Israel and the United States: A dialogue of the deaf

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is, today, doing what he genuinely excels at: warning against the dire consequences of a policy to which he vehemently objects. And there is much to warn about in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which places a moratorium on most of Iran’s nuclear progress in exchange for sweeping relief of sanctions. At the same time, Netanyahu is failing to do what he genuinely does not excel at: affecting change in the world to better Israel’s position.

A shouting match has emerged between the U.S. and Israeli administrations as the deal heads to Congress; a dramatic low in the bilateral relations. This dialogue of deaf is not merely unseemly, it damages the ability of the two countries to coordinate their policies in a crucial juncture in the Middle East and in their strategic partnership.

The U.S. administration has masterfully framed the debate as dichotomous choice between this deal and war, implying that Netanyahu is merely advocating the use of U.S. force. This framing is as politically effective as it is simplistic. Equally simplistic, however, is Netanyahu’s claim to offer a better deal, when his demands throughout the process have been maximalist and his rejection of any give-and-take has been complete.

Netanyahu is right, to my mind, that the P5+1 did not take full advantage of their position of strength. True, holding together the international coalition was no small task, and the coalition held together admirably. But once the interim deal, the JPOA (to which, incidentally, Netanyahu objected vehemently as well), was in place, Iran’s progress was stalled and the pressure of sanctions was squarely on its shoulders. Washington should have then played hard ball, flirting with or even toying with a breakdown of talks.

The outcome is a deal worthy of concern. Netanyahu’s rhetoric and diplomatic strategy are often extreme and heavy handed, but basic hawkishness on Iran is—and has been—shared by most Israelis, including the leaders of the center-left opposition, who have little to lose from “triangulating” to the right on an issue most Israelis are concerned about.  Israelis worry, among many other concerns, that in the next decade and a half Iran will cheat and obfuscate at least part of its activities, taking advantage of the 24-day warning period it will get before inspections of some sites and the high stakes built into the agreement for taking Iran to task.

Even if Iran were to be caught, the Joint Commission may be loath to re-impose sanctions since any such re-imposition would relieve Iran of all its duties under the agreement. The all-or-nothing snap-back mechanism places a heavy burden on the P5+1 when calling Iran out on any single violation.

The sweeping sanctions relief also frees Iran’s hand in all manners of non-nuclear mayhem its Revolutionary Guard specializes in; with a shorter hiatus, Iran will also be free to advance its missile systems and to trade in conventional arms which it routinely supplies to its proxies in the region. Of course, Iran’s non-nuclear activity, and the regional challenges it poses, were never part of these negotiations, as the administration often rightly claims. Indeed, Iran is not required to alter any of its pernicious activity across its border. And yet, some of the U.S. sanctions to be relieved were imposed not only on the basis of non-proliferation but also for Iran’s involvement in sponsoring terrorism.

Still, the deal clearly lessens the chances of a nuclear Iran in the next decade and half, perhaps dramatically. The question remains, though, what happens if Iran does not cheat: what will the year 2032 look like? The Iranian regime may be somewhat different by then, in part due to the very opening up of its economy, and the age of one Ayatollah Khamenei. That would be an excellent outcome and this deal will have provided valuable respite from the threat of a nuclear Iran in the meantime.

At least as likely, however, is that Iran will have some version of the same regime we see now. It will then have license and expertise to build on a robust infrastructure, much of it still in storage or even advanced in the interval, awaiting activation. The Middle East, with a grim enough outlook already, could face a dramatic new challenge.

While many of his concerns are valid, Netanyahu is wrong to imply that his approach would have reasonably produced a dramatically different deal. By taking a maximalist position and using maximalist rhetoric Netanyahu played an important role in pushing others into action; he also lost credibility as agent of change himself. And on this—the Netanyahu School of dealing with the United States on Iran—Israelis are not in consensus.

Previous Israeli prime ministers, from left and right, took a different approach. As far back as 1993, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (speaking before the Knesset on January 20th of that year) discussed the grave future threat of a nuclear Iran as impetus to try and shape Israel’s future though peace within a strategic window of opportunity. Since then, every Israeli prime minister has dealt with the issue. Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, most notably, spent a great deal of effort trying to frame the issue as an international concern, not an Israeli one. They kept their rhetoric relatively low-key by Middle Eastern standards, and worked closely with the United States in the diplomatic and covert arenas to cripple the Iranian program.

This approach was not without its risks. Keep the rhetoric low-key and you risk failing to galvanize the world to action until it is too late. When Benjamin Netanyahu returned to office in 2009, he and Defense Minister Ehud Barak took a very different approach. The rhetoric was intensified; military preparations for a potential Israeli strike were enhanced, including large expenditure on materiel and training hours—with long-range maneuvers of scores of warplanes to Israel’s distant west in what few could mistake for anything but a practice run for a flight to Israel’s distant east.

Such was the rhetoric and the military preparations that many believed it was about to attack in the summer of 2012. Indeed, Israel may well have been about to strike. But even without the intent to carry through on a unilateral strike, Israel’s posture was useful. As I wrote at the time, it was effectively playing a “rational madman,” a radical flank that would galvanize the international community into action in other fronts. The robust U.S.-led sanctions regime and the joint action of the international coalition postponed an Israeli strike, if it was indeed in the making, but Israel kept the pressure high.

The irony is, of course, that Israel’s posture successfully galvanized the world to push for resolution of what Israel deemed an existential threat. Netanyahu depicted the danger of a nuclear Iran—with more merit than many often give him credit for—and the world responded by trying to solve the problem, to Netanyahu’s shock.

Going forward, when the shouting match dies down and perhaps beforehand, the administration would do well to listen to the Israeli concerns. Netanyahu would do well to face the simple reality that the United States, and especially the western end of Pennsylvania Avenue, is the key to mitigating his concerns.

Prophets of doom have their place; in the Hebrew Bible they are among the heroes of the nation. But prophecies of doom do not leadership make, and in this difficult juncture, leadership is sorely needed.