18.11.2012 analysis by Molad

Netanyahu's Iran Policy: Bells, Whistles and Failures

Netanyahu primarily continued the policies of his predecessors, yet he added an aggressive dimension that wound up harming his long-term interests

The main security question on the Israeli government's agenda in the coming months, especially during the elections, will be how to deal with an increasingly nuclear Iran. This article analyzes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's approach over the past four years and shows how Netanyahu perpetuated policies that had been outlined before he came to office, and did not deviate from the political and profesional elite consensus. The only notable changes in policy during his term were increased military readiness and an attempt to shift the international discourse. However, aggressive diplomatic tactics with Israel's allies ultimately harmed the same interests those policies were meant to serve.

Defining the Threat and Policy Goals

Managing any security threat begins with definitions. Security apparatuses in general act within certain resource constraints—investing in one threat necessarily reduces investment in another—and as such requires a prioritization of threats at any given time. A security apparatus should recommend how Israel should prioritize its threats but the recommendations requires approval by those who will ultimately be held responsible: the political leadership. Given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rhetoric, it is clear that he considers Iran the number one threat the State of Israel faces.1 In this respect, Netnayahu is simply maintaining the priorities of those who came before him. During the premiership of Ariel Sharon there was a tendency to prioritize the Iranian threat,2 and it was promoted to top priority during the Olmert premiership.3 During Olmert's tenure, Iran was also placed at the top of the Israeli Intelligence's work plan that sets Intelligence priorities for all branches of Israeli Intelligence.4 Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister after Sharon had already confronted Palestinian terror and Olmert dealt with Syria and Lebanon. Netanyahu was thus handed a clean slate; it was relatively simple for him maintain Iran as threat number one on the Israeli agenda. Were anyone to replace Netanyahu, they presumably would not deviate from this definition. The policy to place Iran as a top priority was not novel.

Though Prime Ministers might agree on the relative position of the Iranian military-nuclear threat, there may have remained disagreement regarding policy objectives when it comes to Iran. And, from a variety of clear policy options, Netanyahu chose ambitiously: his goal is to stop the Iranian nuclear program in its entirety, a position which implies ending all aspects of the program, not only its military ones. The international community was already on board with this position; it tied lifting its sanctions to Iran standing up to its international commitments, namely the cessation of uranium enrichment.5 There is an acknowledgement across political camps that the Iranian government is not to be trusted and that its statements that its nuclear ambitions are limited to civilian use are not to be given credence—it is therefore a matter of broad international consensus that Iran should be required to stop all nuclear activity. This consensus was not manufactured by Netanyahu, nor is there is any proof that he contributed to it in any significant manner. 

Nevertheless, as Prime Minister Netanyahu taught in his most recent speech to the United Nations,6 the mere existence of Iran's enrichment capabilities is not a sufficient condition for a strike. And so, in the interim, it remains Israel's policy to prevent Iran from continuing down the path of military-nuclear capability, an objective which enjoys near-total consensus among decision-makers in Israel, America, and, to a large extent, Europe. And moreover, it also remains the accepted wisdom among those competing with Netanyahu for power in the coming elections—Shelly Yachimovich, Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid and the ever present Ehud Olmert. All have often made it clear that they would not accept a nuclear-capable Iran.7 Before his election, throughout his time as President and in recent weeks, President Obama has also made his opinion clear: "Iran's development of a nuclear weapon, I believe, is unacceptable." and that "[t]here should be no doubt -- the United States and the international community are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons."8 European leaders hold the same stance. In this sense too Prime Minister Netanyahu cannot be said to offer any unique policy.9


Assessment and Strategy

The next step in any process of decision-making when it comes to security is the process of assessing the situation, a process by which we weigh that which we know about the enemy and the enemies capabilities in order to outline possible action courses available to us.  In this context the fact that the Prime Minister is acting within a pre-existing discussion, one he did not create, and who's essence has not changed during his tenure, is even more significant.

