In Rare Consensus, Israelis Wary Of Iran Deal


Tel Aviv — It’s rare to hear a consensus in Israel on a foreign policy debate, but on the question of a new nuclear deal with Iran, most politicians and analysts seem to be of a similar opinion: The deal is likely to turn out to be quite problematic from Israel’s perspective.

A pact between world powers and Iran that leaves a big part of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure intact, goes the consensus, will formalize international recognition of the country as a nuclear threshold state, and leave Tehran months away from building a nuclear weapon if it chooses.

As negotiators worked against the deadline this week for an interim deal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, that he remained adamant in opposing the pact. He said it would “pave the way” for Iran to assemble a nuclear weapon and leave a considerable nuclear infrastructure at the country’s disposal.

“There are so many empty spaces over there [at the talks in Switzerland] that indicate this agreement is going to be extremely dangerous, that there is no way for Israel not to be worried,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, a former Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs.

Netanyahu and some Israeli experts have also warned that a new nuclear deal is likely to enhance Iran’s standing in the Middle East by removing economic sanctions and ending its diplomatic isolation; the outcome, they say, would free Iran to deepen its support for allied groups from Gaza to Lebanon to Yemen.

“The day that the Americans and the Iranians shake hands, Iran will have crossed a very significant line,” wrote Alex Fishman in the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonoth. “It might not come to possess a nuclear bomb in the next few years, but it [Iran] will be emerging from these negotiations politically strengthened relative to all the other countries in the region.”

“A post-agreement Iran will not only enjoy economic prosperity, but will also be more brazen, confident in its own strength and more daring in its actions across the Middle East,” Fishman continued. “After all, the people who shook their hands in the morning aren’t going to bomb them in [the] evening. Iran will feel that the threat of military action against it has essentially been lifted.”

And yet, some Israeli’s analysts note that despite the prime minister’s insistence that a nuclear Iran poses an existential threat to Israel, the sky will not fall on the day after a deal. With neither Israel nor the U.S. willing to opt for a military attack at this stage, a deal with Iran might be the best of bad options for Israel.

“It’s not great for us, but I don’t think it’s an existential threat; Iran is very busy with the Sunni-Shiite divide,” said Ehud Eiran, a defense expert at Haifa University. “Their support is mainly for non-state actors on our border. It’s not like when Israel feared an eastern front and Iraqi tanks rolling across Jordan.”

Instead, Israel will need to figure out a way to do damage control and ensure a deal is closely monitored.

“If there’s an agreement signed by the P5 +1, there’s not much that Israel can do with it more than fiddle with it at the margins, and hope that it can affect implementation over the next few years,” said Jonathan Rhynhold, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. (The countries involved in the talks are the United States, England, France, Germany, Russia and China.) “I’m sure that Israel will work hard to improve it, but the likelihood of doing that is small. It would take a blatant violation by the Iranians” to roll back the agreement.

For better or for worse, Israel’s role in the negotiations has been that of a spectator and — despite Netanyahu’s March 3 speech in Congress — there’s been precious little ability to influence the deal shouting from the sidelines, analysts say.

“The prime minister’s warnings have not had much of an impact on the agreement,” said Ari Kacowicz, a political science professor at Hebrew University who suggested that Netanyahu took unrealistic positions in trying to block a deal at all costs.

“I am not saying this is going to be a perfect agreement, and I’m not going to say this is a disastrous agreement — or even that it’s Munich 1938,” he said. “The problem from Israel’s perspective is that the agreement will recognize and institutionalize Iran as a threshold power.”

Instead of open clashes with the Obama administration, Israel should have sought to influence the emerging deal through a discrete dialogue with the White House, said Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief who was elected to parliament on the ticket of the opposition Zionist Union Party.

Yadlin said that if the Iranians were allowed to keep most of their enriched uranium — including some eight tons of low-enriched material — the deal would be a bad one. He added that if the Iranians were allowed to continue research and development on their nuclear program, it would be another red flag. At the same time, Israel should have reached an understanding with the U.S. about potential punishment in case of a violation of the agreement.

“In contrast to Prime Minister Netanyahu, who defined any agreement as a bad deal, we needed to sit with the Americans and discuss with them: What are the parameters involved when they say one-year break out time? What do they mean by no agreement is better than a bad agreement?” said Yadlin in an interview with Israel Radio on Tuesday. “These things were not done.”

One upside to emerge from the Iran talks has been a spotlight on the growing common interests between Israel and neighboring pro-Western Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, analysts say. The decision by the Arab League to form a united Arab military force is seen in Israel as a direct response to Iran’s expected boost from the deal and what is seen as growing reach in places like Yemen. Saudi Arabia also is emphatically opposed to a deal.

The joint Arab force “is a very positive development. .. It’s like saying ‘America, you do your thing, we are united,’” said Daniel Nisman, a security expert and president of Levantine Group consulting. “It means that Netanyahu’s voice in Congress, whether you agree with it or not, is shared by many of America’s allies in the region.”

That said, relations with Israel’s most important ally — the U.S. — remain a question mark going forward after the agreement, said Rhynhold. In addition to the spat over Iran, the Obama administration has been unforgiving over Netanyahu’s about-face on a Palestinian state and his Election Day warning about Arab voters. Leaks about alleged Israel spying were also a bad sign for the strategic ties. The question is whether that reflects temporary post-election friction enhanced by the Iran dispute, or whether Israel is facing a downgrade in its ties with Washington.

“In the short term, we’re looking at a confrontation between Israel and the administration which the administration will win,’’ Rhynhold said. “The question is how much damage control Israel can do.’’

Despite the tension with the U.S. over the Iran talks, the potential regional boost for Iran, and the lifting of sanctions, Haifa University’s Eiran said that the very fact of a deal represents an achievement for Israel, which for years felt alone on the international stage warning about Iran’s nuclear program.

“We don’t like what the deal is, but this is good: the world coming down on Iran and trying to curb its program,” he said. “This is what Israel hoped for historically. We got the world engaged but not in the way that we wanted. We have to be careful [what] we wish for.”