Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks up during his visit to the police headquarters in Jerusalem November 22, 2012.
Gali Tibbon / Reuters

Just hours after the P5+1 and Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in Vienna, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decried it, stating that the deal was not only a threat to Israel, but to the “entire world.” In the long run, the deal might be good for Israel, since it pushes Iran farther away from pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, and could even lead to a in shift the Middle East’s regional order through a more cooperative American-Iranian approach. Neither of these optimistic scenarios look possible in the near future, however, and much will depend on Iran’s own domestic political struggles and how it pursues its regional goals. In the meantime, Netanyahu’s hyperbolic rhetoric notwithstanding, Iran does remain a genuine threat to Israeli security. In this context, Israel’s opposition to the agreement is understandable as it contributes to the normalization of Iran’s presence across the region and puts Israel in a defensive position.

Netanyahu has long insisted that negotiating with Tehran “paves Iran’s path to the bomb.” Striking a deal with Iran was necessary, however, given the unhindered progress in its nuclear research. As of 2014, Iran projected that it could generate 20 gigawatts of energy from its nuclear reactors by 2020. Estimates in 2013 projected that its advances in nuclear power had saved it 11 billion barrels of oil that could yield $2 billion on the international market. The Iranian nuclear program was clearly progressing even under a harsh sanctions regime. 

Even so, Netanyahu and others contend the agreement will only delay Tehran from the eventual acquisition of nuclear weapons. Ultimately, though, the P5+1 partners were never going to get everything they wanted from talks: to expect Iran to dismantle every piece of its nuclear program or give up its right to produce nuclear fuel, would be unreasonable. The specifics of the deal will constrain these efforts for at least several years, although it is possible for Iran to cheat in the interim and lay the groundwork for a final race to the bomb once the deal’s provisions expire.

For Israel, the bigger problem with the deal is the omission of guidelines on Iran’s regional activities. Changes to the United Nations Security Council embargos on arms deals and ballistic missile technology, for example, are not conditional on Iranian behavior apart from direct violations of the agreement. This is to be expected, as it is not a peace treaty that could have included provisions governing all the country’s activities in the greater Middle East. Israel, however, considers these activities to be legitimate areas of discussion, since the nuclear program is but one component of Iran’s larger strategic threat to Israel.

The international community should expect Iran to remain a spoiler in regional conflicts, regardless of whether or not it cooperates with the P5+1 negotiators on specific issues. Tehran will not give up its ambitions for regional influence, and it will continue to oppose Washington’s presence in the region and to strengthen Shia groups in Iraq over U.S. policy objectives. Similarly, Iran will not support the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and will continue to be an implacable enemy of Israel. Iran’s leadership will maintain its support for militants and terrorists throughout the Middle East—groups that attack civilians and seek to reorder national and sub-regional politics through violence.

ISRAEL’S NEXT STEPS

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk during an official welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv March 20, 2013.
Nir Elias / Reuters

If Israel wants to influence international policy toward Iran, there are a few steps its leaders must take. Netanyahu must first acknowledge that the deal is done. It must work to ensure Iran is held to its commitments. But at the same time Israel should emphasize that the agreement should come with a renewed focus on Iran’s regional behavior, and on pushing the country toward a less destructive role in the region. The international community engaged in a good faith effort to work with Iran; there should now be an expectation that Iran will reciprocate by behaving more constructively.

Specifically, Israel should emphasize Iran’s support for Hezbollah in the brutal Syrian civil war and elsewhere, and its opposition to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Israel should also emphasize that key parties in Iran oppose the deal, highlighting the need for careful and sustained attention to its implementation. 

The Israeli and pre-1979 Iranian national flags during a demonstration in Berlin January 28, 2007.
Tobias Schwarz / Reuters
Next, Israel should move quickly and seriously in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority without preconditions such as the demand for the Palestinians to recognize a Jewish state. Settlement building should be frozen—even for projects undergoing construction or bureaucratic approval. Soldiers on patrol in the West Bank should also be told to curtail their egregious and militarily unnecessary activities, such as conducting nighttime home interventions, while easing restrictions on Palestinian movement within the West Bank and economic activity. The international community is expecting Iran to take its commitments seriously (sanctions will not be removed otherwise, after all). Eliminating Iran’s ability to subvert negotiations between Israel and the PA will further constrain Tehran’s ability to disrupt regional politics and will be appreciated by the Americans, undoing much of the ill-will Netanyahu has generated as a result of his hostility against Obama.

It is unclear whether or not Israel would conduct any of these efforts, given the number of foreign affairs hardliners in the Netanyahu government who see the world as a hostile place for Israel. Even Israel’s Jewish opposition parties have been reluctant to break with Netanyahu on Iran, which has allowed him to avoid questions about Israeli policy toward Iran. Netanyahu has not given up his apocalyptic rhetoric against the deal—which he has called “a stunning historic mistake!”—and may have painted himself into a corner as a result. Since the deal’s implementation is likely, given U.S. President Barack Obama’s firm intentions, Netanyahu will have to explain at home not only why he failed to get Washington’s support in thwarting the negotiations, but also how he can move forward after the deal’s implementation begins.

If Israel wants to influence international policy toward Iran, there are a few steps its leaders must take. Netanyahu must first acknowledge that the deal is done.

WHAT WASHINGTON CAN DO

It is here that Washington can facilitate a more constructive Israeli approach. A significant infusion of military aid for Israel will be the first step, if historical patterns serve as any guide: whenever a major regional development or realignment occurs that affects Israeli security, the United States provides increased defense support. The United States can also point out Iran’s bad behavior as a way to show Israel that it is serious about Israel’s concerns. Finally, Washington can use this opportunity to forge closer working relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia fear that the United States is seeking detente with Iran at their mutual expense; reassuring both countries that this is not the case provides an opportunity for them to work together—even at a minimal level—which would ease their concerns and also help construct a regional political scaffolding to contain Iran.

Israel’s last hope for the nuclear deal to fall through rests with the U.S. Congress. It is uncertain whether there is enough support to override a presidential veto against anti-agreement measures, as the necessary two-thirds majority per chamber to do so looks unlikely. Indeed, Netanyahu’s previous efforts to use Congress and the Republican party as vehicles to shape the outcome of negotiations have largely failed. Netanyahu cannot continue to rail against the deal as a substitute for actionable policy against the Iranian threat—this would generate even more frustration with his government than the Obama administration and European powers already reveal. That, in turn, will undermine Israel’s ability to advance its own interests. The deal is done, and the time for a comprehensive alternative is now.

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  • BRENT E. SASLEY is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at Arlington.
  • More By Brent E. Sasley