Netanyahu’s Iran Performance Wasn’t Just for Trump

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(Bloomberg) -- When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went on national television to present what his office touted as a dramatic announcement about Iranian nuclear documents now in Israeli hands, the entire country tuned in. So did much of the world. 

Early reviews were dismissive. Sure, it was impressive that Israeli agents heisted half a ton of nuclear documents from Iran. The movie version would be a must-see. But critics harrumphed that the revelations lacked substance: What Netanyahu presented were merely files of a long-defunct Iranian bomb and delivery program.

The French foreign ministry issued a statement that summed up the European Union response. “At first glance,” it said, this was old news. France and its partners have known this stuff since the summer of 2002. Alex Fishman, one of Israel’s most widely read military analysts, was similarly unimpressed. “Warmed over noodles,” he called it.

These critics, who reflect the view in EU capitals and among Israeli military cognoscenti, are not wrong; but they miss the point. Netanyahu didn’t go on television to display a smoking gun. He didn’t have one, and it didn’t matter. What he did have was a prop, a stage and a series of messages for at least five key audiences.

One obvious recipient was Donald Trump, now loudly threatening to blow up the Iranian nuclear agreement concluded by his predecessor. It is not clear that Trump — or Netanyahu for that matter — actually want to do this. Both say they are amenable to keeping the deal, with “substantial changes.” That is, in fact, what other signatories are seeking. But, ended or mended, there is going to be some serious international turbulence after Trump’s May 12 deadline, especially since Tehran is refusing to accept any changes.

Neither Netanyahu nor Trump argues that Iran has broken the accord it signed in 2015. They believe that the deal, in its present state, is worse than nothing at all. Demonstrating that the regime in Iran has retained, and tried to closely guard, its nuclear plans, may not be incriminating, but it raises enough eyebrows to provide the White House with fresh and vividly illustrated talking points. Trump got this immediately. “Bibi is 100 percent right!” the president trumpeted after the show.

Still, Trump was not, as some reviewers have claimed, an “audience of one.” Netanyahu had other targets too, starting with Iran.

It’s no secret that Israel has been trying for decades to derail the nuclear plans of the Ayatollahs. But this campaign has largely been conducted in the dark. For the first time, Netanyahu shined a bright light on a clandestine Israeli intelligence operation — and used it to mock the enemy “That stuff I showed on TV? You don’t know what else we have; you don’t know the half of it,” he seemed to taunt. It isn’t hard to imagine the manhunt this has already set off in Iran’s nuclear community.

This is something for the Russians to ponder, too, as they work on their relationship with Tehran. As Netanyahu demonstrated, Iran is highly vulnerable to penetration. Whatever intelligence, military plans and diplomatic information the Russians share with the Islamic Republic could very well wind up in the hands of Israel, and the United States.

Netanyahu's fourth audience was the Mossad, Israel’s main intelligence agency. He lauded the operation as “one of the greatest achievement of Israel’s intelligence,” and didn’t stop there in his praise. In the recent past, Netanyahu’s efforts to confront Iran militarily were thwarted (first privately and then, after his 2005 resignation, publicly) by the former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan. In gearing up for a fight with Iranian proxies in Syria and Lebanon, as well as the possibility of taking direct action against Tehran (a prospect Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman raised this week) he will want to keep the Mossad well-fed and happy.

Though Netanyahu gave his presentation in English, it would be a mistake to conclude he wasn’t also sending a message to Israelis. Netanyahu’s show preempted the news broadcasts on all three prime time new programs, assuring the whole country would be tuned in. The medium was the message; it conveyed the urgency of the information. Most Israelis were impressed: Here was our own world statesman, an MIT graduate, delivering a complicated scientific briefing not just in English, but in perfect English.

Some local critics charged that this was the real purpose of the show. Netanyahu is under police investigation for corruption and other alleged crimes. His legal defense is that he is innocent of all charges. But, say the critics, his political defense lies in burnishing his public image as the only leader capable of defending Israeli interests and projecting Israeli influence onto the world stage. There is a fair chance that he will be indicted, in which case he would most likely call a new election. Public support isn’t an admissible legal defense, but prosecutors and judges are only human.

That cynical reading, however, misunderstands the nature of Netanyahu’s deep sense of patriotism. He genuinely fears Iranian aggression, but he isn’t going to take Israel to war out of a personal political calculation.

As things stand, Netanyahu and his center-right coalition could win a narrow victory over a rival coalition led by two center-left candidates, Yair Lapid and Avi Gabay. They are decent peacetime candidates but neither has military expertise, national security experience or a close personal and professional partnership with the president of the United States.

These virtues were on full display in Netanyahu’s performance on Monday. In other words, among the several audiences Bibi addressed on Monday, none was more important than the one in Israeli television land. It was, in political terms, reminiscent of that blockbuster commercial for Old Spice: Voters, he seemed to be saying, look at your man. Now, look at me. Judged by that metric, it was better than a smoking gun.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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