You must admire the people in charge of gathering information for Israel. You must admire the fact that they can show you thousands of documents from within the Iranian archives. And as you admire these creative, bold, daring intelligence gatherers, you must also consider the obvious fact: They have documents that you don’t. They have information that no one else could gather. They know Iran well enough to master such stint – getting half a ton worth of secret documents kept inside Iran and shipping them to Tel Aviv. Maybe, just maybe, this also means that their sense of what Iran is doing, where it is going, what its ambitions are like, are better than yours (and mine). If these people tell you that Iran is cheating, if they tell you that the nuclear deal does not work, you ought to listen. Agree – or disagree – but listen carefully, and humbly. There is very little chance that you know better than they do.
Timing is everything. Prime Minister Netanyahu tried and failed to stop the nuclear deal giving a speech to Congress in early 2015. It was a controversial move. The Prime Minister was blamed by many of the speech’s opponents that his main motivation was political, that his true crowd was the home crowd (election in Israel were held a few weeks after the speech). In a phone conversation I had with the PM not long after the speech he defended his decision to go to Washington. This is an important enough issue for Israel for me to utilize all possible means – he said – and if this makes the President of the United States unhappy, then so be it.
The timing was off. Obama had no intention of giving up. He thought he had a deal worthy of a second Noble Peace Prize. John Kerry was maybe hoping to get his first. Netanyahu gave a good speech, a strong speech, but not strong enough. One could only speculate: would he be more successful had he showed them then what he showed us now?
What did you think about Netanyahu’s presentation on Iran? Most likely, this depends less on the material shown (shocking intelligence, but no smoking gun on current Iranian violations), and more on what you previously thought about:
A. The Iran deal.
Try this theory. Look around the web and try to guess in advance what each person, pundit or leader, is going to say about the presentation. In most cases, if you are familiar with the views of these pundits and leaders, you can skip the comment or the article. You know what they are going to say (I assume some readers might same the same about this article).
Would more evidence of Iranian belligerence make a difference? Sure, if Israel had rock solid proof of recent Iranian violations (if it has such information Netanyahu did not show it). But even then, even then… People could always argue that there’s no proof the documents are real, that Netanyahu’s word isn’t worth a dime, that Israel – and most other countries – got it wrong on Iraq’s WMD.
So did Netanyahu change many minds? He surely achieved two objectives: showing Israel’s intelligence prowess, and making Iran a main topic of conversation, for at least a day or two.
He also annoyed some leaders. Many of them are easily annoyed by him. Some of them were quick to point out that the information revealed by Netanyahu did not include things that were not previously known about Iran. The question is: Known to whom? Netanyahu’s presentation clarified things that experts knew before, but that politicians did not always know and that the public was not always aware of.
And anyway, the question remains: Can you alter the opinions of world leaders by showing them information – whether it is old, new, repackaged or reexplained? Are world leaders capable of admitting great error?
The deal with Iran was a mistake. It was a rush mistake. But let’s be realistic: Do you think Obama changed his mind the other day if he was watching Netanyahu? Do you think Kerry did? Timing is everything. Information – evidence – is hardly as important. Many Americans blame President Trump for bringing about the age of fake news, yet what Netanyahu showed us earlier this week is proof that the Iran deal was fake news. It was fake news produced by people more sophisticated than Trump, and thus more successful in selling their make-belief diplomatic achievement to a willing audience.
We have a few days before we can truly assess the impact of Netanyahu’s dramatic appearance of world events. But some things are clear:
Netanyahu was well coordinated with the Trump administration when he staged his press appearance. He spoke on the phone with Trump two days before his presentation. He met with the new Secretary of State not many hours before his presentation. The administration was not surprised. It was well informed, and it was ready to respond – as Trump did half an hour after Netanyahu went off the air.
What was the exact plan? Maybe Trump told him: give me something with which to work – give me something with which to pressure the Europeans. Maybe Trump told him – I can’t convince the Europeans, you try. Maybe Trump told him: I am going to do what’s right, it would be helpful if you can give me some more ammunition.
