Bibi Trapped

Why Israel's prime minister can't call the shots on Iran or the peace process.

Photo: ABIR SULTAN/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: ABIR SULTAN/AFP/Getty Images

Benjamin Netanyahu is one smart Israeli politician. This year, he will become the longest continuously serving prime minister in Israel’s history. He is the only Israeli leader to win back-to-back elections. And despite his detractors’ efforts to portray him as an illegitimate expression of Israeli popular desires, his staying power — at least on security and foreign policy — is an authentic expression of where much of the country stands in 2014.

Yet on the eve of his White House meeting with President Barack Obama on Monday, March 3, when the two leaders will discuss Iran, peace talks, and other issues, Bibi faces the prospect of being ensnared in traps that will limit his room to maneuver and undermine Israel’s interests, as he defines them.

To be sure, Netanyahu’s base is reasonably secure, and even if Secretary of State John Kerry succeeds in producing an agreement on a framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace that doesn’t fully pass muster with parties to the right of Netanyahu, the prime minister and his government will likely endure. So far, Kerry has been operating in Bibi’s comfort zone and has likely conceded enough to protect him against his critics. Moreover, Obama has learned there is little profit in arguing publicly with Bibi or in creating the impression that Israel and the United States are at odds over issues (see: a settlements freeze) that he cannot win — and so has Netanyahu.

Still, there’s a mix of pressures afoot that should and do worry Netanyahu. They come from different angles, each creating a box that could limit Netanyahu’s options to influence or guide developments in the Middle East.

TRAP No. 1: Iran. The first box has been created by Iran — the mother of all worries for Netanyahu and the mother of all fears and opportunities for Obama. (As for the Iranians, let’s just say they are sitting in the catbird seat. The mullahs have already won a great deal, and Netanyahu knows it.) In short, Netanyahu cannot stop or control the action currently occurring on the nuclear front — a painfully difficult position for the prime minister to be in.

Tehran’s nuclear scientists now have the technical skill and knowledge to make a bomb and, as a practical matter, the West’s agreement that they can enrich. And they will negotiate with the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, China, France, Russia, and Germany) to see how much of their nuclear infrastructure they can preserve.

In short, Iran has won already. The country is a nuclear weapons threshold state. What’s left to negotiate is what Iran can keep, not whether Iran can keep it — and, of course, how much time the West can put back on Iran’s nuclear clock to limit its breakout capacity.

Netanyahu believes that Obama has acquiesced in this game. He fears the president has three objectives on Iran: block an Israeli attack, make a U.S. strike unnecessary, and use diplomacy to reach an agreement that prevents Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold on his watch.

All Netanyahu can do, then, is wait and watch and hope he can somehow, through Congress or on his own, shape the terms of a comprehensive nuclear agreement, should there be one. In a recent talk, however, Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, put the odds of a Netanyahu dream agreement (meaning no enrichment) at 0 percent and that of an acceptable agreement at just 5 percent. (He didn’t even give the odds of the possibility of a comprehensive accord, presumably because one is unlikely, certainly within the first six-month period.)

This was not the way it was supposed to be. The prime minister’s goal — linked to the essence of his very identity — has long been to be the leader who frees Israel from the shadow of the Iranian bomb. But now, he watches from the sidelines. Military action is unthinkable, and Bibi faces the painful reality that Iran very well may cross the red line on nukes while he’s in office.

TRAP No. 2: Peace Process. For Bibi, the Israeli-Palestinian issue has always been a back-burner affair: never an opportunity and at best a headache and trap to be avoided. Kerry’s relentlessness on the issue has surprised him, as has the secretary of state’s willingness to accommodate some of Israel’s requirements.

But if the United States succeeds in putting out a framework that isn’t completely gutted by asterisks and reservations, at some point, phase two will begin. And that will require moving beyond principles to details in a comprehensive accord and then on to the unimaginably challenging world of practical implementation. That, in turn, will require hard decisions by Bibi and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, real mediation on Kerry’s part, and Obama’s involvement.

The further this peace process goes, the greater the danger it will set up excruciatingly painful choices for Bibi. Having accepted a framework, should he go down the road of an actual, in-the-flesh two-state solution, Netanyahu will be leaving behind not just his coalition but his own convictions and aspirations as well. He has never envisioned himself as the Israeli father of a Palestinian state based on anything like the terms Abbas might be able to accept, on tough issues like Jerusalem and borders.

But as with Iran, the next move is not really up to Netanyahu. It’s up to Kerry and Obama. To be sure, Bibi always has the option of saying no. But the deeper he gets, the more difficult that will become — particularly if the Palestinians prove uncharacteristically flexible, or the Americans uncharacteristically bold.

TRAP No. 3: Sanctions and Boycotts. Inextricably tied to the peace process is the threat of foreign pressure on Israel and boycotts of the country’s products. Some countries — in Europe, for instance — have suggested these consequences are possible if peace talks fail. On Feb. 1, during remarks in Munich, Kerry said, "For Israel, there’s an increasing delegitimization campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There are talk of boycotts and other kinds of things. Are we all going to be better with all of that?" The Israelis reacted negatively to these comments, largely because they interpreted them as indirect pressure. Kerry is no supporter of boycotts, but the threats from Europe nonetheless work to his and Obama’s advantage — pushing a point without leaving fingerprints.

Israeli leaders are taking this all seriously; there is a real fear of being isolated and a strong desire not to get to that point. Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid said in late January that even a low-scale boycott could create a loss in exports of $5.7 billion a year. "We must recognize that if the talks fail — and the world will believe they failed because of us — there will be a price, and it’s best we know what that price is," Lapid said in a speech.

Netanyahu can’t whistle past the graveyard on boycotts. If they are imposed, a critical line will have been crossed. Israel will lose big time — and Bibi will too.

There is a sense that, even though the peace process seems to have gone on forever, this is a last chance. (It’s a trope Kerry has repeatedly hyped.) And there’s a fear among both the Israelis and the Palestinians that they will be blamed for the collapse, what former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker used to call having a dead cat left on the doorstep. Bibi, certainly, cannot leave the Kerry process without good reason. If he were to do so or if the process were to collapse and Israel were to be blamed, the Palestinians’ Plan B would be to go to the United Nations and resume their campaign for recognition in the international arena (which the United States would oppose). Israel, meanwhile, has no plan B. Settlement activity wouldn’t stop — and further moves by foreign states to pressure Israel would be inevitable.

Inaction and impotence are tough for Israel to handle. Right now, however, Bibi can’t really act, yet alone call the shots, without consequences.

Certainly, Netanyahu is a force to be reckoned with. He has cornered the leadership market in Israel in no small part due to his formidable political skills, as well as the absence of good alternatives. And there’s certainly reason to believe spaces might open up that would allow Bibi to escape these traps — thanks to Iran’s mullahs overreaching, the Palestinians rejecting Kerry’s process, or the U.S. Congress coming to his aid.

But right now, Netanyahu — bravado and self-confidence notwithstanding — sees a pretty dark picture: Iran as a potential nuclear state, tough choices on the peace process he doesn’t want to make, an unforgiving world that really doesn’t understand Israel’s concerns, and a U.S. president who seems risk-averse. No good opportunities sit in front of him at the moment.

Sometimes it really is tough to be the king.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author, most recently, of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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