Despite the apparent secrecy surrounding the decision-making on Iran, a careful look at the interviews of Israeli officials and both Israeli and international reports reveals a fairly clear picture. Specific flight paths, the date and the ORBAT to be put into operation if and when the decision is made to attack Iran justifiably remain confidential, but the strategy is known.10

The discussion among decision-makers is confined to the formula of "bomb or bombing"; meaning, the conversation revolves around the question of whether we've reached the decisive moment to bomb Iran or if there is still time remaining to exhaust alternate strategies. Given these two options, neither of which Israeli decision-makers consider optimal, there are two plans of action open to Israel that would postpone the "to bomb or not to bomb" dilemma. The first is to take to the diplomatic arena.  The key to this plan lies in the imposition of harsh sanctions on Iran that only get harsher. The objective of these sections is threefold: (1) to encourage Iran to abandon its military-nuclear ambitions, (2) to destabilize the Iranian regime, and (3) to demonstrate the price of nuclear armament to other Middle Eastern countries considering following Iran's example. The second plan of action consists of an extensive covert campaign which would include collaboration between foreign, American and Israeli intelligence apparatuses,11 and would be designed to erode Iran's nuclear capabilities and postpone the entrance of a Iran's nuclear program into what Israel's Minister of Defense calls the "immunity zone," namely, reaching the point where a strike would cease to be relevant and the program would be immune to outside destruction

Yet it is highly unlikely that any of these plans alone will ultimately achieve the desired result.12 Decision-makers can hope that the in meantime one of three things will happen: (1) In the interim, Israel and the United States will come to an agreement about either an Israeli, or even an American, military strike that will save Israel from the matrix of problems that an uncoordinated military strike would certainly involve, (2) a combination of sanctions and covert operations will lead the Iranian regime to abandon its nuclear ambitions and settle for civilian use of their nuclear facilities, with significant guarantees, or (3) internal pressure in the spirit of the Arab Spring will bring about a regime change in Iran. A new regime might not give up nuclear ambitions, but would likely be willing to settle for a civil nuclear program and be less antagonistic towards Israel and the West.

The common disadvantage these three solutions share is Israel's inability to implement them on its own. However, if one of them were to be successful, the Iranian nuclear problem might dissolve entirely, whereas any action Israel takes on its own is far less likely be decisive. Were Israel to strike alone, it would face troubling consequences down the line. In an optimistic scenario, putting aside the questions of military and civilian casualties and potential acts of Iranian retribution, an Israeli strike would put the Iranian project back some two or three years.13 Yet after those few years, the situation would once again require international intervention in order to stop Iran from rebuilding its nuclear infrastructure. In such a reality, Israel would likely find it difficult to muster the necessary unified international front for further action against Iran, having exhausted its political capital in the first attack (and on countless other threats prior to it).  All this would only be compounded by the fact that the Iranians would be granted good reason for building a bomb—to protect their sovereignty from countries like Israel proven to be belligerent. This is all to say that in order to solve the Iranian nuclear problem on a fundamental level, an independent Israeli strike depends on more factors than just Israeli will.

This short analysis is naturally of a limited nature. It does not seek to answer what is the proper course of action is for Israel when it comes to Iran, and its purpose is to coherently present what all senior Israeli political officials already know—namely, the restrictions that bind the presently Israeli options when it comes to foreign policy on Iran. It is clear that Netanyahu did not invent this discourse. It is the same discourse every security official in Israel has confronted for approximately the last decade, one which was and is shaped and managed by professional staff in the security and defense establishments. Again we see that Prime Minister Netanyahu's policy on Iran is not fundamentally unique, and in fact is primarily an extension of previous policies.

What makes Netanyahu's policy on Iran unique

Though Netanyahu kept primarily to previously established frameworks for his policy on Iran (those of his predecessors, advisors, and international agreement), he did introduce two new elements: First, he accelerated Israeli military preparations and second, he changed his tone towards the international community.

Israeli prime ministers prior to Netanyahu have already set out on the path of military preparation.14 Those preparations served two purposes. The first was to enable Israel to act if and when it would conclude independent action to be justified despite the risks. The second was to use such preparation as a deterrence mechanism against Iran and urge the international community to aid in either slowing or stopping Iran's nuclear activity without the use of overt military force. According to media reports, at its high point, Netanyahu's investment in military build-up reached into the billions of shekels.15 The designation of money for specific budgets and projects is, of course, confidential, but it is fair to assume that this investment translated into a tangible improvement of Israel's military capabilities. What's more, budget allocation is the main tool through which politicians are able to impact the processes of public systems in general, and in the military more specifically. Which is to say that if the Israeli government were to decide on a course of military action, it would most likely find the IDF adequately prepared thanks to the efforts of the Prime Minister, Defense Minister and Army Chief of Staff.