Can the Europeans, and Russians, and Chinese be convinced?
I am skeptical and here is why: They knew all along that Iran cannot be trusted. They knew its leaders were lying. They knew it was working on a nuclear program. In short, they were cynical when they hailed the deal, and there is no reason for me to think that they are not cynical now. They decided to compromise with Iran not because they think it is a country of great values and honest to god leadership. They decided to compromise with Iran because they see economic potential, and because they think Iran – and its belligerent behavior – is not really their problem.
I’d like to think that Trump is going to change all this, but this is far from being an assured outcome of what we see now. Trump can dump the deal and them lose interest – not a good outcome. He can keep the deal – possibly with cosmetic changes to save face – not a good outcome. He can begin a process of pressuring Iran, and then lose an election and be replaced by a less vigilant leader – not a good outcome. The battle against Iran is long, and to win it the US (or Israel) must be persistent and must have a strategy. Press conferences, speeches, statements, dazzling intelligence achievements – all these have a role in this long battle. But no speech can win this battle.
To Israel’s credit – if one believes the unconfirmed reports by the non-Israeli press – it is not only talking. The same day Netanyahu was speaking, someone was also shooting missiles at Iranian targets in Syria. This was not the first, nor the second, nor the third time in which Iran was the recipient of a clear message: its military presence in Syria will not be tolerated.
Israel made it clear in public statements. It made it clear to foreign dignitaries, including, in recent days, European leaders that were trying to understand why Syria is suddenly becoming such hot potato. Israel told even the Russians that it is dead serious about not allowing Iranian presence in Syria. A senior diplomat was telling his counterpart these exact words: We will not let Syria become a second Lebanon. In Lebanon, Iran’s proxy Hezbollah have thousands of rockets ready for use against Israel. This is hardly a convenient situation, but since the war of 2006 the Israel-Lebanese border was relatively stable and quiet. Israel has no interest in having to watch a second front to the east – this time held not by Iran’s proxies but rather by Iran itself.
Again, only time will tell if the Iranians got the message, and decided that the benefit does not justify the cost – or maybe it’s the other way around: they got the message and are getting ready to up the ante.
What Netanyahu showed was amazing, and also somewhat disappointing.
You are telling us that Iran is lying?
You are proving that the official Iranian position was based on a pile of nontruths?
Did we not know?
Netanyahu did not have a smoking gun to present. It is disappointing but ought to be acknowledged. So, if you are still in the business of believing the Iranians – oh, they lied for three decades, they lied up until mid 2015, but not they are telling the truth and nothing but the truth – I would urge you to stay away from banks, insurance companies and flea markets. You are clearly an easy prey for con artists of all types. Still – Netanyahu can’t show you evidence that they are lying now. I mean, this week. Today. Or maybe he can:
Netanyahu did prove that Iran is still lying about its dishonest past. What he did not prove that it is lying about the present.
Politics: if one wants to be suspicious of Netanyahu’s motivation it is not impossible to do. The speech was made on the first day of the summer session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Netanyahu stole the show. While other politicians were dealing with petty maneuvers he presented himself as a man of action, determination and the big things.
If he has no choice but to call for early election – because the coalition can’t compromise on issues such as the draft of the ultra-Orthodox, or the conversion bill, or the Supreme Court bill – he will now do it as statesman. If his coalition partners were toying with idea of testing his power, they will now have to reconsider.
These are tense days in Israel. Pundits and politicians rush to the microphones to calm the public down – which of course has the opposite effect. If times were truly calm, there would be no need for such appearances.
Remember Independence Day? It was just a week ago. Remember Passover? For weeks ago. May is here, and with it a mountain of worries:
Will the moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem, a happy and well appreciated decision by Trump, ignite protest and violence?
Is Israel ready for the main show in Gaza, in mid-May, when thousands will once again attempt to cross the border?