At first glance, one might think Israelis are solidly behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s all-out diplomatic war against the U.S.-led nuclear deal with Iran. But look closer and deep fissures appear: There is angst over what some see as a reckless diplomatic adventure that pits Israel against its indispensable backer.
Most Israelis seem to agree that a better bargain could have been squeezed out of the Islamic Republic, their country’s top nemesis. They don’t like Iran’s ability to delay inspections in some locations; the speed with which sanctions will come off; or the prospect that Iran will soon have tens of billions of dollars in unfrozen funds, greatly enhancing its ability to foment regional mischief and unrest.
But many also are concluding that with the agreement all but wrapped up, it is time to give up the fight and adjust to the new reality, most critically by repairing a tattered relationship with the White House. Some voices even believe the deal is acceptable, or at least that it is worth testing the theory that the agreement will help moderate Iran.
After the deal was signed by Iran and six global powers last month in Vienna, Netanyahu’s government has been furiously lobbying U.S. lawmakers, holding out hope Congress will vote against it by a strong enough margin to override any presidential veto. The U.S. Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, said this week that the odds of this happening are slim. In the process, President Barack Obama has publicly bristled at Israeli lobbying.
In the seemingly unlikely event that Netanyahu prevails, many ask: What then? Other nations would still remove the sanctions, leaving the U.S. and Israel alone. Iran, freed of the shackles of the deal, would be free to proceed to a nuclear weapon.
If Netanyahu loses, he will have gained nothing and potentially lost much by damaging the already strained relationship with the U.S., endangering a vital security alliance and American diplomatic cover at the United Nations. Israel’s status would then be dangerously diminished in the eyes of the world and of enemies in the region.
“When it comes to the relationship between Israel and the United States, Netanyahu’s problem is … extreme courage, to the point of dangerousness,” commentator Ari Shavit wrote in the Haaretz daily Thursday.
Faced with a “done deal,” Shavit said Israel should be negotiating with the U.S. to address its risks and make it work. “Instead of talking to the administration, Netanyahu is clashing with it,” he wrote.
While it is believed that many security figures are cool to the deal, at least some have concluded it is time to move on and begin work on a new security pact with the U.S., replacing a current agreement that expires in 2017.
Some officials even see positive aspects in the deal, since it seems to sideline a critical issue for the next few years. “There are those in the Intelligence Corps, including those in the research division dealing with Iran, who have a very positive view of the nuclear agreement,” wrote defense specialist Amir Oren in Haaretz.
Active officials can be prevented from speaking out, but some former security chiefs have raised their voices.
Efraim Halevy, a former head of the Mossad spy agency, said the deal forced Iran to accept an “unprecedented” system of inspections.
“Anyone who has followed events in Iran in recent decades or has studied the matter has to admit truthfully that he never believed Iran would ever agree to discuss these issues, let alone agree to” some of the deal’s terms, he wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily after the deal was announced.
Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Shin Bet internal security service, has called the deal “the best option.”
In its recent long-term assessment, the Israeli military did not include a nuclear Iran among the country’s most pressing threats, focusing instead on Iranian-backed proxies along Israel’s borders.
Netanyahu calls the deal a “stunning historical mistake” that will likely be violated by the Iranians and in any case leave them free to develop nuclear weapons within a decade. His political allies repeat “bad deal” like a mantra.
In an address to U.S. Jewish leaders this month, Netanyahu said it was his responsibility as prime minister to voice his concerns about the deal.
“This policy disagreement has never been personal,” he said. “And our relationship is strong enough to withstand even serious disagreements.”
Sallai Meridor, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, said Netanyahu is right to voice Israel’s concerns — but “we should still make every effort to be respectful, to be bipartisan and stay in the galleries and not play on the stage.”
Israel’s leftist opposition politicians have been cautious. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union has suggested he doesn’t like the deal but blamed Netanyahu for bringing it on by openly clashing with Obama.
Israel’s figurehead president, Reuven Rivlin, who like Netanyahu hails from the nationalist right, has been the most overt in breaking ranks.
In recent interviews with Israeli media, he said Netanyahu “has waged a campaign against the United States as if the two sides were equal, and this is liable to hurt Israel.” Rivlin said he told Netanyahu that “struggles, even those that are just, can ultimately come at Israel’s expense.”
For some, the nuclear gambit is only part of a bigger picture Netanyahu’s policies have created: one of an Israel at loggerheads with the world.
Some see the issue reflected even in Netanyahu’s new choice for U.N. ambassador: Danny Danon, a right-wing firebrand who has advocated annexation of West Bank land.
The central piece of the picture is the continuing occupation of the West Bank and the continued settlement of the territory with so many Jews as to make a pullout increasingly difficult if not impossible.
Netanyahu’s critics consider this a suicidal path that, by effectively making Israel inseparable from the Palestinian areas, will wipe out the country’s Jewish-majority status and turn it into a binational entity that will ultimately be more Arab than Jewish.
In liberal Tel Aviv, it is common to hear talk of how Israel will not survive the damage done by Netanyahu because of the demographic issue. The word “apartheid” in describing the situation in the West Bank — a comparison once rejected by Israelis across the spectrum — now comes up in leftist circles.
“I can’t pretend anymore,” wrote Bradley Burston in Haaretz, in a commentary criticizing the vastly harsher parallel justice system applied to Palestinians in the West Bank. “This is what has become of the rule of law. Two sets of books. One for Us, and one to throw at Them. Apartheid.”
SOURCE: The Associated Press, Dan Perry and Josef Federman