Poof! There goes Netanyahu’s Iran bogeyman

The breakthrough agreement with Iran may have stifled attempts at scaremongering from the Israeli right.

Iran''s nuclear negotiating committee arrive in Tehran [Getty]
Iran's nuclear negotiating committee arrive in Tehran [Getty]

Long before a historic deal was finally agreed upon, we might have guessed what the Israeli government would make of it. Having warned about the perils of any rapprochement with Iran for some years – going to the US Congress, twice, and to the UN, with the same doom-laden messages – it was probably safe to assume that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reaction to any agreement would be: We hate it.

Indeed, days before this ground-breaking framework agreement was reached, days before the marathon negotiations finally broke through and Iranians broke out onto the streets in celebration, Israeli officials loudly heckled from the sidelines, proclaiming that the imminent deal was set to be even worse than had previously been thought. 

Netanyahu warned of a “Iran-Lausanne-Yemen axis” – referring to the war in Yemen and the Swiss city hosting negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries: the US, UK, France, China, Russia plus Germany.

History of Iran-US relations

The looming deal, he said, was “dangerous for mankind and must be stopped”, while Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, described Iran as “the greatest danger to world stability” and accused the country of “lying without blinking”.

Israeli government’s dismay

And so, as others marvelled at the historic diplomatic achievement and a rare bit of positive news from the Middle East, the Israeli government issued its dismay.

Officials described the freshly sealed preliminary agreement between Iran and those six world powers as a “bad framework that will lead to a bad and dangerous deal”.

The economy minister (now eyeing up a defence or foreign portfolio in the new coalition cabinet) said: “The world’s most radical Islamic terrorist regime received today an official kosher stamp for its illicit nuclear programme.”

And according to Politico, Netanyahu swiftly “trashed” the deal, telling US President Barack Obama that the agreement would “threaten the survival” of Israel.

The reality is that the depiction of Iran as a great existential threat hasn't terrified Israelis in the way that its right-wing government might have hoped. That might well be because Israel's security chiefs ... have repeatedly disagreed with Netanyahu's position on Iran.


The agreement provides for limits on Iran’s nuclear programme, with the country cutting its nuclear infrastructure while opening itself up to an unparalleled level of monitoring, in exchange for the removal of all sanctions. 

Obama has signalled to concerned allies in the region – Israel is top of that list, but it also includes Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – that he will be consulting closely with them in the coming months ahead of a final agreement scheduled for June. Along with those Gulf States, Israel has voiced concerns not just over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but also its perceived ambitions in the region.

But the reality is that the depiction of Iran as a great existential threat hasn’t terrified Israelis in the way that its right-wing government might have hoped. That might well be because Israel’s security chiefs – often perceived as more credible and trustworthy than the nation’s politicians – have repeatedly disagreed with Netanyahu’s position on Iran.

‘Messianic politicians’

Back in 2012, when the prime minister and his then defence chief, Ehud Barak, were ramping up talk of unilateral military action against Iran, the former chief of Israel’s security services described them both as “messianic” politicians who could not be trusted.

The former head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, meanwhile, described the government’s mooted attack on Iran as “the stupidest idea” he had heard of. The view from the former security chiefs seemed to be that, while negotiations with Iran might be problematic, this diplomatic path was the most preferable.

At that time, some Israelis responded to the ministerial war cries by love-bombing Iran on social media: “Israel hearts Iran” messages that flooded Facebook and were met with responses in kind from Iranians. 

And during the last election in March, only one in 10 Israelis said that Iran was a factor affecting their vote. The former chiefs came out in force again, with 180 retired generals and security officials warning that Netanyahu’s speech to US Congress was a bad move, while tens of thousands rallied in Tel Aviv at a protest event headlined by ex-Mossad head Meir Dagan, who described the prime minister as “destructive to the future and security of Israel“.

Even commentators fearing Iran’s nuclear intentions noted that negotiations in Lausanne, while perhaps worrisome and gappy, did not represent a “sword at the throat” for Israel. One writer for the right-wing Jerusalem Post last week pointed out that, even in the worst case scenario of Iran having nuclear capacity, Israel’s far superior weaponry and deterrent power was the reason that: “There is no existential threat to the Jewish state. Not even from Iran.

‘Not a bad deal’

Now, Israel’s media still doesn’t seem to be on-message with the government. In the liberal daily, Haaretz, diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid says that the agreement with Iran is “not a bad deal“. 

Over at the popular Ynet news website, security correspondent Ron Ben Yishai describes the breakthrough as “a better deal that we expected“, and urges Netanyahu to use the coming months to join the process, to help close any loopholes in a final agreement.

So perhaps the emerging reality is that Netanyahu has lost his regional bogeymen-in-chief. The international community has moved to rehabilitate the country that the Israeli right insists should be kept firmly out in the cold.

The threat posed to Israel – whether perceived or real – is thus defanged. And at the same time, those former security chiefs still assert that the real threat to Israel is in its continued occupation of Palestinian territories and the avoidance of a negotiated political solution. Now, it seems that the Iran issue can no longer be used as a distraction.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.