It was no surprise that as almost as soon as the U.S. and five other world powers announced a landmark accord on Iran’s nuclear Sunday morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu informed us that it was “not a historical deal, but a historic mistake.”
"Israel is not obligated by this agreement. I want to make clear we will not allow Iran to obtain military nuclear capability," Netanyahu told ministers at his weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. “Today the world became a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world made a significant step in obtaining the most dangerous weapons in the world.”
Given that it’s been clear for some time that Netanyahu was fighting a losing battle, and that the Obama administration was convinced that it was worth reaching an interim agreement to freeze – or temporarily slow – Iran’s march towards a nuclear weapon, one might have thought that the Israeli premier would ride the wait-and-see wave of international diplomacy favored in Washington and in many European capitals. Having already spent so much political capital fighting the deal, he was almost doomed to end up looking like he’d lost the battle of his life. But he had the option to make the best of a bad situation, and he didn’t choose it. Perhaps if he could have seen the glass half full for a change, and looked at the positive points of what is, after all, a six-month solution that negotiators believe will buy a window of time to pursue a more comprehensive deal, he could have come out looking like more of a statesman and less of a scare tactician.
But Netanyahu is Israel’s Mr. Worse Case Scenario and keeping Israelis worried that their worst fears may soon be realized is part of what keeps him in power.
A decade ago, I was in Baghdad chatting with some very intelligent Iranian friends – other reporters, most with a second citizenship in the U.S. or a European country. “Why does Israel get to be nuclear power and not us?” posed a friend I’ll call Behruz. The others nodded in agreement. At first, I was shocked: Didn’t everyone see why Iran shouldn’t be allowed to become a nuclear power?
But I listened some more, and for the first time, I got it. And I get why, a few days ago, Iranian Jews protested at the UN in favor of Iran being allowed to develop its nuclear program. Iranians see double-standards everywhere, and they wonder why Israel is allowed to get away with its nuclear non-acknowledgement while Iran gets its nuclear ambitions put under an international microscope.
Of course, we know the reasons why. Those aforementioned Iranians want to believe that its country’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. They also believe that if Iran would reach weapons-level capability, it would be something that would never be used, but would ensure that Tehran would be on par with other regional powers – read Israel, but also the Saudis – and that this leveled playing field would protect it from attack. The problem is that even after eight disastrous years under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran still sends belligerent signals in Israel’s direction, although Jerusalem also sends them in the direction of Tehran on a daily basis. It would be slightly more possible to convince skeptics that Iran wants to be a nuclear power for peaceful purposes if Tehran were to disavow any politician that offers his apocalyptic fantasies about eliminating Israel, as Ahmadinajad did. And it would have made U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s job a lot easier if Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hadn’t called Israel a “rabid dog” last week just as the parties were getting closer to an agreement.
Unfortunately, the fall-out from the disagreement between Kerry and Netanyahu over Iran looks set to spill over into the Israeli-Palestinian talks. Kerry now becomes increasingly susceptible to being portrayed by Netanyahu’s club as being indifferent to Israel’s most pressing security needs. I wouldn’t be surprised if Republicans in Congress start going back to Mitt Romney’s catchy but disingenuous 2011 charge that Obama had thrown Israel under a bus.
It’s worth bearing in mind that Netanyahu is not Israel’s only voice to listen to on Iran. Notice how different are the remarks of President Shimon Peres on the same morning:
"This is an interim deal. The success or failure of the deal will be judged by results, not by words. I would like to say to the Iranian people, you are not our enemies and we are not yours. There is a possibility to solve this issue diplomatically. It is in your hands. Reject terrorism. Stop the nuclear program. Stop the development of long-range missiles.
“Israel like others in the international community prefers a diplomatic solution. But I want to remind everyone of what President Obama said, and what I have personally heard from other leaders. The international community will not tolerate a nuclear Iran. And if the diplomatic path fails, the nuclear option will be prevented by other means. The alternative is far worse.”
These different approaches on Iran are akin to a teacher’s different approaches to a problematic child in class. Peres would put him on probation, try to reform him, give him another chance. Netanyahu would like him expelled, never to be accepted anywhere every again.
Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister and IDF chief of staff, said a few days ago that it is impossible to eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat entirely, so perhaps Israel should learn to cope with it more wisely.
“The Israeli strategy has failed and a different strategy could have been chosen,” Mofaz said in Haifa on Thursday. “Netanyahu is fighting a losing battle, and it would have been better to work quietly to bring the Americans on board with our strategy and our red lines.”
I don’t mean to suggest that because of conversations with friends like Behruz, Israel can stop worrying about what’s being done in Arak, Bushehr or Natanz. But worry and worst-case scenarios are not the only things that should drive a country’s foreign policy.