Sheera Frenkel, Buzzfeed’s recently-hired Middle East correspondent, should know the Israel beat better than most: She reported from the country for more than seven years, speaks Hebrew fluently, and knows Israeli society intimately.
Yet after the Geneva agreement was announced, she filed a piece headlined, “Stung By Iranian Nuclear Deal, Netanyahu Prepares For Fallout At Home.” The article proposed that Israelis would blame their prime minister for the fact that President Obama signed a bad deal with Iran over his strenuous objections.
I too lived in Israel for several years and follow its politics closely, and was puzzled to read an interpretation of Israeli politics that would have the public blaming Netanyahu for defending a consensus opinion – that Obama’s diplomatic engagement with Iran spells trouble for the Jewish state. When Netanyahu clashed openly with President Obama in 2010 and 2011 over settlements and borders, Israelis sided with their prime minister over the American president. There is an even stronger consensus supporting a tough stand against Iran – so why would this time be different?
It’s not different this time, of course. But Frenkel, like many of the international journalists who report from Israel (she has since decamped to Cairo), doesn’t care for Netanyahu and is eager to report that most everyone else doesn’t care for him either. Thus the premise of her personal beliefs become the premise of her analysis: that President Obama’s diplomacy is sensible and realistic; that Netanyahu’s objections are the qualms of an uber-hawk who can’t accept the promise of the moment; that the public is more reasonable than its elected leader. Therefore, after the Iran deal, “the most immediate threat was to [Netanyahu’s] own domestic standing.”
Thankfully, Frenkel’s hypothesis is easily testable: What, in fact, did Netanyahu’s rivals say about his handling of the issue? And what do Israeli public opinion polls say about it?
Tzipi Livni, chair of the Hatnuah party and Israel’s leading dove, said after the first round of Geneva talks that “The prime minister is not mistaken: The deal is a bad one.”
Shimon Peres, Israel’s other leading dove (although as president, a ceremonial position, he is not an elected official), likewise said, “The P5+1 did not come to an agreement, and rightly so…a deal which does not prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power must not be signed.”
After the Geneva agreement was approved, Livni again passed on criticizing Netanyahu, offering: “We must make it our business that Iran doesn’t become a threat that will disrupt the balance in the Middle East...The agreement made with Iran is far from perfect, but it is a done deal. So now’s the time to rehabilitate and consolidate our relations with the U.S.” In another statement, Livni again refrained from attacking Netanyahu: “After the signing of this agreement, Israel has to look ahead: to act in close co-operation with the United States, to strengthen that strategic alliance, and to create a political front with other countries as well, such as Arab countries that see a nuclear Iran as a threat.”
Netanyahu’s major rival to his right, Naftali Bennett, condemned the Iran deal in language almost identical to the prime minister’s: “We woke up this morning to a reality in which a bad, a very bad agreement was signed in Geneva.”
Yair Lapid, the head of the new center-left Yesh Atid party and an unsparing Netanyahu critic, is also against the Geneva deal: “A diplomatic accord is certainly better than war, a diplomatic accord is better than a situation of permanent confrontation – just not this agreement.”
The one Israeli leader who did criticize Netanyahu is Isaac Herzog, who became head of the Labor party last week and is eager to draw a contrast not only between Labor and the center and right parties, but between himself and Labor’s previous leader, Shelly Yachimovich, who avoided voicing the unpopular leftist foreign policy views that sent Labor into the wilderness in previous years. Herzog accused Netanyahu of “creating unnecessary panic.”
Maybe the Israeli public has problems with Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis?
Not according to the polls. Israel’s Channel 2 News found that 60 percent of Israelis think the nuclear deal with Iran endangers them and 58 percent think Netanyahu’s condemnation of it is justified. A poll commissioned by Yisrael Hayom had similar results: 55 percent said they were satisfied by Netanyahu’s handling of the nuclear deal versus 31 percent not satisfied. These are strong numbers for any Israeli prime minister given Israel’s fractious, multiparty political system.
Frenkel got her analysis precisely backwards: Netanyahu isn’t facing a political revolt due to his aggressive opposition to President Obama’s Iran diplomacy. He is enjoying a moment of popular support as he defends Israeli interests and articulates Israeli fears on an issue for which there is broad consensus across the political spectrum.
Promoting the idea that Israeli leaders are intransigent is something of a tic for many international journalists. Just today Frenkel is out with another piece, this time claiming:
“Successive Israeli prime ministers have insisted that Jerusalem will always remain a whole, undivided capital of a Jewish State, and have refused to discuss giving Palestinians control over the eastern neighborhoods.”
Ehud Barak offered to divide Jerusalem at the 2000 Camp David talks and again at the 2001 Taba talks. Ehud Olmert proposed a similar division of Israel’s capital in the 2007 Annapolis talks. Surely Sheera Frenkel knows this.