Benjamin Netanyahu is in no position to counter Iran’s threat

Bloomberg | : There is never a good time for Israel to learn that Iran is  edging closer to a nuclear bomb, but Tehran’s recent announcement that it is escalating its centrifuges and uranium enrichment comes at an especially fraught moment.

Israel is effectively without leadership, both at home and in Washington. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump are both caught up in legal and political troubles that consume their attention. Neither seems willing or able to come up with real answers about how to confront the situation.

Many experts say that these new developments could put Iran within a year of break-out time to a nuclear weapon. That doesn’t necessarily mean it would be ready for delivery. Nor would Israel be unprotected.  It has its own unconventional air, land and sea based deterrents, as well as a maturing anti-missile capability.  

Even so, neither Israel nor the U.S. can afford to ignore the Iranians’ actions. Until recently, it seemed their closeness, and the relationship between the two leaders, would have ensured no developing threat would go unchecked. Now, that seems wishful thinking.

Israel has enjoyed a honeymoon with the Trump administration during which Bibi wielded great influence. It was he, more than any American adviser, who convinced Donald Trump to withdraw from the nuclear pact negotiated by President Obama. The U.S. replaced that pact with a 12-point program aimed at reining in Iran’s aggressive regional behavior, dismantling its nuclear capacity and modifying (or changing) the regime in Tehran. The plan reflected Netanyahu’s thinking.

Trump’s commitment to defeating the Islamic Republic was taken for granted by many Israelis, including Netanyahu himself. It appeared that the U.S. president was fully on board. He imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran, stepped up military aid to Saudi Arabia and other enemies of Iran and spoke boldly of ending Iranian aggression and hostility.

But so far those sanctions haven’t had their desired effect. If anything, they have emboldened the Iranians, which downed an unmanned American aircraft and, according to U.S. intelligence, attacked Saudi Arabian oil installations with impunity. Now it’s questionable whether he’d honor the pledge never to allow Iranians to get nuclear weapons.

Israel’s leading strategic experts warned the prime minister he was being reckless when he put his chips on Trump. Better, they said, to accept the Iran nuclear deal. Flawed as it was, at least it provided a degree of control over the Iranian nuclear program.

Trump is nothing if not unpredictable and perhaps some event might trigger the attack on the Iranian nuclear program that Bibi hoping for. But Trump’s time and attention are elsewhere. If Iran is really less than a year away, military force (leading to regime change) will be necessary. That’s not likely in the midst of an impeachment process and an election.

Netanyahu is in a similar situation. A decade ago, Bibi invested billions of dollars and considerable political capital in preparing a unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. That kind of attack was feasible in 2012, when the Iranian sites were less fortified and more vulnerable. Today, most Israeli strategists believe it’s not. Even to attempt it would require American-supplied bunker-busters and a green light from Washington. And such a daring and dangerous operation, one that could trigger a wider war in the region, would require a country unified behind the prime minister.

It is very possible that Netanyahu will emerge from the present coalition talks as the next prime minister. But even then he would lack the stature he had a decade ago. Two years of nasty legal combat over alleged corruption and dereliction of duty have diminished him. He sometimes seems out of control. His newly appointed Minister of Justice, Amir Ohana, is a political stooge who, at Bibi’s behest, has attacked the prosecution and the nation’s legal system that have inspired an unprecedented rebuke by the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

The selection of a new Minister of Defense, Naftali Bennett, shines a spotlight on how far Bibi is prepared to go to save himself at the county’s expense. Bennett’s main qualification for the defense job is that he heads a small party Bibi needs to form a coalition government. Netanyahu let it be known that he will be Israel’s de facto defense chief, not Bennett. If so, that isn’t reassuring. A growing number of Israelis no longer view him as essential, or even highly competent, but rather as an embattled politician trying to keep his job and stay out of prison.

Anything Bibi now says about the gravity of Iranian nuclear escalation will be viewed through the prism of his ambition to stay in office. Ultimately, dealing with the threat from Iran, which will likely mean regime change in Tehran, is best left to future, less compromised leaders in Washington and Jerusalem.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.