Israel and the Interim Iran Nuclear Agreement

Dec 10, 2013 | Updated Feb 09, 2014

Israel opposes the interim nuclear deal with Iran, right?

Not quite.

The current extreme right-wing Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party opposes the interim agreement between the P-five plus one group, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany and the European Union representative. Polls indicate that a large majority of Jewish Israelis back the government. But non-Jewish Israelis, some 20 percent of the population, were not sampled in that poll. Many former ministers and members of the Knesset do support the agreement. So do previous security officials such as Amos Yadlin, the former military intelligence chief and Ephmaim Hallevy, former head of Mossad.

So what is going on here? Personalities should not be discounted. President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have had a rocky relationship from the start. They seem not only to dislike but to distrust each other. Then there is Netanyahu's view of force as the preferred default option as shown in the 2010 flotilla incident and in Gaza and the occupied territories. He is clearly spring loaded for a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities no matter how problematic that proposition. He appears frustrated that the president is not so inclined.

But politics is the driver in the U.S. where many conservatives citing the Israeli governments objections, see a chance to further weaken a president already weakened by a botched Obama Care roll out. Ignoring the public and Congress' aversion to another war demonstrated in the Syrian crisis, they believe a failure in Iranian negotiations would be in their political interest in the 2014 congressional elections. Their current ploy, inexplicably aided by some Democrats, is to pass additional sanctions while negotiations are still underway. Using the insulting "carrot and stick" metaphor that sees Iran as a pack animal to be led, they assert that sanctions (the stick) brought Iran to the table and more sanctions will force an agreement. More likely that stick will break the back of the negotiations and force them to fail. And then the conservatives can declare another Obama failure and press for a military strike. Before going down this path, those Democrats on the more sanctions now bandwagon should contemplate the prospect of a vote to override a presidential veto of additional sanctions or to authorize a military strike on Iran.

Prime Minister Netanyahu appears to be more concerned with upsetting the current balance in the Middle East. He is satisfied with the chaos in Syria so long as a Jihadist regime does not emerge. The coup in Egypt that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood secured that front. And the U.S., Saudi Arabia and selected Gulf states will keep Jordan afloat at least for the medium term. What he really fears along with the Saudis is change, a change producing a new dynamic in the region. If the Iranian nuclear deal is a prelude to a more moderate Iran willing to engage in the region -- a big if to be sure -- then Israel and Saudi Arabia will have to learn a new game. The U.S. will try to engage Iran in efforts to stabilize Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. And that is a balance of power game where Israel and the Saudis are pawns as well as participants.

A further worry for Prime Minister Netanyahu is success in these negotiations. That would leave the president and the energetic Secretary of State John Kerry as well as what the Europeans call the three plus three (UK, France and Germany plus the U.S., Russia and China) to focus on a solution to the Palestinian issue. Even worse, an end to the Iranian nuclear threat combined with the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons and a demand for Egypt to destroy its mustard gas as a condition for resumption of full American aid would expose Israel as the last nation to have weapons of mass destruction in the region. No wonder the Israeli government is trying to keep the status quo.

Prime Minister Netanyahu appears to believe that any nuclear deal with Iran that leaves even a peaceful nuclear program is an existential threat to Israel, no matter how strong the inspection regime. President Obama sees such a deal that restricts Iran's nuclear program to peaceful purposes and is backed by a tight inspection regime as in U.S. security interests and a potential opening to draw Iran into a more constructive international role. Prime Minister Netanyahu is obligated to do what he thinks is in the best interests of Israel. President Obama is obligated to act in the best interests of the United States of America.

Only history will tell us if those two sets of interests really diverge.