Bibi's Iran shocker: How he accidentally revealed his desire for more war

Netanyahu has long claimed he doesn't want the U.S. to go to war with Iran. But this weekend, he let the truth slip

Published April 6, 2015 7:26PM (EDT)

  (AP/Gali Tibbon)
(AP/Gali Tibbon)

Throughout his career, but especially in the time since President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has revealed himself to be something most politicians are not: a terrible bullshitter.

I don’t mean “terrible” in a normative sense, though he often deploys bullshit for ends that I find morally abhorrent. I mean “terrible” in the sense of lacking skill. Even if you adjust your measurements to reflect his profession (where bullshit is nearly omnipresent), Netanyahu’s phoniness is obvious. It’s a strange thing to say about the second-longest serving PM in Israel’s history, I grant, but it’s true nonetheless. It’s absurdly easy to tell when “Bibi” is full of it.

Let’s take the multiple appearances he made this weekend on American television, for example. During his time on both NBC’s “Meet the Press” and CNN’s “State of the Union” and ABC’s “This Week,” Netanyahu repeated the argument he made during his farcical speech before (most of) the Congress earlier this year. Evidently, the fact that the outline of an agreement negotiators unveiled last week is broadly seen as better than expected has not caused him to reevaluate his position.

That’s his right, of course; and I’d never suggest that this longtime hawk's fear of a nuclear Iran is insincere. But when Netanyahu tried to respond to a criticism levied his way by supporters of an agreement — that he wouldn’t accept any deal with the Iranian regime, short of its complete capitulation — he meandered over the line separating alarmism from bullshit. The choice wasn’t between compromise and war, he said. There was “a third alternative” of “standing firm, [and] ratcheting up the pressure until you get a better deal.”

As countless people familiar with the issue have noted, it’s hard to imagine Netanyahu’s strategy not backfiring spectacularly. If the West walked away from negotiations, as Netanyahu recommends, it’s unlikely that countries in the European Union would respond by increasing sanctions to force Iran to be more compliant. What’s more likely is that they’d blame the U.S., relax their sanctions, and get back in business with the regime instead. As far as many businesspeople in Europe, China and Russia see it, time and money are being wasted; and many of them don’t particularly care if Israel is under threat.

Netanyahu has always lacked a good answer to this problem, but that has never seemed to worry him. In his hypothetical scenario, the step after the collapse of the global sanctions agreement is left blank. It’s kind of like the underpants gnome version of international politics. But for most other observers — including those who ultimately oppose a deal — that’s when a new war most likely steps in. And with negotiations now at their do-or-die moment, Netanyahu can’t wave-away the implications of a diplomacy breakdown to the same degree he has throughout Obama’s presidency.

During his appearance on ABC, though, the mask slipped. "How did you get a peaceful solution in Syria?” he asked, referring to the crisis of late-2013, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad allegedly used chemical weapons against his own people, and did so despite President Obama’s earlier threats. “You ratcheted up the pressure,” Netanyahu continued. “And when Syria saw … those pressures were raining down on them, they agreed ... to what was not agreed before.” But as Netanyahu surely knows, this answer is disingenuous at best.

Why is the Syria example so misleading? Not because Netanyahu’s mixed up his timeline or misrepresented the cause-and-effect. And not because Assad and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are allies, not the same person. No, the reason Netanyahu’s example is such nonsense is because it shows almost the exact opposite of what he said. If not for a last-minute intervention by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who offered to act as a mediator and dismantle its client Assad’s chemical weapons, a war between Syria and the United States is exactly what would have happened.

Unless Netanyahu envisions a scenario in which the U.S. is just moments away from dropping bombs on Iran, only to have China or Russia step in and dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure instead, it’s a worthless comparison. And even in that bizarre and unlikely circumstance, Iran would still have to agree to give up its nuclear capacities, which no Iranian leader would agree to do, because it would be widely seen as a national humiliation. To say that even one part of this elaborate alternative universe could become reality would be an absurd exaggeration.

When Netanyahu says he wants a “good” diplomatic solution more than he wants war, don’t listen to him. His definition of “good” would, in the eyes of Iran’s leaders (and others), be better understood as complete surrender. And it’s not incidental, of course, that even he only imagines this happening after the U.S. walks up to the very precipice of yet another war with a Muslim-majority nation. For Netanyahu’s claim not to prefer war to the deal on the table, in other words, there can be only one fair description: bullshit.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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Barack Obama Benjamin Netanyahu Bibi Bibi Netanyahu Iran Iran Nuclear Talks Israel P5+1