Bibi, the hunger artist

One of the highlights of the Geneva process that led to the signing of a nuclear agreement with Iran at the beginning of this week was the delicious irony of watching Bibi Netanyahu sniping from the sidelines.

Bibi, the consummate showman and rabid attention-hogger, doesn’t like being on the sidelines. Especially not when he has all the credentials to be in the thick of things. There they were, the members of the world’s most elite club – the nuclear nations – slapping each other’s backs and being tremendously important, while Bibi, for whom consorting with the rich and famous is like oxygen to normal people, was left at home.

The irony, of course, is that he had every right to be there. Geneva was like a meeting of the club’s selections committee, for which retaining exclusivity is the paramount concern. But Israel, with however many dozen warheads it has stashed away in the basement, is already a de facto member of the club. It has paid its dues. And, unlike Graucho Marx, we’re desperate to be a member of every club that will have us.

The problem was that damn nuclear ambiguity policy. By declining to acknowledge what everyone already knows – that it has nuclear weapons – Israel excluded itself from making its own cameo appearance in Geneva. Strange how things come around to bite you in the ass.

Worst of all was that Iran was invited and they don’t even have a bloody bomb yet. It was like rubbing salt into an open wound.

The country that Israel dreads most – not because it’s a nuclear threat, that has never been the issue, but because Iranian nuclear capability would threaten Israel’s strategic hegemony in the region – was there rubbing shoulders with the bigwigs, while Israel was treated like the kid who wants his ball back if he’s not allowed to set the rules.

It was enough to see the Cheshire cat grin on the face of the Iranian foreign minister to understand the subtext. By simply being there while Israel wasn’t, those cunning ayatollahs had already stolen the show. The agreement itself was merely a mechanism for ensuring that it remained theirs. It was like poking Bibi in both of his furtively steely eyes.

He had every right to be pissed off; who wouldn’t be? You work hard to make something of your life and then a bunch of scruffy, unshaven characters without ties get to hang out in Geneva with the Kerrys of the world, while all you get is a couple of bossy phone calls from Obama. What did they expect him to do after that? Applaud the agreement? Congratulate Iran for sealing a march on him? That not how things are done around here.

Bibi said the agreement was an historic mistake. For him it was. Iran came in from the cold the moment the foreign ministers of the world’s senior class sat down with its own representative and began the wheeling and dealing. A generation of frozen antipathy between the Iranian Revolution and the rest of the world (or a good part of it) evaporated into the thin air of wintry Geneva. The country’s appalling human rights record didn’t even merit a footnote. Iran was back.

The only thing that could have ruined the party was failure to reach an agreement – any agreement –and the sight of the bearded ones scuttling back to Persia in disgrace. That’s the only denouement that would not have been an historic mistake in Bibi’s book. But the ayatollahs are far too smart for that.

Forget centrifuges and enrichment; the real meaning of the agreement is that Iranian and American diplomats are laughing together and talking seriously for the first time in 34 years. And that will continue, as long as Iran keeps on making baby steps. A military nuclear program is small potatoes compared to the western embrace.

Bibi knows that, and he doesn’t like it one bit. A resurgent, economically successful Iran is a strategic taboo for Israel. There’s only room for one gang in the hood.

Bibi is all bluster and PR. Not that he invented the genre – Israel has a long and honorable history of rubbing goyishe noses in Jewish blood going back to the Eichmann trial, if not before – but he is its perfect exemplar. The right man at the right time.

The question, of course, is whether he will suffice with bluster. I strongly suspect that he won’t. Bibi, like most Israelis, doesn’t like playing by the rules and he certainly doesn’t like being told to shut up and accept the agreement. Beside which, the strategic stakes are high. If a consortium of world powers manages to solve the Iranian nuclear issue, there’s a strong likelihood that the Israel-Palestine mess will be next on their agenda –with the Iranian foreign minister grinning in the background.

Israel is all for multinational efforts when they are imposing sanctions on its enemies, but they are the last word in treif when it comes to peace with the Palestinians.

Bibi reminds me of Kafka’s hunger artist, who began starving himself as a performance but eventually starved himself to death. The bitter historical burden placed on Bibi’s mortal shoulders by the Geneva agreement is all show. But he’s more than capable of dragging it out until it kills us all.