U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, December 5, 2013.
Gali Tibbon / Courtesy Reuters

Most depictions of how Israel sees the recent nuclear accord with Iran are consistently shallow. When explaining what the deal means for Israel, Western analysts and journalists tend to focus on the differences between close political allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who denounced it as a “historic mistake,” and the Israeli security establishment (that is, serving and retired officials from the military and intelligence agencies), which is generally more tolerant of the deal. But it is misleading to think of Israeli policymaking just as a tug of war between those two camps, because disagreements between civilian and security leaders are normal, and because the public rhetoric on which such assumptions rest doesn’t allow for a consideration of wider trends and changes. Such a view leads to needlessly alarmist predictions about a coming split between Israel and the United States. 

The tendency of Western, and particularly American, observers to describe Israel in one-dimensional terms, however, is not new. U.S. commentators have long viewed the country and the region through a prism of American politics and priorities. They assume that recent electoral and coalition politics in Israel are about Iran -- which is certainly on the minds of American foreign policy specialists and journalists -- when they have actually been more about domestic politicking and crude power struggles. Such assumptions miss the deeper processes at work in Israeli foreign and security policymaking, which suggest that U.S.-Israeli relations are not in grave danger since there are still, in fact, enough common policy concerns keeping the two countries together. Those include maintaining strict sanctions on Iran during negotiations and ensuring close ties with Egypt in the post–Hosni Mubarak era.


In Israel, military and security officials have long played an important role in the civilian decision-making process: an old quip is that the Defense Ministry makes foreign policy while the Foreign Ministry sells it. That is, in part, related to the circumstances of Israel’s birth and the security strategy it pursued thereafter.

In Israel’s early years, it tried to deal with all threats preemptively or, failing that, through military retaliation. The purpose was not to defeat Israel’s enemies -- the country didn’t have the means to do that -- but to degrade their capabilities and keep them from amassing so many sophisticated weapons that they could pose an existential threat. Wars and armed hostilities were seen as regular rounds of violence to contain continuous threats rather than as conflict-ending battles. For example, Israel’s 1956 invasion of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula (part of a larger British-French operation to regain control of the Suez Canal and topple Gamal Abdel Nasser); the 1967 war with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria; intermittent battles with the Palestine Liberation Organization from the 1950s to the 1970s; and confrontations with Hamas in 2008-2009 and 2012 all fit into this strategy. Such tactics also informed Israel’s policy on nuclear proliferation, with strikes on Iraq and Syria’s nuclear facilities in 1981 and 2007, respectively.

For the country to survive -- and preemptively deal with all the threats it faced -- the Israel Defense Forces and the Defense Ministry had to develop effective decision-making structures early on. As they did so, they gained dominance in the policymaking process.

Although the IDF and Defense Ministry remain dominant in policymaking, their thinking on tactics has begun to shift. In conversations with members of the security establishment, what becomes clear is how Israel’s security agencies are adapting to a series of changes in regional politics, within the United States, and in expectations among the Israeli public. They recognize that Israel is increasingly integrated in international organizations and programs, primarily in various agencies and committees within the United Nations, which have reduced its sense of isolation and impunity. In the past, Israel could attack its enemies to set back their military programs without much concern for what the rest of the world thought. But the international community tolerates Israel’s use of force far less, complicating Israel’s ability to argue as frequently as it has in the past that force is the best policy. For Israel’s security establishment, this does not mean that diplomacy has replaced war. Rather, it must be more flexible than it used to be, even as it continues to view military action as a necessary component of foreign policy.

The shift first became obvious in the aftermath of the 1993 Oslo accords, the landmark agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization that was supposed to lead to a negotiated, two-state solution. At first, many in the security establishment opposed the agreement on the grounds that it would hinder Israel’s ability to monitor and detain terrorists. But once they were brought into the negotiations to contribute to its implementation, they accepted the underlying logic of the process -- namely, that military force alone would not end the conflict. And they continued to advocate for a political resolution to the conflict with the Palestinians even after the Oslo process was derailed. Security officials spoke of similar concerns during and after the 2010 military effort to stop an international flotilla from reaching Gaza, which ended with the deaths of nine Turkish individuals on the Mavi Marmara. Former National Security Council officials told me that they were surprised that the government did not pay more attention to the diplomatic consequences of the use of force on relations with Turkey and on Israel’s international position. The very purpose of Israel’s National Security Council, established in 1999, was to avoid omitting such considerations from decision-making. The lesson from these developments is that the security establishment is not just aware of the political and other consequences of military action but that it believes that the government, too, should account for such possibilities in formulating its foreign policy.


The Iranian nuclear program is among the most urgent issues for Israel’s security establishment. And yet, for a long time, Israeli security officials have adopted a patient attitude to monitor Iranian enrichment facilities and breakthroughs over Netanyahu’s hard-line position to strike now, or else. In 2010, many officials outright refused to comply with Netanyahu’s order to prepare for an immediate strike on Iran.

Their attitude toward the recent interim deal with Iran reflects this same position. The former head of Military Intelligence, Amos Yadlin, recently wrote that the agreement “can be lived with -- for six months” since “for the first time in years, the time it could take Iran to break out to nuclear weapons -- which is the leading parameter for measuring the danger of the Iranian program -- will be lengthened, rather than shortened.” Sharp analysts, such as Emily Landau and Ehud Yaari, and currently serving security officials alike have urged the government to accept that the deal is done, but emphasize that it is only an interim one: the task remains to transform it into a better final agreement. Maintaining the threat of war and heavy sanctions will be part of that task, but negotiations remain the primary vehicle.

Netanyahu has a reputation for making bombastic public statements on a range of issues, including Iran, the Arab uprisings, and Islamist movements. The resulting Western focus on his public position on Iran is, therefore, only natural; leaders are expected to speak for their states and are presumed to be authoritative decision-makers. But Netanyahu’s public rhetoric masks the deeper changes in Israel’s position in the world. Those shifts not only need to be better understood in the United States -- they need to be encouraged. Indeed, in his remarks after a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry last week, Netanyahu appeared to come around to the security establishment’s consensus view: rather than criticize the interim deal, the prime minister focused on what might go into a final agreement.

One way to start is to recognize that, despite the personal antipathy between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama and a clear difference in global versus regional perspectives regarding Iran, Israel’s relationship with the United States isn’t about to collapse. American public opinion is solidly in favor of a close relationship, and American politicians are not going to go against that grain. Military and security cooperation remains strong. And Netanyahu aside, Israeli policymakers and security officials have demonstrated great flexibility. The United States can work with and build on that flexibility to strengthen the relationship, which remains a priority for both countries.

None of this is to say that everything has changed in the conduct of Israeli policy. Prime ministers still retain tight control over foreign and security policy, and in recent decades, especially, they have privileged small groups of political advisors over the defense and intelligence community. Nor is it to say that Israeli security chiefs won’t decide that a military strike on Iran is necessary.

But such trends within Israel’s domestic decision-making structures need to be acknowledged and incorporated by Western, and especially American, observers. U.S. policymakers should understand the pressure points in the Israel’s domestic decision-making system; analysts should have a better grasp of the cause and likely direction of Israeli foreign policy. These shifts matter for outsiders, so that they stop seeing Israel as a caricature and instead as a real, politically complex place.

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  • BRENT E. SASLEY is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at Arlington. He blogs at Mideast Matrix. Follow him on Twitter @besasley.
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