As has already been shown, should Israel fail to act in political alliance—or better, in a military one—with international partners, it can produce only partial impact on the Iranian nuclear program through a stike. Yet even if there is a unanimity of analysis about which potential actions are possible, there remains a basic difference between Israel and the West when it comes to the degree of urgency granted to the Iranian issue. For most Western countries, Iran is a second or third tier strategic problem, whereas for Israel, Iran ranks first. In light of this, previous prime ministers emphasized to their counterparts, mainly behind closed doors, that there was a "credible threat" of an independent Israeli attack on Iran in order to spur them to action.16 Behind this policy was a strategy which recognized that Israel's best interest lies in avoiding the front lines of a battle against Iran. This will shape a conversation in which Iran is perceived as a threat to world security, and not just as a threat to Israel.17 It is not unrealistic to attribute the international consensus described above to the success of this policy, and it is also highly probable that Netanyahu's push for greater military preparedness contributed to the driving force of Israeli “carrot and stick” diplomacy.

However, it would seem that Prime Minister Netanyahu considered this strategy inadequate, and in the early stages of his premiership, claimed that the international community was not doing enough and that more could be done to spur the international community to action.18 To this end, Netanyahu took a more active role than his predecessors in shaping the world converstaion, putting Israel front and center in the public discourse on Iran. This meant that, to the extent that his predecessors attempted to prevent the international community from acting through quiet, diplomatic means, by referencing Israeli action behind closed doors, Netanyahu turned to the public and chose to frame the situation with powerfully adversarial rhetoric. First, in the last few months we've seen a growing, official Israeli preoccupation with the possibility of an Israeli attack. Second, the Prime Minister has begun to explicitly toe the line that the West's steps against Iran are "inadequate".19 This rhetorical line reached its peak this last summer when Netanyahu urged the U.S. to place a "red line" on Iran, and used phrases like "those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel,"20 implicitly chastising the US government.

This new manner of discourse garnered, as expected, a great deal of criticism. This criticism focused on the negative consequences of confrontation with Israel's partners. If Netanyahu's tack showed results, this kind of international price might have been justifiable. But his attempt to twist the arm of Western states failed. The essentials of the international approach to Iran had already been laid out prior to Netanyahu's arrival on the scene. Advancing that international processes did not depend on him, and his method did not achieve the stated goal. Namely, the drawing of a clear, red line the crossing of which will bring an attack on Iran.

First, let us consider Netanyahu's contribution to the process of bringing sanctions to bear on Iran. 2006 marked the beginning of UN Security Council resolutions against Iran's nuclear program, while Netanyahu was not yet in office. Resolution 169121 was followed by resolution 173722 which prompted the sanctions regime that has taken shape in the last four years. Skepticism regarding the effectiveness of this first wave of sanctions against Iran has its place, but there is no doubt that these resolutions indicate indicate a high level of international awareness regarding the existence of a problem and the necessity of dealing with it. The severity of the sanctions increased with Security Council resolution 1929, adopted in 2010.23 This resolution paved the way for the ever-intensifying moves that the European union and the United States have taken in the last two years, moves that have profoundly deepened Iran’s economic crisis. It might seem that because these steps were taken on Netanyahu's watch, they can be attributed to his maneuvering. Yet what is more significant about the 2010 resolution is that two countries friendly with Iran — China and Russia — gave it their support, support that was garnered by the United States, with President Obama taking the lead on the diplomatic process — a process Netanyahu actually criticized.24

Second, it is worth considering Netanyahu's influence on America's willingness to act. President Obama entered the White House a few months before Netanyahu was made prime minister. At the outset, the US President announced that he would not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, a stance his administration has often repeated. It was not insignificant that, in December 2008, Prime Minister Olmert said that the American goal vis-à-vis Iran is "identical to the goals Israel has identified as its own".25 There are those who doubt the sincerity of President Obama’s statement. Yet they are the very same people who have come to believe that Netanyahu changed the situation, and they are wrong on both counts. First, they forget that preventing a nuclear Iran is in the interests of the US, irrespective of Israel, for a variety of reasons: the ideological and political conflict with the Iranian regime, considerations of the importance of the Middle East as a strategic crossroads that holds gas and oil reserves critical for the world’s economy, the scope of US military forces in the region in general, and in the countries bordering on Iran in particular, the fear of nuclear terrorism, and an aversion to seeing the end to the NPT. Second, if one can cast doubt on Obama's earlier statements, then his later statements should be equally problematic — those about not allowing Iran to have a nuclear weapon that came after his highly publicized confrontation with Netanyahu. Consequently, there is very little space to praise Netanyahu for success in altering the stance of the United States. This was proven to be particularly true as both presidential candidates avoided giving explicitly "red lines" after which they would attack Iran during the elections.

Summary and Conclusion

In principle, decision-makers are free to adopt or refuse positions suggested by professional bodies. However, there is no logic in a course of action that not only disregards professional assessment, but acts in opposition to it. The analysis presented above demonstrates that the essence of Netanyahu's policy on a nuclear Iran is based on inherited policies, and although in specific areas he greatly increased Israel's capabilities, at the same time he took steps that sabotaged his ability to achieve the goals he himself set.

