Netanyahu takes a lonely stance denouncing Iran

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, the son of a historian, often complains to his inner circle that “people have a historical memory that goes back to breakfast.”

Mr. Netanyahu has been urging the West to be firm with Iran in nuclear talks, fearing “a bad deal.”

But when Mr. Netanyahu has recently tried to focus the world on the Iranian nuclear program, using ancient texts, Holocaust history and a 2011 book by Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, he has sometimes come off sounding shrill. As six major world powers convene next week to negotiate on the nuclear issue with Iran’s new leadership, the Israeli leader risks seeming frozen in the past amid a shifting geopolitical landscape.

Increasingly alone abroad and at home, where he has lost several trusted aides and cabinet colleagues, Mr. Netanyahu has stubbornly argued that if people would just study the facts, they would surely side with him.

“You use history to understand the present and chart the future — history is a map,” Mr. Netanyahu explained in an interview on Thursday night. “You know what a map is? A map is a crystallization of the main things you need to know to get from one place to another.”

With a series of major speeches — three more are scheduled next week — and an energetic media blitz, Mr. Netanyahu, 63, has embarked on the public-diplomacy campaign of his career, trying to prevent what he worries will be “a bad deal” with Iran. Insisting on a complete halt to uranium enrichment and no easing of the economic sanctions he helped galvanize the world to impose on Iran, Mr. Netanyahu appears out of step with a growing Western consensus toward reaching a diplomatic deal that would require compromise.

But such isolation is hardly new to a man with few personal friends and little faith in allies, who shuns guests for Sabbath meals, who never misses a chance to declare Israel’s intention to defend itself, by itself.

“Netanyahu is most comfortable predicting disaster, scaring people into doing something,” said Mitchell Barak, a Jerusalem political consultant who worked for him in the early 1990s and has watched him closely since. “The problem is now he’s lost momentum. His message is clear, his message is the same, the situation is the same, but everyone else’s perspective has changed. It’s like you’re the only one in a dark room with a flashlight.”

Since the start of his third term as prime minister this spring, Mr. Netanyahu has been careful not to confront the White House, despite clear differences on Iran, as well as Syria, Egypt and the Palestinian peace process. It is a sharp contrast to when he lectured President Obama two years ago in front of reporters in the Oval Office. The two leaders have developed a détente, and they spent three hours — one more than scheduled — together on the eve of the American government shutdown in what aides from both camps described as a friendly and frank exchange. Amid the chaos roiling the Middle East, American and Israeli officials say the alliance is in many ways closer than ever.

“There’s a deep mutual understanding that we are what there is, there aren’t any other relationships like this, they’re all strained,” said one Israeli official who sat in on the session. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to be Bill and Yitzhak,” he added, referring to President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995. “It doesn’t have to be Bill and Yitzhak. They get one another.”

Several people who have met with Mr. Netanyahu in recent days described him as determined and focused, the atmosphere in his office one of urgency, not panic. Since his address to the United Nations, he has hardly stopped selling his message: nine broadcast interviews in New York last week instead of the usual two or three (including radio, a first abroad since 2009, added at his request), and on Thursday, a television trifecta and rare trio of newspaper audiences targeting Britain, Germany and France.

Israeli political analysts say Mr. Netanyahu, who was educated at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is action-averse but diplomatically deft, in his element behind a lectern or in front of a camera. His United Nations speech went through 50 drafts, and 45 minutes before go-time he replaced three pages near the top with a single punchy paragraph ending: “Hope charts the future. Vigilance protects it.”

Behind his desk in his office here, above a shelf filled with the encyclopedia his father edited, sit two framed photographs of men Mr. Netanyahu admires for having been able to see “danger in time” and find ways to avert it: Winston Churchill, complete with hat, pinstripes and cigar, and a long-bearded Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism.

“They were alone a lot more than I am,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

Over the past year, Mr. Netanyahu and his wife, Sara — a psychologist whom many Israelis criticize for everything from her purported temper to her child-rearing methods — have withstood mini-scandals regarding their spending on vanilla and pistachio ice cream (about $2,800 a year), makeup and hairstyling ($18,000 in 2012) and the installation of a bed for a flight to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral ($140,000). The prime minister’s stance on Iran, his signature issue, though, is popular with the public.

“Even though most Israelis dislike him, they see him as the best advocate — he knows how to deliver the goods when we are talking about talking,” said Ben Caspit, an Israeli columnist and an author of a biography of Mr. Netanyahu. “He’s a professional whistle-blower. He’s a professional prophet. But all the time pessimistic, threatening.”

If he seems a solo act on the world stage, Mr. Netanyahu is also increasingly a one-man show in Israel, doubling as his own foreign minister. Gone from his cabinet are several colleagues with security credentials whom he considered peers. His closest adviser, Ron Dermer, has left Israel to become its ambassador in Washington; he has lost his longtime cabinet secretary; and the veteran national security adviser departs soon.

But while Mr. Netanyahu faces increasing opposition within his own Likud Party, there are no real rivals for the top job, and the raging internal debate over an Israeli military strike on Iran has all but disappeared.

A cigar smoker — lately, the Cuban Partagás No. 2 — Mr. Netanyahu has lost 10 pounds since a hernia operation in August. On the trip to New York, he read Niall Ferguson’s “Civilization.” After a marathon day on Wednesday, he unwound with an episode of Showtime’s Renaissance-era drama, “The Borgias.”

Friday night dinners are reserved for Sara and their two sons, Yair and Avner; after lunch on Saturdays, Mr. Netanyahu and Avner, 19, a Bible quiz champion, study the weekly Torah portion for about 45 minutes.

History also gets personal for Mr. Netanyahu, whose brother Yonatan was killed in Israel’s 1976 raid on the Entebbe airport in Uganda to free hostages. At the United Nations last week, he told of his grandfather Nathan vowing to help establish the Jewish state after being beaten by an anti-Semitic mob in late-19th-century Europe.

His office wall is dominated by a map, Iran looming large at the center. Iran has been Mr. Netanyahu’s priority — many say obsession — since 1996, when he warned of the nuclear threat in a speech to Congress shortly after becoming prime minister for the first time. During the next three years he revamped Israel’s intelligence agenda to focus on Tehran. As leader of Israel’s opposition from 2006 to 2009, he made it a personal mission to persuade American state pension funds to divest of Iranian holdings. And since returning to Israel’s premiership in 2009, he has led the charge for sanctions against Iran, in part by threatening a unilateral military strike.

Critics and admirers alike say it is a Messianic crusade. Mr. Netanyahu is not religious, but he does see himself as a leader of destiny.

“We’re here for a purpose — I’m here for a purpose,” he said Thursday night. “Which is to defend the future of the Jewish people, which means to defend the Jewish state. Defending it from a nuclear Iran.

“I’m not going to let that happen,” he added. “It’s not going to happen.”

By The New York Times


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