Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon sit in front of a display of M302 rockets, found aboard the Klos C ship, at a navy base in the Red Sea resort city of Eilat, March 10, 2014.
Amir Cohen / Reuters

It was with some relish that, on August 4, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted in a Web-based address to the American Jewish community that “Isaac Herzog, the leader of the Labour opposition has said that there is no daylight between us when it comes to the deal with Iran…this is not a partisan issue in Israel.” In a speech otherwise replete with controversial claims, Netanyahu could not, on this point, be faulted. Given the rambunctious nature of the Israeli political scene, a consensus like this seems unusual.

The Israeli debate on the Iran deal, or more frequently the lack thereof, reveals much about the state of Israeli politics, Israeli strategies toward a rapidly changing region, and even of the shifting sands of the U.S.-Israel relationship. What it tells us very little about, however, are the virtues or deficiencies of the deal itself.

Israeli politicians and pundits have lined up against the deal, while the country’s experts—the scientific and security community—have come out in favor. The Israeli cabinet has rejected the pact, with Netanyahu calling it a “stunning historic mistake.” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked went one better with her own alliteration, “colossal catastrophe.” Even the heads of the two major opposition factions, Isaac Herzog of Labour and Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, who aren’t known for their love of Netanyahu, have both damned the agreement.

In main, the Israeli leadership has focused on castigating the deal for what it was never designed to address, namely Iran’s role in the region. That must be particularly irksome to the P5+1 powers. It was, after all, Israel’s leaders who insisted that the nuclear file be addressed first and on its own, and who pushed back hard against any attempt to forge a more comprehensive understanding or grand bargain with Iran (an idea explored over a decade ago in back-channel talks during the term of President Mohammad Khatami). Last summer for instance, when Iran and the West found themselves on the same side against Islamic State (also called ISIS) in Iraq, senior Israeli Minister Yuval Steinitz, who was head of the Iran file at the time, noted that Israel had pushed for and received commitments from “the Americans and the British and the French and the Germans—that a total separation will be enforced,” that is, the West would not negotiate with Iran on regional issues until the nuclear question was dealt with. Israel, in other words, demanded that the nuclear file be treated as a standalone issue—the very thing that it now criticizes about the deal.

The debate inside Israel is not so different from that in the United States—opponents of the deal are scoring political hits, but failing to land punches on substance. The experts stand with Obama on the deal’s robustness and value.
In contrast to Netanyahu and his allies, the country’s experts are focused on the specific merits of the deal, and they generally like what they see. The preeminent nuclear expert, Uzi Even—who is a former lieutenant colonel in the Israeli Defense Forces, a physics professor, and a former senior scientist at the Dimona nuclear reactor—concluded in a detailed analysis that “the deal was written by nuclear experts and blocks every path I know to the bomb.” Meanwhile, Yitzhak Ben-Israel, a former general and chair of the Israeli Space Agency and National Council for Research and Development, called the agreement “good for Israel.” Former Mossad Chief Efraim Halevy describes Iran as having signed on to “an invasive and unique supervision regime like no other in the world” in an agreement that “includes components that are crucial for Israel's security.” They have been joined by other former heads of Israel’s security branches, who, in their dissent, have highlighted concerns that Netanyahu’s scare-mongering will negatively impact Israel’s standing, its deterrent posture, and its national resilience.

Even more significantly, according to a news report in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, the intelligence branch of the Israeli Defense Forces and the Mossad told senior Israeli decision makers that they believed that the nuclear deal is a “reasonable agreement, and even a good agreement in that it includes the means to make it possible to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons in the coming decade.” Perhaps not surprisingly, none of the ex-security chiefs who support the deal have been invited to testify in the Knesset or even to brief the opposition factions.

In this respect, at least, the debate inside Israel is not so different from that in the United States—opponents of the deal are scoring political hits, but failing to land punches on substance. The experts stand with Obama on the deal’s robustness and value.

PUBLIC PERSPECTIVES

Given the preponderance of political talking heads over scientific cone heads in the Israeli media, it is hardly surprising that the Israeli public is also opposed to the deal by a considerable margin. In an interesting twist, though, and despite all the brouhaha stirred up by Bibi, the Iran nuclear issue does not feature among the main concerns of Israel’s citizenry, scoring just ten percent of respondents in a poll about the most important issue facing the government in recent elections (which were held before the agreement was reached, but while Netanyahu was railing against the negotiations to Congress).

