Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog is not happy with the Iran nuclear deal signed last month – to put it mildly. And he’s not the only high-profile Israeli from the center-left – among them some prominent peace activists, writers and commentators – to voice dissent, or at least skepticism.
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By contrast, some tough-minded Israeli defense establishment types – among them former heads of the military and security services – insist it’s not the end of the world. While certainly no cause for celebration, in their view, the historic agreement signed between Iran and six world powers led by the United States is far better than the alternative.
And what do the common folk think? To be sure, among Israeli leftists, there are many whose knee-jerk reaction is to find out where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands on an issue and take the opposing view. They need know nothing more than the fact that Netanyahu rejects the deal for them to be in favor.
Still, a look at some of the public opinion polls conducted after the agreement was signed – as well as before it – shows a broad consensus against the deal that would seem to transcend the conventional political divides. Most Israelis are not convinced the agreement will prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power or that it will eliminate what is often considered the biggest threat to the country. Like their elected leaders, most Israelis, these polls show, don’t think the U.S. administration has their best interests at heart.
A day after the agreement was signed, a poll conducted by Israel's Channel 10 found that an overwhelming 69 percent of Israelis opposed it, while only 10 percent were in favor, with 21 percent undecided.
Asked whether they thought the agreement would prevent Iran from achieving nuclear capabilities, 74 percent said it wouldn’t, while only 10 percent said it would, with 16 percent undecided.
The Channel 10 poll shows that 40 percent of Israelis would be in favor of attacking Iranian nuclear sites, with 32 opposed to such a move and 28 percent undecided. According to its findings, more Israelis (37 percent) feel Netanyahu had done a bad job of handling the campaign against the deal than those (34 percent) who believe he's done a good job, with the rest undecided.
A poll conducted by Ma’ariv several days later showed an even greater level of suspicion toward the agreement. Asked if they thought it poses a threat to Israel, a whopping 78 percent of Israelis said they thought it did, with only 15 percent saying it didn’t and the rest undecided. Asked if they believed that the agreement brings Iran closer to obtaining nuclear capabilities, 71 percent said it did, and only 12 percent said it didn’t, with 17 percent undecided.
Asked it they believed Israel should launch an attack on Iran to prevent it from achieving nuclear capabilities, almost half of the respondents (47 percent) said yes, another 35 percent said no, with the rest undecided.
Asked how they thought the prime minister should respond to the agreement, 51 percent said he should use all possible means to convince Congress to vote against it, 38 percent said he should try to reach an understanding with Americans on its implementations, with 11 percent saying they didn’t know.
Looking back at earlier polls, it would appear that the man and woman on the street have not changed their position much. A public opinion survey conducted by The Jerusalem Post, several weeks before the deal was signed, found that slightly almost half (48.5 percent) of all Israelis considered the agreement-in-the-making to be an existential threat to the country, while only 22 percent did not. Asked to what degree they felt they felt could rely on the U.S. administration to protect Israel, close to 45 percent responded that they couldn’t, while less than 22 percent responded that they could, with the rest vacillating somewhere in the middle.
In a paper published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy a month before the deal was finalized, Israeli military expert Michael Herzog (and brother to opposition leader Isaac Herzog) spells out where Israelis are united and divided in their positions on the matter. “While a wide consensus exists regarding the potential risks entailed in the deal, a policy debate is under way on how to best address Israel’s concerns,” he says.
“Should Israel fight the deal publicly and through Congress, as the current Israeli leadership has done? Or should it accept the deal as a fait accompli and seek to obtain maximal improvements and strategic assurances through a dialogue with the United States and other major international actors? The latter course has been taken by the Gulf countries, who equally dislike the deal and have found ways to express their displeasure. Notwithstanding converging interests between Israel and major Arab actors—such as shared concerns about Islamists and jihadists, Iran, and the weak U.S. regional role—some in Israel fear that staying on the current course could mean being left behind or, worse, weakening both its unique strategic relationship with United States and its qualitative military edge.”
A memorandum published in 2013 by The Institute for National Security Studies, a think-tank affiliated with Tel Aviv University, found that while most Israelis deem Iran’s nuclear capabilities a major threat to the country, they don’t see it as an existential threat. Written by Yehuda Ben-Meir and Olena Bagno-Moldavsky, the memorandum note that “most Israelis do not believe that Iran will launch a nuclear attack against Israeli, while at the same time, they believe in Israel’s deterrence capabilities.”
An examination of different surveys published by various polling organizations between 2006 and 2013 would seem to indicate that Israelis have and remain quite entrenched in their view of Iran’s nuclear capabilities. In almost all the surveys, at least 45 percent of the respondents – and in some cases as high as two-thirds and three-quarters – said they supported a unilateral attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. An overwhelming majority – anywhere between two-thirds to more than 80 percent – said they considered a nuclear-armed Iran to constitute an existential threat to Israel, and at least one third of those questioned in these surveys said they supported an international attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.