On Friday, I outlined five ways that the Iran framework agreement could fall apart before it is fully implemented. A few people noted to me that none of those ways mentioned either Israel or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Yesterday I doubled down on that non-mention:
Now at first glance, this must sound pretty strange. After all, I hear rumors that there’s a super-powerful lobby that will push any American politician closer to Israeli policy preferences. Benjamin Netanyahu just won a big reelection victory. And as the tweet noted, it’s not as though Bibi Netanyahu has been absent from the American media recently. In laying the groundwork for an all-out rhetorical assault on the framework announcement, the Israeli prime minister has been extremely outspoken about opposing the deal in the four days since it was announced:
I’m aware of this. It’s just that it doesn’t matter all that much.
The problem Netanyahu has is that he’s shot his bolt on Iran. He has already succeeded in rallying Republicans in Congress to his cause. He has already made his case to both chambers of Congress and the American people. He has already warned about the worst-case scenarios. He has already maximized the forces that oppose the framework deal.
And . . . that’s it. There aren’t any more persuadables.
His complaints will fall on deaf ears in the current administration. In his statement Thursday, Obama made it clear that he knew Netanyahu would oppose the deal, and he said the same thing in his sit-down with Tom Friedman. On Sunday, Ben Rhodes, Obama’s foreign policy amanuensis, told Fareed Zakaria on CNN, “I think that we’re not going to convince Prime Minister Netanyahu.” In other words, the White House no longer cares all that much about what Netanyahu thinks on this issue.
It’s increasingly unlikely that Netanyahu’s rhetoric is going to persuade any persuadable Democrats in Congress to oppose any eventual deal. Indeed, the framework announcement already has delayed one of the sanctions bills in the works. Bob Menendez stepping down as the ranking minority member of the the Senate Foreign Relations Committee removes a key Democratic critic of the negotiations. Hillary Clinton’s de facto endorsement of the negotiations, as well as that of some GOP analysts, provides additional cover for congressional Democrats. This is all before the White House sell begins in earnest. As John Harwood bluntly tweeted:
And I don’t think that Netanyahu is going to persuade a groundswell of Americans to oppose the deal. The polling on this has been pretty clear for a while now: Americans favor negotiations even as they doubt Iran’s commitment to any signed agreement. Furthermore, as Netanyahu has cozied up to Republicans, he will polarize rather than unify American public attitudes. In the court of public opinion, the administration will be able to counter Netanyahu’s claims by pointing out that even the Israeli media has been optimistic about the framework announcement. Or that the best way to prepare a military response to a cheating Iran is to take the deal.
Netanyahu could try to affect some of the scenarios that could break apart a deal: exacerbate Middle East instability even more, or persuade the Sunni Arab states to develop their own nuclear programs. Except that neither of those options is in Israel’s national interest.
Netanyahu could try to influence some of the other members of the P5+1, but he’s even less popular in those countries than he is in the United States.
The last possibility is a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Netanyahu has made threat after threat after threat to do so — but it’s a very low-probability outcome. Contrary to some claims, this wouldn’t be like a replay of the pinprick 1981 strike against Iraq or the 2007 attack in Syria. For reasons outlined here, it’s doubtful that the Israelis could execute a successful strike on all of Iran’s facilities without U.S. help. Which Netanyahu won’t get.
Basically, all of Netanyahu’s policy options to resist an Iran deal stink. He has no choice but to engage in high-risk, unrelated demands that weaken his credibility. Which is why he’s a far less important player than, say, the Sunni Arab countries or the Democratic members of Congress.
To be clear, I think there’s still only a 40 percent chance of any deal coming to fruition. It’s just that Netanyahu plays only a minimal role in altering those odds. And that must be killing him.