Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been labeled a warmonger, a wolf-crier and an opponent of peace at any price because of his policies on Iran.
Here’s what Netanyahu’s critics say: His warnings of a bad deal are designed to undermine measures to slow Iran’s nuclear program and test its openness to long-term solutions. His insistence on strengthening, rather than easing, sanctions will weaken Iranian moderates and drive them from the negotiating table — precisely what Netanyahu allegedly wants. Similarly, his demands for dismantling Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities and removing its nuclear stockpile are intended to replace diplomatic options with military ones.
The critics claim that he is again playing the doomsayer, the spoiler of efforts to avoid conflict and restore Iran to the community of nations.
Why would any leader subject himself to such obloquy? Why would he risk international isolation and friction with crucial allies? And why, as some commentators assert, would Netanyahu jeopardize a peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear threat and drag his country — and perhaps not only his — into war?
The answers are simple.
Netanyahu is acting out of a deep sense of duty to defend Israel against an existential threat. Such dangers are rare in most countries’ experience but are traumatically common in Israel’s, and they render the price of ridicule irrelevant.
Moreover, when formulating policies vital to Israel’s survival, the prime minister consults with Israel’s renowned intelligence community, a robust national security council and highly specialized units of the Israel Defense Forces. Netanyahu may at times appear to stand alone on Iran, but he is backed by a world-class body of experts.
In 2011, these same analysts predicted that the Arab Spring, which was widely hailed as the dawn of Middle Eastern democracy, would be hijacked by Islamic radicals. They foresaw years of brutal civil strife. Netanyahu publicly expressed these conclusions and was denounced as a naysayer by many of the same columnists who are now lambasting him on Iran.
Yet it is precisely on Iran that Israeli specialists have proved most prescient. They were the first, over 20 years ago, to reveal Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities. They continued to scrutinize the program, emphasizing its military goals, even after 2003, when weaponization was purportedly halted.
Throughout several attempts at diplomacy, these experts have disclosed the ways that Iran systematically obstructed United Nations observers, lied to world leaders and hid nuclear facilities, such as the one at Fordow, which can have no peaceful purpose. Israeli intelligence has accurately tracked Iran’s support for terrorist organizations, its role in the massacre of thousands of Syrians and its responsibility for attacks against civilians in dozens of cities around the world.
This does not mean Israeli estimates are infallible. Since the failure to foresee the 1973 Yom Kippur War, intelligence officials are wary of long-standing conceptions and rigorously question them. Nevertheless, Israeli experts agree that for hegemonic purposes and internal security, the Iranian regime wants and needs the bomb.
Consequently, it will employ any ruse to preserve the ability to produce a weapon in a matter of weeks while obtaining some relief from sanctions.
Iranian leaders know — and Israel’s analysts agree — that lessening the economic pressure on Iran will send an incontrovertible message to foreign companies, many of which are already seeking contracts with Tehran, that the sanctions that took years to build are ending. Iran could drag out any confidence-building period indefinitely while producing fissile material for multiple bombs.
Top-flight intelligence helped Israel grapple with the challenges posed by the Arab Spring, but the stakes regarding Iran — the lives of 8 million Israelis — are vastly greater. Pundits may posit that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a moderate, but Israelis cannot indulge in speculation. Our margin for error is nil.
Knowing that, Netanyahu is duty-bound to warn of Iranian subterfuge, to insist that Iran cede its centrifuges, cease enrichment, close its heavy-water plant and transfer its nuclear stockpiles abroad.
He has a responsibility to explain that although Israel has the most to gain from diplomacy, it also has the most to lose from its failure. He is obliged to stress that the choice is not between sanctions and war but between a bad deal and stronger sanctions. And as the prime minister of [Israel], Netanyahu must assert Israel’s right to defend itself against any existential threat.
Critics can call him militant or intransigent, but Netanyahu is merely doing his job. Any Israeli leader who did less would be strategically and morally negligent.
Michael Oren served as Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. 2009-2013. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.