For weeks, even people who share Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s suspicions of Iran have been loudly proclaiming that his tactics are all wrong: He’s alienating the world with his negative attitude toward the Iranian charm offensive. “His bombastic style is his undoing,” proclaimed Haaretz military analyst Amos Harel. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former head of the Union for Reform Judaism, similarly warned that Netanyahu “should lower the tone, dispense with bluster,” since “In America, Israel is losing the debate on Iran.”
Given that nobody else on the planet even comes close to Netanyahu’s record of success in generating movement on the Iranian issue, I never understood why anyone would think they knew better than he how to do it. But I hadn’t noticed how effective his recent “bombastic bluster” has been until today, when a senior Israeli official pointed out something I’d missed: “We changed the conversation in which everyone was talking about easing the existing sanctions to a conversation in which everyone is discussing the need for preventing additional sanctions,” he said.
Nothing proves this better than President Barack Obama’s decision to convene an urgent meeting with American Jewish leaders last week to ask them not to press for more sanctions (two of the four groups present laudably refused). And while much of the credit for this goes to Congress, which has refused to take the threat of new sanctions off the table, there’s no doubt Netanyahu’s pressure contributed significantly.
First, that’s because nobody can be more Catholic than the pope: If Israel, which views Iranian nukes as an existential threat, weren’t vociferously objecting to the removal of existing sanctions and demanding new ones, it would be much harder for anyone else do so–certainly for American Jewish groups, but to some degree even for Congress.
Second, Israel’s track record shows that if it feels pushed to the wall by an existential threat, the chance of it taking military action can’t be ruled out. And since the world doesn’t want an Israeli attack on Iran, it has consistently tried to keep Israeli angst below that line. Netanyahu’s current campaign was thus aimed at convincing the world that easing sanctions would risk pushing Israel over the line–and he seems to have succeeded.
This isn’t the first time Netanyahu has successfully used similar tactics. His credible threat of Israeli military action is what originally persuaded Europe to impose an oil embargo on Iran, as a French official acknowledged openly at the time: “We must do everything possible to avoid an Israeli attack on Iran, even if it means a rise in the price of oil and gasoline,” he said. This same credible threat is what bought time for negotiations by persuading Iran to curtail its 20 percent enrichment–as even the Washington Post, not usually a Netanyahu fan, acknowledged in April. And finally, it helped bring Iran to the negotiating table–something Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel acknowledged this week, but which Iran’s own Intelligence Ministry acknowledged a year ago, when it issued a report advocating diplomatic negotiations over its nuclear program to avert the threat of a “Zionist” attack.
None of this means the danger of a bad deal with Iran has passed; far from it. But the first step toward preventing a bad deal was to prevent a hasty removal of sanctions, and that, Netanyahu seems to have accomplished.
He certainly knows that threatening military action and dismissing Iranian charm offensives as meaningless won’t make him popular. But so far, it has proven effective–and as long as that remains true, he will quite rightly be prepared to dispense with being loved.