The Slatest

Benjamin Netanyahu Still Hates the Iran Deal but Is Starting to Concede It Could Work 

One day after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the United Nations that his Palestinian Authority was no longer bound by 1995’s historic Oslo peace accord, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the same body with a shrug.

Rather than focusing on the near-dead peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, Netanyahu spent the vast majority of his speech addressing a subject that is dearer to his heart: Israel’s conflict with Iran and his own opposition to this summer’s nuclear deal.

“After three days of listening to world leaders praise the nuclear deal with Iran, I begin my speech today by saying: Ladies and gentlemen, check your enthusiasm at the door,” Netanyahu said. “This deal doesn’t make peace more likely. By fueling Iran’s aggressions with billions of dollars in sanctions relief, it makes war more likely.” Netanyahu said the deal would encourage Iran’s bad behavior in fueling conflicts from Syria to Yemen, colorfully comparing Iran to a “rapacious tiger” and saying that more funds would not turn the country into a “kitten.”

Still, Bibi’s heart didn’t really seem in it. For instance, he conceded that the deal was a fait accompli that at least ensures that it will be a decade before the world has to worry about the threat of a nuclear Iran again. 

“This deal does place several constraints on Iran’s nuclear program—and rightly so because the international community recognizes that Iran is so dangerous,” Netanyahu said. “But you see here’s the catch, under this deal, if Iran doesn’t change its behavior—in fact, if it becomes even more dangerous in the years to come—the most important constraints will still be automatically lifted by year 10 and by year 15.”

While that doesn’t sound like much, it’s a major concession for a man whose previous arguments against the deal focused on how Iran could just cheat and negate the agreement, not wait it out. In fact, despite his rhetoric, Netanyahu seemed to be coming to terms with the deal, which last month passed its final hurdle in the U.S. Congress. He encouraged the international community to enforce the deal more rigorously than past U.N. Security Council resolutions against the country “as this deal with Iran moves ahead,” and implored the assembled leaders to “make sure that the inspectors actually inspect. Make sure that the snapback sanctions actually snapback. And make sure that Iran’s violations aren’t swept under the Persian rug.” He added: “What the international community now needs to do is clear. First, make Iran comply with all its nuclear obligations. Keep Iran’s feet to the fire.”

With all the talk of Iran, Netanyahu’s remarks about the Palestinian peace process were consigned to a brief section at the end. He directly addressed Abbas in an explicit attempt to make himself sound like the reasonable party in the peace process and said he didn’t expect Abbas’ Wednesday announcement that Palestinians were no longer bound by past agreements to change things. “Israel expects the Palestinian Authority to abide by its commitments. The Palestinians should not walk away from peace,” he said. “President Abbas, I know it’s not easy. I know it’s hard. But we owe it to our peoples to try. To continue to try.”

Netanyahu took the opportunity Abbas gave him to make it seem like he was the two-state solution’s greatest advocate, despite his encouragement of West Bank settlement growth that has consistently harmed any hopes for a deal.

“I am prepared to immediately—immediately resume direct negotiations with the Palestinian authority without any preconditions whatsoever,” Netanyahu said. “Unfortunately President Abbas said yesterday that he is not prepared to do this. Well, I hope he changes his mind because I remain committed to a vision of two states for two people in which a demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes the Jewish state.”

Speaking of changing minds: In the closing days of his desperate re-election campaign earlier this year, Netanyahu said there would be no Palestinian state as long as he was prime minister. While he walked back this cynical campaign ploy almost immediately after he was elected, the fact that just six months after his apparent disavowal of a two-state solution he’s able to claim to be the reasonable one in peace negotiations speaks to what a tactical error Abbas’ announcement may have been.