Israel's Netanyahu fails to stop Iran deal. Will he pay a price at home?

Prime Minister Netanyahu has made a career of opposing Iran's nuclear program. Israeli critics fault him on style points, but fear of the deal and distrust of Obama protect him politically.

Ammar Awad/Reuters
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference in Jerusalem July 14, 2015. Mr. Netanyahu said on Tuesday Israel would not be bound by the nuclear deal between world powers and Iran, and would defend itself.

Preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power has been a pillar of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's political career.

The Israeli leader, who invokes Nazi Germany to describe the threat of a nuclear Iran, has escalated his criticism over the past six years of US diplomacy toward Iran, while hinting heavily at the possibility of a military attack on Iranian nuclear sites.

His zealous campaign brought him before a joint session of Congress in March, sacrificing any vestiges of a working relationship with President Obama.

Now, with the conclusion of a historic deal between world powers and Iran in Vienna that leaves an Iranian nuclear program intact, albeit heavily monitored, his effort has failed. On Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu himself called the deal a “historic mistake.” What does that mean for his political standing at home?

“He will be perceived as a failure, because he made this his No. 1 goal, and by his own admission the agreement is a horrible agreement,” says Ofer Zalzburg, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. “It’s a moment of weakness for him.”

Indeed, Netanyahu’s political opponents in Israel were already reminding the public of this before the agreement was announced.

Yair Lapid, who served as Netanyahu’s finance minister in the last government but is now a member of the opposition in parliament, said last week that the prime minister should resign in case of an agreement.

“He ran on this issue in three election campaigns, promising that there would be no nuclear weapons for Iran,” Mr. Lapid said in an interview with the Israeli news website Ynet. “If you didn’t prevent a deal, you should go home.”

Isaac Herzog, leader of the opposition Labor party, and Uzi Arad, a former national security adviser under Netanyahu, both criticized the prime minister for alienating the Obama administration and leaving Israel with little ability to impact the agreement.

Overall, issue is not partisan

Yet, despite the criticism, the nuclear deal is not expected to imperil Netanyahu's coalition. 

The question of Iran’s nuclear program and how to confront it is not a partisan debate in Israel in the way the question of a Palestinian state is. While many legislators like Lapid and Mr. Herzog take issue with Netanyahu’s tactic of publicly clashing with the Obama administration, they essentially agree with him that the emerging Iran deal would be bad for Israel.

“I don’t see any domestic repercussions,” says Prof. Sam Lehman Wilzig, a researcher in politics and communications at Israel’s Bar Ilan University. “We just had elections, and it was quite clear that the treaty was going to be signed.”

Neither foreign nor domestic critics present a serious challenge to Netanyahu in the arena of Israeli public opinion. Though President Obama has made the case for diplomacy to the Israeli public for years, his policies in the Middle East are viewed here as naive and unfavorable toward Israel.

Criticism hasn't hurt, politically

A Jerusalem Post public opinion poll in May found that 49 percent of Israeli Jews consider a nuclear deal with Iran as an existential threat to Israel, and 45 percent of respondents said they don’t trust Obama to maintain Israel’s security. That said, only 16 percent of Israeli Jews believe Netanyahu should publicly confront Obama, while 46 percent say he should oppose the deal quietly.

Domestically, Netanyahu has come under fire in the past from former security chiefs for allegedly pushing too hard toward a preemptive attack, or viewing Iran with an overly “messianic” zeal, but that hasn’t hurt him politically.

Instead, he is credited with putting Iran’s nuclear program on the international agenda, and there are no political rivals who have presented themselves as credible alternatives to his handling of Iran, says one former aide.

“As long as there is no one in Israel that can prove to the Israeli public that his way is the better way, it won’t hurt Netanyahu,” says Aviv Bushinsky, a former Netanyahu spokesman.

The prime minister is likely to continue to chide the international community over the agreement. After the deal, he’s likely to shift his focus to whether or not Iran is complying with the terms of the agreement.

“He’s going to attack everything that’s known to him regarding noncompliance, or every little statement coming out of Iran,” says Tal Schneider, an Israeli political blogger and analyst.

Battle in Congress

The Israeli leader is also expected to take his fight to Congress to convince legislators to pass legislation that would override the Iran deal, legislation that Obama has already vowed to veto.

Even if the odds are long that Netanyahu will succeed – some analysts say the Republican invitation to address the earlier joint session of Congress stirred too much partisanship to sway Democrats to his side now – the lobbying effort in the US will reinforce the notion that he has done all he can to block a deal.

While its unlikely he’ll visit the US personally to head up the public lobbying campaign, it is very possible that Israeli officials and diplomats will lobby legislators – with the focus on potential Democratic swing voters.

“For sure he’ll go to the Congress. He has nothing to lose. He has burned his bridges with Obama,” says Bar Ilan’s Professor Wilizig. “He’s not alone out there [opposing the deal], there are others saying the same thing.”

Lenny Ben David, a former Israeli diplomat in the Washington embassy, says he expects that the prime minister will lobby congressmen who visit Israel during the summer recess, and that Israeli officials and politicians will travel to the US to push opposition. “It’s going to heat up,” he says. 

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