Netanyahu came into an international environment that was well-disposed to Israel's position on the Iranian nuclear issue; there was a broad understanding of how import Iran was and a determination to act to prevent nuclear weapons from reaching the hands of the Iranians. And it was in this environment that Netanyahu began, perhaps successfully, to refine this broad understanding to mean something slightly different and more pungent. Yet refining this message neither achieved Netanyahu’s stated goals nor did it spur any action not already on the international agenda.

Further, despite the reality that a solution to a nuclear Iran is not in Israel's hands, the Prime Minister took a shot at Israel’s partners, and tried to twist their arms in public. This resulted in an image of Iran verus Israel, instead of the desired image of Iran versus the world. In this way Netanyahu forced the United States and other friends of Israel to express publicly their opposition to an attack on Iran and doubt Israel's ability to carry out an attack alone, thus reducing Israel's "credible threat", a threat Israel officially stated as one of great importance. Netanyahu's actions acted as a diversion—the conversation shifted from concern over Iran's activities to concern about Israel's action, even though, under different circumstances, such action might have been considered legitimate. Ultimately, Israel took Iran's place as a top threat to world peace, and Israel's nuclear capability came under unprecedented international scrutiny.

Were Netanyahu to seek coherence in his policy, he would be left with two options. The first: to reject the need for an international coalition—an attitude that would require giving the order for an Israeli strike on Iran as soon as possible. Yet, Netanyahu has made clear statements that he does not doubt the importance of an international effort against Iran. This option thereore seems unlikely. The second: to adopt the view that Israel cannot solve this crisis on its own, and must seek to strengthen relationships with its partners. To this end, it is necessary to avoid confrontation with the international community and buoy Israel's international legitimacy. If so, instead of undermining his own policies, Netanyahu should have provided his partners with diplomatic ammunition that could help form a coalition for action against Iran, and increase their own internal legitimacy for a military action by them. This sort of ammunition could take many forms, but if Iran is truly the number one threat to Israel and world peace, than no diplomatic price should have been to high.

[1]  Take, for example, "The greatest danger to mankind and Israel stems from the possibility that a radical regime will be armed with nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons will be armed with a radical regime" from "Remarks by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his Inauguration of the 32nd Government", Office of the Prime Minister, available at http://www.pmo.gov.il/MediaCenter/Speeches/Pages/pmspeakes310309.aspx (accessed on 09.11.2012).
[2] For example, "Sharon: We will not accept a situation in which Iran posesses nuclear weapons" YNET [Hebrew], 1.12.2005, available at http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-3177778,00.html (accessed on 02.11.2012)

[3]  If we separate this from the comparison the threat of a nuclear Iran, the more serious problem becomes the threat of rockets on Israel and on her civilian home front" From: Remarks by the State Prime Minister at the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies", Office of the Prime Minister, available at (accessed on 13.11.2012). 

[4] Erez, Chaim. "Opening Statements" from: "Infantry Decisions After the Second Lebanon War — Conference Summary" eds. Gideon Avidor and Paul Carpenter (Latrun Armoured Corps Memorial, 2007), p 10; Uri Jablonka, "Intelligence Assessment: the chance of a conflagration in the north", NRG Maariv [Hebrew], available at: http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART1/707/183.html (accessed on 11.13.2012).

[5] "PM, Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy statement on Iran Sanctions", The British Prime Minister's Office, available at http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/iran-sanctions/ (accessed on 11.13.2012) and S.C. Res.1696, U.N. Doc S/Res/1696 (31 July 2006). available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/453786b00.html (accessed on 08/01/2013).

[6] "Prime Minister Netanyahu Speech to the UN General Assembly in New York", Office of the Prime Minister [Hebrew], available at www.pmo.gov.il/MediaCenter/Speeches/Pages/speechUN270912.aspx (accessed on 12.11.2012).

[7] For Yachimovitch's stance, see Shelly Yachimovitch's Labor Website, available at http://www.shelly.org.il/node/7249; For Livni's stance listen to "A Nuclear Iran — a Global Problem", Israeli Broadcasting Association, 09.11.11, available at http://www.iba.org.il/bet/iba.aspx?type=simple&entity=799133&lang=hebrew; for Olmert's stance see "Olmert: In the coming days things will be come clear", Megaphone, 08.11.2012, available at http://megafon-news.co.il/asys/archives/96407; for Yair Lapid's stance see "The Iranian Threat", Yesh Atid, available at http://yeshatid.org.il/programmes/national/iran, (all accessed on 11.13.2012) [all Hebrew].

