Why does Netanyahu want to sabotage the Iran nuclear deal?

A rapprochement with Iran will weaken Israel’s standing in the region and the Israeli PM’s governing coalition.

By demonising Iran, Netanyahu is trying to divert attention from settlement expansions [EPA]

After a decade of deadlock, the historic interim deal signed in Geneva represents the first significant victory for Iran and the six world powers. Reaching a final deal would also be a victory for the Israel because it will guarantee that Iran would never have the means to develop nuclear weapons. So, why does Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vehemently oppose this win-win agreement and call it “a historic mistake”?

Focus on Israel

Creating a Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel in “peace and security” has always been US President Barack Obama’s priority along with the Iranian crisis. If world powers find a way out of the Iranian nuclear crisis, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be back at the top of the international community’s agenda.

Israeli settlement expansion represents a violation of international law and the deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process gives Netanyahu’s coalition government space to keep “authorising” more construction in the Occupied Territories. As a reminder, Netanyahu’s Likud (centre-right) party formed a pro-settlement coalition – from centrist to far-right political parties – to win the election. The Minister of Housing and Construction, Uri Ariel, stated that “there can only be one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea – Israel”.

Netanyahu’s coalition government logically finds an interest in maintaining the status quo with the Palestinians. Moreover, the failure of the Geneva agreement would keep the international community’s focus on Iran rather than the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Additionally, ending the Iranian nuclear crisis will put the UN conference on a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons back on the world powers agenda with greater credibility. The issue of Israel’s nuclear arsenal will then become almost impossible to dodge, which could eventually jeopardise Israel’s regional arms hegemony.

Shift in geopolitical balance

The status quo that preceded the Geneva agreement – increased crippling sanctions against Iran combined with the constant threat of military strikes – isolated Iran significantly and increased Israeli and Saudi geopolitical influence as well as their economic and military advances.

Ahmadinejad’s incendiary diatribes and approach regarding negotiations made it much easier to isolate Iran through sanctions. It has also, somewhat, justified the US Congress’ approval for nearly $3bn to Israel in military aid annually. As a matter of fact, the former director of Mossad, Ephraim Halevy, stated in 2008: “Ahmadinejad is our greatest gift.” According to him, “We couldn’t carry out a better operation at the Mossad than to put a guy like Ahmadinejad in power in Iran.”

Iran’s foreign minister talks to Al Jazeera

As a consequence, hardliners in Israel and Washington consider the victory of the moderate Hassan Rouhani and the space he gave to diplomacy, as a threat to the status quo because Rouhani’s handling of the nuclear crisis could lead to a potential final agreement.

The US-Iran rapprochement that would result of such a deal would shift the balance of power in the Middle East. Indeed, solving the crisis would mean – eventually – the lifting of sanctions and, ultimately, the end of Iran’s isolation. Iran would then get back to its natural position in the region and, geopolitically, it is a heavyweight in the Middle East.

Weakening of Netanyahu coalition 

Netanyahu’s ideological discourse is not irrational, and aims at maintaining its anti-Iran coalition in both Israel and Washington. His coalition government was fuelled by an aggressive and confrontational anti-Iran rhetoric. The huge political capital invested in this discourse matched former conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s investment in his anti-Israel rhetoric.

With Ahmadinejad gone, Netanyahu is now trying to overshadow Rouhani’s discourse of moderation and engagement by constantly rehashing the famous “wipe off the map” quote attributed to Ahmadinejad. Even though Netanyahu’s former Minister of Intelligence Dan Meridor, confirmed last year in an interview with Al Jazeera that Ahmadinejad was misquoted, Netanyahu still politically utilises the former Iranian president’s provocative speeches to foster Iran’s negative image in the West.

It is in this same effort that Netanyahu explained that Rouhani “revealed his true face sooner than expected” when his statements on the occupation of Palestinian lands were distorted to become a threat on the existence of Israel itself. To this day, Netanyahu presents Rouhani – who was elected by 51.7 percent of the Iranian population for his moderation and willingness to engage with the West – as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”.

While some pro-Israeli lobbies, such as J Street, oppose Netanyahu’s vision and support the Geneva agreement, numerous hard-line pro-Israeli lobbies, such as AIPAC, and numerous Congressmen such as Robert Menendez, Lindsey Graham and Mark Kirk literally repeat Netanyahu’s characterisation of Iran as “an existential threat” in order to prevent a thaw between Iran and the West.

The Geneva agreement and the de-escalation of tensions with Iran mark a logical new chill between Obama and Netanyahu. Obama has rightfully guaranteed that the success of the Geneva agreement will secure the Israeli people. However, the success of diplomacy makes it politically difficult for Netanyahu to maintain his anti-Iran coalition. Netanyahu, recently slammed by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for his public provocations, is now in confrontation with the US government and his last hope is that the US Congress – which is about to enter the 2014 election campaign – will vote in favour of new sanctions and scuttle the Geneva agreement.

Milad Jokar is a political analyst specialising in the Middle East and Iran. He is a frequent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs and has appeared on France 24, RT and BBC radio Afrique, and HuffPost Live. His articles have appeared in the Huffington Post.