Iranians would fold, or President Trump would use military force to compel them to comply.
The Iranians have not folded, and instead have increased their enrichment of uranium, moving slowly but dangerously in the direction of a weapon. Unmoved by Trump’s bluster and threats, they watch with a mixture of amusement and contempt as the supposed "tough guy" canoodles with Kim Jong Un and supplicates before Vladimir Putin.
And not only do the Iranians dismiss Trump’s brinkmanship, so too do America’s European allies, who believe that Trump’s foreign policy has descended into chaos. While he can sound hawkish one minute and dovish the next, most think, with relief, that he will never fire a shot, convinced as he is that another Middle East war will destroy his presidency.
And neither does Mr. Trump have much support for his position in the United States. At a recent debate of Democratic presidential candidates, nine out of ten participants raised their hands when asked if elected they would immediately rejoin the Iran nuclear deal as it currently exists. And both Democrats and Republicans want legislation that would prevent the President from authorizing an attack on Iran without congressional approval.
I am not suggesting that anyone should want a war with Iran. The goal is to do everything possible to avoid one. But the goal is also to find a way to revise an imperfect deal.
And in order for that to happen, America needs to occupy the moral high ground. She needs to retain the backing of her allies, possess a thought-out economic strategy, and have strong domestic support.
And she needs to make clear that she has no desire for war but, if confronted by Iranian aggression or intransigence, will not rule out the use of force.
But as Bibi knows and as Israeli voters should consider, America falls short in all of these categories. Neither her allies nor her enemies trust a word that she says. Her officials are sloppy, unprofessional, and inconsistent. American assertions on Iran are wildly erratic and often unhinged. Her goals are unknown, even to American officials.
The only consistent theme of her foreign policy is an isolationism that ultimately makes any satisfactory deal with Iran highly unlikely, if not utterly impossible.
Would it have helped if Bibi, instead of encouraging Trump to exit the deal, had urged him stay in it and develop, with his European allies, a strategy to confront Iran and improve the deal?
It might not have helped. Trump, after all, is a narcissistic know-nothing, desperate for glory and the validation of his base, who approaches foreign policy mostly as public spectacle.
But it surely would have been worth a try. Because the course that Trump is now on, with Bibi’s encouragement, will lead to stalemate at best, and disaster at worst.
And when considering in September whether to vote for Bibi, the supposed Iran expert, Israel’s voters should keep his bungled Iran policy in mind.
First Published in Haaretz.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie