Netanyahu Makes Quick Pivot From Loss on Iran Deal – Jodi Rudoren/The New York Times
OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — In the week since it became clear that Congress would not block the Iranian nuclear deal he loathes, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has largely toned down his rhetoric on the issue and pivoted to others.
He did not utter the name of his nation’s nemesis in a pre-New Year’s toast to his office and the national security council on Monday, nor at the induction of his new military secretary on Tuesday. In a brief public statement before meeting with his British counterpart in London on Thursday, Mr. Netanyahu did mention Iran — but not in the usual context of its nuclear program posing an existential threat to Israel, only as a leader of “militant Shiites.”
And even that was ticked off between two other priorities: Mr. Netanyahu reiterated his readiness to restart negotiations with the Palestinians (though he rejects their conditions for doing so) and he boasted of Israeli innovation, “especially in cybersecurity.”
David Horovitz, the editor of The Times of Israel news site, observed, “He is not particularly interested in playing up the fact that a deal he bitterly opposed is going through.” Mr. Horovitz added, “Although he’s not saying that the cause is lost, if he hammers away at the same level, he reminds everybody that it’s been lost.”
While Israeli commentators have roundly called the lack of congressional votes to reject the deal an Israeli diplomatic failure, Mr. Netanyahu is not suffering domestically: Polls show that large majorities of Israeli Jews agree with him on Iran and deeply distrust President Obama. Analysts said the rhetorical shift is more a reflection of the international reality, and that Mr. Netanyahu may finally be ready to move to a new phase, of resetting his troubled relations with the White House.
Washington is expected to deliver a huge new military-aid package to Israel, and perhaps also to make some political moves to appease Mr. Netanyahu and Democratic supporters of Israel who reluctantly backed the nuclear deal. The stinging loss on Iran may actually remove a headache for Mr. Netanyahu, as many American leaders are wary of seeming to pile on by pressuring him on Palestinian statehood.
Though Mr. Obama this spring threatened in international forums to revisit the United States’ longstanding defense of Israel against Palestinian moves, many experts now see that as unlikely. With the president having secured a legacy-defining foreign policy achievement with Iran, the world focused on the refugee crisis and the rise of the Islamic State, and Palestinian internal politics in turmoil, the long-shot prospects for progress on peace do not seem worth the political risk as the 2016 presidential campaign intensifies.
“I was in Washington, and I saw that the administration is signaling that they are ready, that there is no bad blood, they are interested in a conversation, and I think the ball is in the Israeli court,” said Amos Yadlin, director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. Mr. Netanyahu’s “public rhetoric is not now against the administration, it’s against the Iranians,” he added, “so I think there is an opening here, to use the end of September to be the time to start talking.”
Mr. Yadlin argued in a recent paper that after fierce fighting over the Iran deal, the United States and Israel should now sign an agreement of their own. It could outline mutual responses to potential breaches of the nuclear deal and a coordinated campaign against Iranian regional threats, he said. The alliance could be strengthened, he added, if the United States was to take the political step of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
That last move might be a long shot as well, but Mr. Netanyahu has already started saying things his allies like to hear. After his session on Thursday with David Cameron, the British prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu said he was ready to meet with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank even though it is “a nightmare for my security people.”
“I’m willing right now, without any preconditions, any preconditions whatsoever, to sit down with President Abbas and negotiate this peace,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “I’m willing to go to Ramallah,” he added, “or President Abbas can come to Jerusalem, or, for God’s sake, we can take up some of these suggestions for retreats in Sicily or fjords in Norway, whatever. Anytime, anywhere, now, without preconditions.”
But Mr. Abbas has long insisted he would resume negotiations only on the basis of the pre-1967 lines that divided Israel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, among other terms. Senior Palestinian officials have said in recent days that he planned to take an even tougher line at the United Nations General Assembly later this month, moving to dissolve existing political, security and economic agreements with Israel.
The prime minister canceled interviews this week with Israeli news organizations, an annual tradition before the New Year holiday that starts Sunday evening. Instead he posted a video that mostly promoted domestic accomplishments — lowering taxes and class sizes, erecting bridges and border fences — mentioning Iran only at the end, claiming credit for what he called the “tremendous majority” of Americans that opposes the nuclear deal.
There have been exceptions when Mr. Netanyahu has sounded more like his old self. On Wednesday, after Iran’s supreme leader predicted Israel would not exist in 25 years, he railed against “the tyrant from Tehran” and said Iranian aggression would “only increase as a result of the agreement.” But even then Mr. Netanyahu used softer language — “to my regret” — than in many previous, apocalyptic statements criticizing the world powers that negotiated it.
When he talks about Iran now, it is mainly as a regional aggressor, a fomenter of extremism alongside the Islamic State.
“There’s an understanding that it’s pointless right now to continue banging on about the agreement — the focus will shift from the Iranian nuclear negotiations to Iranian regional outreach,” said Jonathan Spyer of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. As sanctions against Iran are lifted, he said, the focus will be “look at what they’re up to in Yemen, look at what they’re up to in Syria, look at what they’re up to in Iraq, look at what they’re up to with Palestinian jihad.”
Daniel E. Levy of the European Council on Foreign Relations wrote on Thursday that “in Netanyahu’s world,” the post-deal “era should be an occasion for doubling down of adversarial relations between the West and Iran in every other arena rather than an opening to explore possible follow-up diplomacy.”
But any discussion of Iran, for so long the centerpiece of Mr. Netanyahu’s political agenda, risks reminding people of his futile opposition to the deal negotiated by Israel’s closest allies.
Yoaz Hendel, a conservative Israeli columnist who used to work for Mr. Netanyahu, noted that the prime minister has said in recent forums that “he always achieves what he wants.”
“He spoke about economic issues,” Mr. Hendel said, “but what was in the subtext to this absolute declaration is the Iranian issue, which the bottom line is, it’s one of his biggest failures.”