Israelis hold placards as they protest against a possible attack of Iran's nuclear facilities, in Tel Aviv March 24, 2012.
Israelis hold placards as they protest against a possible attack of Iran's nuclear facilities, in Tel Aviv March 24, 2012.
Nir Elias / Reuters
During the election, mainstream opposition leaders Herzog and Lapid basically took a pass on offering a national security alternative to Netanyahu. Lapid, in any case, served in Netanyahu’s last government and Herzog in the one before that. Among the Israeli commentariat, it is widely predicted that Herzog will be Netanyahu’s foreign minister before too long as part of a new coalition. This leaves the Netanyahu narrative largely unchallenged in the political arena and understandably encourages the prime minister to forge ahead with his strategy of staring down the world and not least the president of the United States.

Herzog and Lapid have chosen a narrow political path. They have identified Netanyahu’s vulnerability as being his management, or rather mismanagement, of the crucial U.S.-Israel relationship and his rather frequent, oafish interventions into U.S. politics. Neither Herzog nor Lapid has provided a detailed account of their views of the Iran deal, but both have suggested that, by being less confrontational and maintaining closer ties with the Obama administration, they could have somehow induced the P5+1 negotiators to reach a better deal. They have offered no specifics and given no justification for this claim that makes little sense.

The sense of confusion, even incredulity, surrounding Herzog’s position is heightened by his having claimed in Washington in December that “I trust the Obama Administration to get a good deal.” Herzog is now opposed to the deal, but is also opposed to Netanyahu’s lobbying of Congress, from which he has distanced himself. It would not be a stretch to suggest that last December, before the election and seeking to curry favor with the White House, Herzog was in favor of a deal and would have supported it had he been elected prime minister, but now having lost and seeking to re-position himself to the center-right and closer to the coalition, he is against it.

The opposition’s approach to the Iran deal does, in fact, follow a well-established pattern. If the current Israeli government serves out its term, it will be two decades since Israel’s last Labor Party prime minister. Over this period, Labor leaders have increasingly given up on presenting alternative foreign policies, teasing out contrasts only on socioeconomic issues or matters of style over substance. The Labor leader stood with Netanyahu during last summer’s devastating military operation against Gaza. During the election campaign, he criticized Netanyahu for losing support in the United States and Europe over the Palestinian issue. But he did not tackle the occupation or settlement policies themselves.

So, although Netanyahu can tout Labor leaders’ support against the Iran deal, Herzog has become a largely meaningless trophy to parade. He is of increasingly little consequence to the Israeli national security conversation or even political landscape.

AILING ALLIANCE?

Parliamentary support for the Iran deal centers around the Joint List (a coalition of parties representing the Palestinian-Arab minority in Israel that is ostensibly ostracized from the national security debate despite it being the third-largest party in the Knesset), the left-Zionist Meretz party, and dissident Laborite members of Knesset. These voices have insufficient resonance inside the Israeli-Jewish community to pose a political threat to Netanyahu. His clash with the security establishment heavyweights is more problematic to Netanyahu’s public standing, but in the absence of a political vehicle to carry the challenge, Bibi can sleep easy. The recent election campaign witnessed an almost bizarre division of labor: gruff ex-security chiefs, not running for office and led by former Mossad head Meir Dagan, castigated Bibi’s national security failures, while the mainstream political opposition parties sat meekly on the sidelines. The political conversation over the Iran deal—intellectually lazy, parochial, and all too often disconnected from global realities—is typical rather than exceptional in contemporary Israeli foreign policy. That can hardly bode well for Israeli democracy, which is becoming not so much a one-party state as a one-narrative state. Needless to say it suits Netanyahu, a gifted narrator-in-chief, just fine.

Netanyahu is unlikely to pay an immediate political price at home, but in the arc of Israel-U.S. relations, it is a moment that will echo long after the details of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are forgotten.
In the end, then, the political fight in Israel over how Netanyahu is playing U.S. politics, and the costs that might entail has become a substitute for a meaningful discussion of the deal itself. And to understand the absence of that discussion, it is necessary to see that, rhetoric aside, the nuclear program was important but never really the crux of Israel’s concern with Iran. It is Iran’s regional role that matters and, although Israel is indeed isolated in its condemnation of the deal on the global stage, it is not alone in harboring regional concerns. These fears are shared by some GCC states; by Europeans; and by the Obama administration.

