Israel and the Iran deal

July 17, 2015

No country has more at stake in the nuclear deal with Iran than Israel. For the United States and Western allies it is a major foreign policy issue; for Israel it is potentially one of national existence. So no one in Israel takes it lightly.

Premier Netanyahu has come out strongly against the agreement, arguing that it is a bad deal which threatens international security and Israel’s future. In his statements he has repeatedly made reference to 1938, evoking the specter of Munich and the Holocaust.

For many in Israel the Holocaust remains the defining moment of modern Jewish history, a cataclysmic prism through which the world is judged. Netanyahu can certainly be accused of overdoing it; Israel is today a regional power. But he is not entirely wrong. Iran's regime is a radical, rabidly anti-Semitic one that has repeatedly called for Israel’s destruction and has devoted considerable resources to that end. Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy, already has a mind- boggling 130,000 to 150,000 rockets aimed at Israel, according to Haaretz reporter Amos Harel, who bases his numbers on Israeli estimates.

Netanyahu has taken a particularly outspoken position on the Iranian nuclear program, but his views represent a broad agreement among Israeli leaders on the danger it poses. In fact, the national debate is a narrow, but critical one. Many agree with Netanyahu that a nuclear Iran is simply an existential threat to Israel, in the narrowest sense of the word. The logical conclusion from this approach is that Israel must do everything in its power to prevent the emergence of the threat.

Others believe that a nuclear Iran poses a dire threat to Israel, but probably not an existential one, in that the likelihood of Iran ever actually using a bomb is low, and that the real threat lies in the influence nukes would provide it in future conflicts. The logical conclusion from this approach is that Israel should do everything it can within reason to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but not everything possible. In risking a rift with the United States, the question is whether Netanyahu is now doing what is within reason, or possible.

In essence, Netanyahu’s criticism is based on a few primary points that are hard to dispute. First, he argues that the agreement should not have been limited to 10-15 years, but should have been permanent. Second, that the agreement leaves Iran with its nuclear infrastructure essentially intact, instead of dismantling it, and that it will remain a de-facto nuclear state, able to rapidly achieve a nuclear weapon when it expires. Third, that the agreement does not restrict Iran’s destructive role in the region, including support for terrorism and organizations such as Hezbollah, and in fact, by opening the financial spigots to Iran, will further enable it in these areas. Finally, that the devil is in the details of an agreement that is over 100 pages long, and that the Iranians are past masters at utilizing every loophole and ambiguous wording to their benefit to continue development of their nuclear program. This will be particularly important for the verification regime.

The US administration counters that this is the best deal that could actually be reached, not the best one possible, and that the alternative, no agreement at all, was worse. A dismantlement of Iran’s infrastructure and permanent agreement were not attainable, but a 10-15 year postponement of its programs is a major achievement. Moreover, US officials argue, the agreement was never designed to restrict Iran’s other misdeeds, just address the overwhelmingly important nuclear issue, an approach with which Israel was fully in accord in the past. No one doubts that Iran will try to take advantage of every loophole, this argument asserts, but the verification measures are robust.

Netanyahu’s intention to take the fight to Congress and to challenge a president’s biggest foreign policy initiative on his home turf would be sheer lunacy on any other topic and is misguided on this one. Only the belief that Iran truly presents an existential belief to Israel, and that this deal paves the way for that threat to materialize, can justify taking on the leader of the nation to whom Israel is so deeply beholden, and upon whom its survival depends today.

Israel has never successfully challenged an important presidential initiative in Congress and is highly unlikely to do so now. In the end, it comes down to who is better positioned to sway a small number of wavering Democrats. I am betting on the president. It is time for the prime minister to accept that this is the deal and to do what he should have done from the beginning: engage with the administration on the means of minimizing the threat to Israel and maximizing Israel’s contribution to the agreement’s successful implementation. Israel has intelligence capabilities and experience that can be invaluable in the years to come.