Continued Opposition to Iran Deal Reflects Netanyahu's Political Ploys

The prime minister and defense chief are fully within their rights to doubt the usefulness of the agreement with Iran. But why release the statement when Israel still seeks to improve the U.S. military aid package?

AP

It’s very hard to believe that the Defense Ministry’s unusual statement Friday, with its direct attack on the U.S. position on the Iranian nuclear deal, was crafted by the ministry’s professionals. Neither the director general, Udi Adam, nor his predecessors have ever taken an interest or shown unusual expertise on the nuclear issue, which is far outside their bailiwick.

Someone at the political level, the defense minister’s office, perhaps even the prime minister’s people, apparently wanted to use the Defense Ministry spokesman. But this effort was as believable as the way Likud often does things.

The party releases harshly worded statements at night against Education Minister Naftali Bennett and others (among them, in the past, current Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman). This happens precisely when the targets of these statements have made Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office angry.

With its statement, the Defense Ministry aimed to push back against U.S. President Barack Obama's comments that a year after the Vienna agreement, Iran is fully holding up its end of the deal. Obama also claimed that the Israeli intelligence community feels the same way.

Israel – more the politicians than the military – sharply criticized the final agreement between Iran and the world powers. From the Israeli perspective the worrisome holes in the deal were plenty. But Israeli intelligence doesn’t dispute that Iran is meeting its obligations regarding the agreement.

Israel’s claims touch on Iran’s vigorous assistance to subversive activity and terror throughout the Middle East, and to Tehran’s extreme anti-Israel line. But these issues weren’t covered in the Vienna accord, despite Netanyahu’s demands.

As for the nuclear program, Iran has yet to be caught breaking its obligations. An economic rejuvenation of Iran, which worried the agreement’s opponents, hasn’t happened as quickly as feared. The low oil prices and continued delays in deals with multinational corporations are still preventing Iran from reaping the fruits of the accord.

This more or less is also the assessment of security officials including Israel Defense Forces chief Gadi Eisenkot and Military Intelligence head Herzl Halevi, as they’ve discussed it publicly a few times over the past year.

But the Defense Ministry’s tone Friday was completely different. The ministry’s spokesman’s office, quoting “the Israeli security establishment,” disagreed with Obama’s claims and stated that “the facts on the ground are opposite to the ones the agreement is based on.”

Immediately after that contention came a comparison to the Munich Agreement that didn’t prevent the Holocaust. These are historical allegories from the Netanyahu school, and perhaps that of Lieberman. Eisenkot has never used them (and after Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan’s slip on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Eisenkot would certainly be doubly cautious).

The Defense Ministry’s statement came out around Eisenkot’s return from the United States after a working visit described as successful with the Defense Department and U.S. military.

This wrangling with Washington – which happened during a week when National Security Adviser Jacob Nagel was visiting the United States in a very tardy attempt to sign the military aid agreement – probably doesn’t serve defense ties between the two countries.

The prime minister and defense minister are fully within their rights to doubt the usefulness of the agreement with Iran. They may turn out to be right, even if many experts in the military and intelligence community currently think the opposite.

But it’s hard to fathom the logic in releasing the statement Friday if Israel still seeks to improve its position regarding the aid agreement. After all, Netanyahu recently withdrew most of the objections that blocked the signing of the accord for almost a year (and because of these objections Israel will apparently get less assistance than it might have).

Shortly after the Defense Ministry’s statement came another statement, this time from the prime minister. The second statement seemed like damage control; it opened by stressing the special relationship between Israel and the United States.

Still, the question is whether the Defense Ministry’s unusual statement was born in Lieberman’s office or Netanyahu’s, and whether this reveals anything of the frantic mood of the prime minister and his people over the past few weeks.

This is the same belligerent mood in the extraordinary PR effort against the state comptroller’s report on Hamas’ tunnels from Gaza and Netanyahu’s renewed battle for control of the media. Whether it’s Bennett, the public broadcasting system or now Obama, it seems every few days an urgent need is created for a new more dangerous enemy.