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Understanding Netanyahu and his Iran revelation

  • paula_slier
Fear is a powerful motivator, especially in politics. When an electorate is afraid, it isn’t difficult for a leader to convince them of almost anything.
by Paula Slier | May 03, 2018

I first realised this when I started reporting from Israel in the early 2000s. The Second Intifada was under way and Benjamin Netanyahu had returned to politics after a brief spell in the private sector. Although he was finance minister at the time, he was the rising Likud party star and Israelis and Palestinians alike told me that his “obsessive fearmongering” would result in peace between the sides being more remote than ever.

The irony is that it was Likud’s founder and Israel’s sixth prime minister, Menachem Begin, who signed the landmark Camp David Accords that called for the establishment of a Palestinian state. But for Netanyahu, whose political career has been built on portraying Palestinians, and later Iranians, as existential threats to the Jewish people, fear of “the other” has been an integral part of his leadership.

When Likud lost the 1992 elections, it was Netanyahu who insisted that existential threats overruled all domestic concerns. He was already warning back then that Iran was three to five years away from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

This past Monday, the world was treated to another of Netanyahu’s political theatrics. To be fair, what the prime minister revealed was indeed an intelligence coup. Israeli operatives managed to penetrate a secret Iranian military facility in Tehran and steal tens of thousands of detailed files on the Iranian nuclear programme.

But the prime minister’s almost child-like presentation, which included lots of visual aids, block letters and simplistic messages, dished up a message to an audience of one – US President Donald Trump.

Social media had a field day, poking fun at Netanyahu for acting like the host of a shopping channel and using outdated technology, but his presentation hit the mark. It spoke to Trump in a language he understood and with a clear point, which was: Iran has all along been actively pursuing a bomb and cannot be trusted.

That was Netanyahu’s message and Trump heard it. The American president said the speech was “good” and showed he’d been “a hundred percent correct about Iran”.

At the time of writing this, Trump hasn’t said as much but he is widely expected to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that was brokered by seven parties and signed in 2015.

Netanyahu is well aware of the growing divide between Trump and his other co-signatories. Paris responded on Tuesday that some of the information revealed by Netanyahu had already been disclosed in 2002 and stressed the importance of continuing with the nuclear deal. And, together with France, Britain also said that Tehran had been abiding by the pact and it should be kept.

No doubt Netanyahu was also addressing the Iranians in his presentation. In an attempt to intimidate them, he made sure it was understood that Israeli intelligence can infiltrate even Iran’s most sensitive facilities. Tehran has shot back, saying Netanyahu is “an infamous liar”.

In all of this, it’s important to remember that in 2002 Netanyahu proclaimed before the American Congress that “there is no question” that Iraq’s then leader, Saddam Hussein, was building nuclear weapons. He went as far as to “guarantee” American lawmakers that Hussein’s removal would have “positive reverberations” throughout the Middle East, a prediction that did not pan out quite as expected.

But the difference now is that, unlike when Netanyahu made the Iraqi assertions and was a private citizen, during Monday night’s showmanship, he was the elected leader of Israel.

And for this reason, he was also talking to his electorate. Cold calculations of domestic politics were certainly at play. The prime minister was warning the police and those considering indicting him for criminal actions that they might be removing the one and only Israeli leader able to stave off Iran’s intention to wipe Israel off the map. This is always Netanyahu’s message. In times of crises and fear – a lot of which are of his making – Netanyahu is intent on reminding Israelis that he is the only politician strong enough to lead the country.

But should he be proven wrong, as he was with Iraq, it won’t only be him paying the price, but Israel as a whole.

The problem is that while Netanyahu’s speech might earn him brownie points among Israelis and many Americans, it also places Jerusalem in a very precarious position should the deal be cancelled and then things go bad. Netanyahu and Israel will become the international community’s convenient scapegoat.

I’m not saying Netanyahu is wrong about Iran; I’m just wondering what it means if he could be. What if he turns out to have scuppered a chance at peace (or at least non-confrontation) between the sides and, instead, brings the region to the brink of war?

What’s more, Netanyahu’s presentation came a day after a presumed Israeli attack on Iranian missile sites in Syria. Such attacks are becoming more frequent and as tensions climb, so does the probability of an Iranian retaliation on Jerusalem. It is surprising to some that Iran hasn’t already responded, but it seems Tehran is waiting and watching to see what Trump decides before mapping its next steps.

Iran wants to keep the deal as it brings significant sanctions relief, but should Trump decide to withdraw from it, an Iranian retaliatory response on Israel could be just around the corner. And, as much as Netanyahu talks fear and warns of an Iran building nuclear weapons under the cover of the deal, should that deal disappear and Tehran decide to take action against Israel, the scenario is just as fearful as the one Netanyahu purports to be fighting against.

·         Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of Newshound Media and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.

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