Israel led the push to isolate Iran via focusing on its nuclear program and the nonproliferation imperative. That took some chutzpah, given that Israel sits on the Middle East’s only nuclear weapons stockpile—but before milk and honey, Israel has always been a land flowing with chutzpah. Israel assumed that either its own Washington lobby could indefinitely hold U.S. negotiators to an unrealistically maximalist negotiating position or that Iran would never offer a pragmatic compromise or both. For as long as the deadlock held, Iran would remain at least a permanently sanctioned pariah; regime change was the preferred alternative, successful diplomacy was never the goal.

The bet paid off pretty well for the better part of two decades. Despite its size and lack of natural regional allies, Israel has enjoyed a degree of unchallenged regional hegemony, freedom of military action, and diplomatic cover that it is understandably reluctant to concede or even recalibrate. Israel’s status has been underwritten by U.S. preeminence in the region, which offered other countries there a binary choice: Either side with the United States and, by extension, go easy on Israel or stand against it and be isolated or worse (see: Iraq).

Hamid Baeedinejad, an Iranian official, speaks with press about negotiations on Iran's nuclear programme outside the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, March 31, 2015.
Hamid Baeedinejad, an Iranian official, speaks with press about negotiations on Iran's nuclear programme outside the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, March 31, 2015.
Brendan Smialowski / Reuters
That equation was never indefinitely sustainable. While it lasted, Israel could have leveraged its advantages to create a new regional equilibrium in its favor. For example, by engaging with the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 and trading in occupied Palestinian (and Syrian) territory for regional security guarantees and normalization or even by encouraging a Western grand bargain with Iran that would address Israeli security concerns. But it didn’t, mainly due to its rejectionist posture on the Palestinian question. The demise of pax-Americana was ironically hastened by Israel’s friends in Washington and by Netanyahu himself, when the United States overreached in the Iraq war. Backlash against the Iraq war, tumult in the Arab world, state collapse, sectarian strife, and the rise of ISIS all followed, creating a new reality. Yet Israel still clings to its outdated playbook.

To respond to the new world, Israel could, for instance, use U.S. and EU channels with Iran to explore informal understandings regarding Lebanon to avoid surprises there, much as it has put out feelers to Hamas via third parties. So far, though, Israel has chosen not to do so. It seems locked into a conceptual framework that overstates the Iran threat while underplaying the salafi-jihadist one.

Israel has sought to strengthen relations with Saudi Arabia over their shared unease with Iran, but the Saudis and others flinch at Israel’s overly brusque stand-off with Washington and are embarrassed by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Despite the intense regional competition with Iran, the Gulf powers maintain channels to Tehran; Iranian leaders are frequent visitors across much of the Arab world and GCC states.

In the United States, meanwhile, Netanyahu and his allies are not just targeting the congressional vote in September. Netanyahu is going for a twofer—if he loses on the veto-proof super majority in Congress, he can still succeed in keeping the Iran deal politically controversial and fragile and prevent any further détente with Iran. The hope, in this case, is that the next U.S. administration can resume the status quo ante in January 2017.

More than the Iran deal itself, it is this Netanyahu-led campaign against the White House that is so controversial, both in Israel and in the United States. The Israeli center–left, the country’s President Reuven Rivlin, and the security establishment have all condemned Netanyahu on that score. Stateside, Bibi has the competing pro-Israel lobbies—AIPAC and J Street—duking it out, and Jewish community centers, federations, and synagogues are all being pulled into the fray. American Jews are being asked to ditch the Democrat president they have overwhelmingly voted for (twice) in favor of a Republican-aligned Israeli prime minister, who previously pushed for the Iraq war and is now engaged in a deeply partisan struggle, in which he wants the Israeli interest (as he interprets it) to be placed above the American interest. Many American Jews are uncomfortable with being put in this predicament. Polls suggest that a clear majority back Obama and his Iran deal. To be sure, at this point, it is unclear who is using whom more—Israel the Republicans or the Republicans Israel.

The U.S.-Israeli relationship is not about to be turned on its head overnight—the role of money in U.S. politics guarantees against that, and anyway, Obama and the Democrats’ commitment to Israel’s well-being and security is sincere, Bibi or no Bibi. But a process is in motion, a growing distancing between the Jewish communities of America and Israel, born of tensions between American Jewish liberalism and Israel’s denial of basic freedoms for Palestinians and an overall drift toward greater extremism and intolerance. It is a process that has been significantly accelerated by Netanyahu's brash and bullying foray into congressional politics. Netanyahu is unlikely to pay an immediate political price at home, but in the arc of Israel-U.S. relations, it is a moment that will echo long after the details of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are forgotten.

  • Daniel Levy is the head of the Middle East and & North Africa Programme at European Council on Foreign Relations.
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