Isolated, Netanyahu sounds alarm on Iran

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JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the son of a historian, often complains that "people have a historical memory that goes back to breakfast."

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 new president, Hassan Rouhani -- his tone has sometimes sounded 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 isolated 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 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 set for next week -- and an energetic media blitz, Mr. Netanyahu, 63, is 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 Jerusalem political consultant Mitchell Barak, 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 premiership this spring, Mr. Netanyahu has been careful not to confront the White House, despite clear differences over Iran, as well as Syria, Egypt and the Palestinian peace process.

It is a sharp contrast to when he lectured President Barack Obama two years ago in front of Oval Office reporters. The two leaders have developed a detente, and spent three hours together -- one more than scheduled -- on the eve of the U.S. government shutdown in what aides from both camps described as a friendly and frank exchange. Amid the chaos roiling the Middle East, U.S. 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 said, referring to their predecessors, 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 U.N. address, 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 MIT, is action-averse but diplomatically deft, in his element behind a lectern or in front of a camera.

Mr. Netanyahu's office wall is dominated by a map, Iran looming large at the center. Iran has been his 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.

Critics and admirers alike say it is a Messianic crusade. Mr. Netanyahu is not religious, but 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 said. "It's not going to happen."


First Published October 11, 2013 8:00 PM


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