11/24/2013 11:27 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2014

Nuclear Deal With Iran: Netanyahu Is Paying a Steep Price for Fanning Fear

By opposing any realistic deal with Iran, and constantly comparing Iran and Nazi Germany, Benjamin Netanyahu has overplayed his hand and lost impact on the international community.

The Israeli media Last Week was all over the interview former Likud cabinet minister Dan Meridor gave to an American student. The point that grabbed the headlines was this: "All they care about are the territories... I heard one of them saying he's in favor of human rights but not civil rights [for Palestinians]. Meaning, they shouldn't be allowed to vote. It's like in South Africa. So I think it's dangerous... it's a dramatic departure from the Likud history."

Dan Meridor used to be a rising power in the party, what they called the "Likud princes." His father Eliyahu Meridor had been very close to Menachem Begin. Dan Meridor himself has been an influential member of the Likud for decades, serving among others, as justice minister, finance minister, and deputy prime minister in Likud governments.

Meridor's concern is understandable, because the Likud of today has very little in common with the Likud that Begin formed in 1977 by merging the revisionist Herut with the Liberal party. The Likud always did lean to the right, but originally it was also committed to the basic principles of liberal democracy.

Meridor is concerned because the politicians who dictate the Likud's ideology and message today seem to have very little attachment to the principles of Liberal Democracy. Some of them, like Danny Danon and Yariv Levin, were intensely active in the previous Knesset -- in promoting laws designed to muzzle NGOs and curtail free speech in Israel.

Plurality of opinions is not only legitimate but also necessary for the health of a liberal democracy. The danger begins when the basic rules of liberal democracy are no longer accepted by a growing number of leading politicians -- and this is exactly what worries Meridor: Many Likud MKs are expressing rabid nationalism with ever-stronger racist undertones. For instance, Likud MK Miri Regev called Sudanese worker migrants "a cancer in our body."

Netanyahu must share the blame

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bears some responsibility for these developments, though he doesn't share his own party's extremist views.

After the Oslo agreements were signed in the 1990s, Netanyahu participated in demonstrations at which then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was depicted as a Nazi -- but Netanyahu did not protest. Netanyahu has built his career on fostering hatred towards Israel's left and profound existential fear about Israel's future.

That latter point is very important in today's context: In the interview, Meridor sharply criticizes Netanyahu for constantly raising the specter that a nuclear Iran would lead to another Holocaust. "No. I never compared the situation to the Shoah in Europe," Meridor says. "We have the State of Israel, a strong nation. It's nothing like 1938."

Netanyahu's misleading comparison of Iran to Nazi Germany and the current situation to Britain's appeasement of Hitler in 1938 have led some to suspect Israel of having lost its nerve, as Chemi Shalev lately pointed out. As a result the United States and five world powers have closed a deal with Iran that Netanyahu finds unacceptable: his rhetoric has led to the point where he is no longer listened to. Netanyahu's demand that Iran cease all uranium enrichment is unrealistic: He fails to realize that the United States and Europe see an important opportunity in the current talks with Iran. They hope not only to curtail Iran's development of a nuclear bomb -- they are also trying to reintegrate Iran into the international community after decades of total isolation. But Netanyahu seems incapable of seeing the value of this goal.

Netanyahu is now paying a steep price for his overblown rhetoric and for his constant fanning of fears. Sources close to him have told me on condition of anonymity that Netanyahu has come to realize that Israel's long-term survival requires the establishment of a viable Palestinian state on all of the West Bank. But his own party no longer shares this goal. Most Likud MKs now favor annexing the West Bank, and as Meridor points out -- they are willing to let Israel become an apartheid state along the way.

Bennett has to go

If Netanyahu has seriously changed his view on Israel-Palestine, he will have to muster the nerve to make serious changes. He will have to oust Naftali Bennett and his extremist Habayit Hayehudi party that is doing everything to undermine any agreement with the Palestinians by pushing settlement expansion in the West Bank. Netanyahu will also have to accept Labor Leader Shelly Yachimovich's standing offer to support him if he engages in a serious bid for peace.

This leaves Netanyahu with an almost insoluble problem.

Because he has never tried to rein in the Likud's extremists, he has no mandate within his own party for a genuine push for peace.

Netanyahu has always liked to think of himself as a daring leader a la Churchill. He is about to find out that it takes more than cigars and grand rhetoric to actually become a great leader.

We can only hope that he will find courage to do what it takes to salvage Israel's future, even if this means to move into open conflict with the extremist Likud he has helped create.