Why would Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu risk a major confrontation with the Obama administration – in Washington – over the President's legacy project: reaching a deal with Iran on nuclear weapons? Many Israelis want a solid enforceable deal, but they won't get it if their Prime Minister has his way. He is in the midst of a brutal election campaign and he is playing his strongest suit: fear of the other.
Mr. Netanyahu's speech on Tuesday before a joint session of Congress was the outcome of intense partisan infighting: the struggle between an ideologically driven neo-conservative Republican party, which control Congress, and the progressive and pragmatic Democrats. The gloves were off.
But an equally, if not still more, significant confrontation exists in Israel, within a still vibrant, and sometimes chaotic, political system where politicians within the same government – and senior bureaucrats – take each other on in decidedly acerbic debate.
No issue illustrates Israel's internecine politics better than the controversy surrounding the Iranian nuclear issue, which many Israelis see as Mr. Netanyahu's most excessive, if not dangerous, pre-occupation. Mr. Netanyahu best illustrated his determination to push this one to the limit in his 2012 UN General Assembly appearance. There, from the rostrum, he paraded a cardboard dummy of a nuclear bomb to support his contention that an Iranian breakthrough on weapons' development was imminent.
Many of his counselors knew this was not the case and they made their views known. They were apprehensive that somehow Mr. Netanyahu would order a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. Indeed there are suggestions that he backed off only at the last moment faced with the opposition of his most senior security advisors.
The Prime Minister's former security chiefs believe an Israeli rush to be too fraught with risk and counterproductive no matter how odious the ideological Ayatollahs in Tehran. Efraim Halevy and Meir Dagan, the two most recently retired Mossad directors have called what they see as the Prime Minister's obsession extremely dangerous. Mr. Dagan has said it is "stupid." Mr. Halevy has said that the Iranian regime is "very rational." Yuval Disken, the former head of the internal intelligence agency, the Shin Bet, has said the Palestinian issue is far more critical. Tamir Prado, the current Mossad chief has said he doesn't share his Prime Minister's sense of urgency over the regime in Tehran, viewing threats from radical Arabs as more serious and immediate.
The mainstream opposition in Israel argues that while the prospect of Iran armed with nuclear weapons is totally unacceptable, an agreement could roll back Iran's nuclear capacity, achieving that very end. They worry that the continued defiance, if not outright sabotage, directed at the White House will affect the tone and tenor of the U.S. relationship, the only ally Israel can ultimately rely upon. They shudder that the Prime Minister compared Barack Obama to Neville Chamberlain at Munich.
Yet the Israeli Prime Minister persists, such is his need, recognizing the enmity he has earned from the U.S. President while trying so obviously (and successfully) to derail his efforts on peace with the Palestinians – and now on disarmament with Tehran. Why?
A general election will be held March 17, and Mr. Netanyahu's future is in doubt. The campaign has been caustic, with the Prime Minister's survival in office by no means assured. The "Zionist Union" (at its heart the Labor party) is according to the current polls likely to emerge as the largest Knesset parliamentary party with 24 of 120 seats, with Mr. Netanyhu's Likud one or two seats behind. The nuclear issue is the Prime Minister's attempt to define the electoral debate where he stands and Labor leader Issac Herzog is portrayed as weak and indecisive. Mr. Herzog opposes any headlong rush toward Iran and wants to preserve and make positive Israel's relations with its only real ally, the United States.
The Netanyahu record on domestic issues – social and economic; housing and employment – has been lackluster. He has been criticized by the State Comptroller for expenditures at his official residences and his spending habits. Likud operatives are concerned that their leader's personal popularity is suffering, confirmed by a channel 10 poll last week. A report on the housing crisis, again by the State Comptroller, was published last Wednesday.
The one factor the Prime Minister believes voters will respond to, given their history and experience is fear: specifically fear of annihilation. Few can envy Israelis, immersed in a region characterized by violence and intolerance. It takes little imagination for many to bypass analytical realities and embrace someone who offers strength now and vengeance, if necessary, later. On existential issues many Israelis admire an iron fist, whatever its consequences. Here the Prime Minister hopes also to outflank the parties of the ultra-nationalist right, stealing their thunder.
Mr. Netanyahu knows well the Israeli sense of isolation, of facing a hostile Middle East alone. He knows the insecurity this breeds. He is counting on it. He is willing to pay a high price to get it.