Israel's Iran Deal Enthusiasts

Politics, Pragmatism, and Netanyahu's Short-Term Victory

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

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