Commentary

Israel's Netanyahu Increasingly Isolated over Iran

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu cut a lonely figure at the recent UN General Assembly in New York. His warnings against being duped by a duplicitous Iranian regime sounded old and tired, further isolating the Israeli leader from the rest of the world. For many in his neighborhood, Mr. Netanyahu’s insistence that the West ought to maintain a hard line against the Iranian regime only confirmed their suspicion that the Israelis are not really interested in negotiations. For some, however, the Netanyahu’s insistence on the sanctions regime is justified by the success of such sanctions. In Israel, there is the view that Mr. Netanyahu needs to do more to engage with the Iranian public, rather than fight a losing battle with the Europeans over the future of the sanctions regime against Iran.

The sense expressed in the Gulf editorials is that the reaction to Mr. Netanyahu’s speech at the UN should be a cause for concern for him and his government. The Peninsula (Qatar) editorial, for example, wonders whether the Israeli PM is “feeling isolated over the Iran nuclear issue? Reports coming from Israel and the U.S. should give him sleepless nights. For a leader who is used to bulldozing his way into Washington’s policies over issues which are of concern to Israel, the setback over Iran comes as a surprise....The lesson Netanyahu must learn from the latest developments is that he can’t make Washington dance to his tunes all the time....There is no immediate solution to Netanyahu’s isolation on the Iran issue. The more obsessive he becomes, the more isolated he will become.”

Arab News’ (Saudi Arabia) Hassan Barari also suggests that Mr. Netanyahu’s opposition to any meaningful concession to Iran is serving to further isolate him: “With the new twist in Iran’s foreign policy and the readiness of the American administration to call Iran’s bluff, Netanyahu is off-balance. His efforts of pounding the drums of war backfired....his media blitz reflects his growing isolation. The man believes that his duty is to save the Jews from another Holocaust. The Iranian nuclear weapon — if it ever materializes, would pose an existential threat to the Jews in Israel....The more obsessive Netanyahu becomes, the more isolated he will be. Perhaps, this may lead to his isolation at home, a scenario with grave consequences for his political survival in the foreseeable future.”

The Iranian dailies and observers have also commented on Netanyahu's speech, as well as his increasingly tenuous position vis-à-vis his erstwhile allies. Sarcastically calling Mr. Netanyahu’s speech at the UN a ‘magnum opus’ Tehran Times’ (Iran) Kourosh Ziabari believes that: “Netanyahu’s comments that Iran’s overtures to the West are not reliable and genuine seem to have few supporters, even among the American officials who think it’s more logical and reasonable to give diplomacy with Iran time to work....It’s not strange that Netanyahu is indescribably angry and lonesome these days. Israel’s long-term interests lie in sabotaging international peace and order. Now that this peace and order is going to reemerge from Tehran and Washington, it’s quite understandable that Netanyahu and his Likudnik friends are running mad.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s obdurate opposition to negotiations with Iran has drawn detractors within Israel as well. Responding to reports that the prime minister had compared himself favorably to former British PM Winston Churchill, Yedioth Ahronoth’s (Israel) Yechiam Weitz argues: “This comparison is arrogant and fundamentally wrong for a number of reasons....Netanyahu is inadvertently turning those Likud members who oppose his stance on Iran into Chamberlain-like politicians. This absurd outlook stems from his arrogance – 'only I am capable of understanding the horrible truth.'...There is no comparison between the colorful and optimistic Churchill and the dark, anxious Netanyahu who is capable of making only apocalyptic prophecies.”

Nevertheless, there are those who feel that Mr. Netanyahu’s insistence on keeping the screws turning on the Iranian regime is justified in light of the success of the sanctions to date. Writing for the The Daily Star (Lebanon), Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister, catalogues the effects that the sanctions have had on the Iranian economy: “For decades, Iran has cast a menacing shadow of confrontation over the Middle East; now the Islamic Republic appears eager to end the showdown with the West over its nuclear program....The impact [of sanctions] on Iran’s economy has been crushing. Iran’s GDP contracted by 1.9 percent from March 2012 to March 2013, and the IMF predicts a further drop of 1.3 percent this year....here is a clear example of what can be achieved with American leadership of a genuinely multilateral effort backed by hard work. Such success, one hopes, will embolden Obama and the U.S. to engage in such efforts more often, so that openings like the one with Iran cease to be the exception.”

Mr. Palacio is not the only one who believes the sanctions have been effective in softening the Iranian stance. Al Hayat’s Zuheir Kseibati acknowledges as much in a recent op-ed for the pan-Arab daily: “According to Israel’s calculations and goals, Iran must also surrender, but beyond the official statements showing good intentions towards the West in exchange for regional partnerships affecting thorny files. In reality, Netanyahu was not lying when he recurrently said that the sword of the international sanctions severed many veins of Iranian economy. And had this not been the case, Guide Ali Khamenei would not have resorted to the flexibility of the heroes who were evasive with the Europeans and the Great Satan for more than ten years.”

Which is why the Jerusalem Post (Israel) editorial is calling for a continuation and the threat of increasing such sanctions, rather than rolling them back: “Ahead of negotiations with the Iranians Tuesday, the P5+1 should be sending out a message that additional sanctions are imminent unless real headway is made. The Iran Export Embargo Act, for instance, which seeks to further curtail the purchasing and transferring of goods and services tied to the Iranian government, should be set in place for implementation before negotiations begin, so that the Iranians know they have something to lose if negotiations breakdown.”

There seems to be very little appetite for such aggressive actions, however, and some argue that the Israelis must begin to change the way they engage with the world, and especially with Iran. At least that is the sense that one gets from a recent op-ed in the Jerusalem Post (Israel) by Saba Farzan and Saeed Ghasseminejad: “Without a doubt, Netanyahu’s interview was a successful PR move, and again without doubt, it could have been better. Let’s hope this is only the beginning of Israel’s targeting of Iranian public opinion. The truth is that Islamic Republic is Israel’s greatest enemy and Israel should have done more in addressing Iran’s civil society....The main public opinion battlefield is thus here in Middle East – that is, if Israel does not want to be surrendered by eternal enemies forever, it needs to make friends in the region, and to make friends it needs to launch a large-scale PR campaign.”


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