Embattled Israeli Leader Faces Tough Task Fighting Nuke Deal

July 14, 2015 Updated: July 14, 2015

JERUSALEM—The U.S.-led nuclear deal with Iran on Tuesday, July 14, dealt a heavy personal blow to Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, leaving him at odds with the international community and with few options for scuttling an agreement he has spent years trying to prevent.

Netanyahu condemned the deal as a “stunning historic mistake,” saying it would not prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons capability. It also did nothing to address the Islamic Republic’s support for hostile extremist groups, he said.

Addressing reporters in English, a grim-faced Netanyahu said he was not bound by the deal, which eases sanctions in exchange for curbs on the suspect Iranian nuclear program, and strongly hinted that military action remains an option.

“Israel is not bound by this deal with Iran because Iran continues to seek our destruction,” he said. “We will always defend ourselves.”

While Netanyahu’s opposition to the deal was shared by his political rivals, translating that sentiment into action won’t be easy. A planned lobbying blitz in the U.S. Congress appears to have slim odds of success, and the military option would carry grave risks and plunge Israel into deep isolation.

For Netanyahu, the deal represented perhaps one of the greatest defeats of his three-decade-long political career. Netanyahu has spent years lecturing audiences about the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran, often describing his battle against Iran as the mission of his lifetime. He has railed against Iran in high-profile speeches at the United Nations, and last March, voiced his opposition to the emerging deal in a speech to the U.S. Congress that enraged the White House.

The White House announced late Tuesday that President Barack Obama had spoken to Netanyahu and told him the deal won’t lessen U.S. concerns about Iran’s support for extremist groups and its threats toward Israel. Obama said a planned visit to Israel next week by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter reflects the high level of security cooperation between the two allies.

This cash bonanza will fuel Iran’s terrorism worldwide, its aggression in region, and its efforts to destroy Israel, which are ongoing.
— Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister, Israel

But apparently neither Obama’s conciliatory language nor Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s assurances earlier in the day that Iran will “never” seek a nuclear weapon calmed the Israeli leader.

Netanyahu said the agreement would lift painful economic sanctions against Iran—bringing in a much needed influx of funds—without stopping it from developing a capacity to produce nuclear weapons.

“This cash bonanza will fuel Iran’s terrorism worldwide, its aggression in region, and its efforts to destroy Israel, which are ongoing,” he said.

Netanyahu has repeatedly criticized Iran’s support for hostile groups like the Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah, and calls by Iranian leaders for Israel’s destruction.

Netanyahu also said the deal “repeats the mistakes” of an earlier international agreement with North Korea, in which a system of inspections and verifications failed to prevent the country from developing a nuclear weapons capability.

He said that in a decade, when key aspects of the Iranian deal expire, “an unreformed, unrepentant, and far richer terrorist regime” will emerge with the ability to make “an entire nuclear arsenal with the means to deliver it.”

“What a stunning historic mistake,” he said.

As for Israel’s first course of action—the expected intense lobbying in the U.S. Congress—there is little that can be done against the deal despite strong Republican opposition, mainly because Obama doesn’t need Congressional approval.

Under an agreement that Obama struck with lawmakers, Congress has 60 days to review the agreement before he can start easing sanctions. Lawmakers will likely try to derail it by passing new sanctions or preventing Obama from lifting existing sanctions—the key incentive for Iran to comply with the deal.