Pushing Peace

How Israel Can Help the United States Strike a Deal With Iran -- And Why It Should

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power listens as Netanyahu addresses the UN General Assembly.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and other members of the U.S. delegation listen as Netanyahu addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York, October 1, 2013. (Mike Segar / Courtesy Reuters)

The moment that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hoped he could avoid is fast approaching: high-level negotiations between the United States and Iran that could lead to a deal that ends the decade-long standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program. As Obama has welcomed the new approach of Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, and taken concrete steps to test Tehran’s sincerity, Netanyahu has been quick to dismiss Rouhani and call for more sanctions. It is increasingly clear that Netanyahu ultimately fears the success of diplomacy, not its failure. But Israel, and its national security establishment, should not see a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear standoff as a threat.

Contrary to Israel’s public line, Netanyahu’s worry is not that the Iranians would cheat on any agreement, or that Rouhani would prove to be a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Rather, Netanyahu and much of Israel’s security establishment view the status quo -- ever-increasing sanctions that cripple Iran’s economy, combined with the ever-present threat of war -- as preferable to any realistic diplomatic deal.

As Israelis well know, a compromise would probably allow for limited enrichment on Iranian soil under strict verification, and the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions. Although Iran would technically remain a non–nuclear weapons state, it would be considered a virtual nuclear power. And that, Netanyahu calculates, is sufficient to shift the balance of power in the region to Israel’s detriment, reducing the Jewish state’s maneuverability and the usefulness of its own deterrent. There is reason to believe, then, that Israel’s insistence on zero enrichment is aimed to ensure that no deal is struck at all.

Israel also understands that a resolution to the nuclear standoff would significantly reduce U.S.-Iranian tensions and open up opportunities for collaboration between the two former allies. Since U.S.-Iranian fellow feeling will not be accompanied by a proportionate reduction in Iranian-Israeli hostilities, Israel will be left in a relatively worse position. This is what Israelis refer to as the fear of abandonment -- that, once the nuclear issue is resolved or contained, Washington will shift its focus to other matters while Israel will be stuck in the region facing a hostile Iran, without the United States by its side.

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