[8] Jeffrey Goldberg, "Obama's Crystal-Clear Promise to Stop Iran from Getting a Nuclear Weapon", The Atlantic, 2.10.2012, available at http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/10/obamas-crystal-clear-promise-to-stop-iran-from-getting-a-nuclear-weapon/262951/#(accessed on 04.11.2012).

[9] See footnote 6.

[10] The analysis below is based on a variety of publications in the Israeli and international media, and is based mostly on the words of Defense Minister Barak and other senior from Ronen Bergman. "Will Israel Attack Iran?" The New York Times, 25.01.2012, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/29/magazine/will-israel-attack-iran.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1& (accessed on 05.11.2012); for clear analysis by Amos Yadlin see "A framework for thinking and decision model for Israel and the Iranian nuclear issue", Strategic Assessment, Vol. 15 no. 2 (2012) [Hebrew] available at http://www.inss.org.il/upload/(FILE)1349276320.pdf.

[11] David E. Sanger, "Obama Order is Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran," The New York Times, 06.01.2012, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/01/world/middleeast/obama-ordered-wave-of-cyberattacks-against-iran.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0; Aluf Ben, "Nasrallah's also afraid of Meir Dagan's methods," Haaretz [Hebrew], 26.09.2012, available at http://www.haaretz.co.il/misc/1.1351637 (accessed on 07.11.2012).

[12] Amos Yadlin and Avner Golov, "Direct talks between Iran and the United States on the Iranian nuclear program — Not necessarily a negative development," An Eye Towards [Hebrew], 25.10.2012, available at http://www.inss.org.il/upload/(FILE)1351145867.pdf

[13]  Harel, Amos. "Preparations in Israel — attack will delay Iran by a year or two," Haaretz [Hebrew], 03.08.2012, available at http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politics/1.1792785#.UITb1iEOYs4.mailto (accessed on 03.11.2012); Itzhak Ben-Horin, "Panetta: Strike on Iran — A delay of three years until nuclear." YNET [Hebrew], 10.11.2011, available at http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4146812,00.html (accessed on 31.10.2012).

[14] Kaspit, Ben. "The Barak Option", NRG [Hebrew], 03/07/2011, available at http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART2/255/964.html (accessed on 10.11.2912).

[15] Harel, Amos. "With Autumn, we're back to talking about sanctions," Haaretz [Hebrew], 07.10.2012, available at http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politics/1.1837386 (accessed on 5.11.2012)

[16] Ibid., Kaspit. Although this article uses this fact to make a specific political point, its claim that an implicit Israeli threat serves to stimulate international interest is fundamentally correct. For example, in Prime Minister Olmert's speech mentioned in footnote 3, he appeals to the international community to act against Iran, saying, of a nuclear Iran, that "Israel can not accept such a reality."

[17] Ibid., Yadlin, p. 62.

[18] Compare to Netanyahu's words in his speech at his swearing-in ceremony: "It reflects poorly on humanity, several decades after the Holocaust, that an Iranian leader calls for the destruction of the Israel and receives only a whimper in response from the world." Olmert said at the meeting: "A government that seeks peace…has the ear of the world, it has support, and it strengthen's Israel's international standing. Only in this way can we increase Israel's influence on vital and sensitive matters like the Iranian nuclear threat." (Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, at the inauguration of the government the 32 Knesset, Office of the Prime Minister, available at http://www.pmo.gov.il/mediacenter/speeches/pages/speecholmertkness310309.aspx [accessed on 11/13/2012]).

[19] "American Official: There will be conflict between Netanyahu and Ambassador Shapiro," YNET [Hebrew], 07.09.2012, available at http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4278389,00.html(accessed on 13.11.2012).

[20] "Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Prime Minister of Bulgaria Boyko Borisov in a joint press conference" Office of the Prime Minister, available at http://www.pmo.gov.il/MediaCenter/Events/Pages/eventbulpress110912.aspx (accessed on 13.11.2012).

[21] S.C. Res.1696, U.N. Doc S/Res/1696 (31 July 2006). 

[22] S.C. Res.1737, U.N. Doc S/Res/1737 (23 December 2006).

[23] S.C. Res.1737, U.N. Doc S/Res/1929 (9 June 2010).

[24] Sofer, Roni. "Obama to Netanyahu: I will not set a deadline for Iran," YNET [Hebrew], available at http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-3717819,00.html (accessed on 01.11.2012).

See above, footnote 3.
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