Explained

Top Brass vs. Netanyahu's Government: Where Israel Stands on Nixing Nuke Iran Deal

Right-wing party heads have consistently backed PM Netanyahu’s hard-line stance, but opposition figures and army brass seem keener to fix rather than nix the agreement

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli military Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot patrol Israel's Jordan border fence.
Kobi Gideon/GPO

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has led a firm and unrelenting years-long campaign against the Iran nuclear agreement. His opposition to the deal cast a shadow over the relationship between Jerusalem and the Obama administration. And since the election of Donald Trump to the White House, he has made it a goal to convince the Republican president to jettison the deal.

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Netanyahu’s attitude on the matter hasn’t changed since he stood in front of both houses of Congress in March 2015, just prior to the deal being struck, and argued vigorously against the Obama administration’s determination to see it through: “We’ve been told that no deal is better than a bad deal. Well, this is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal. We’re better off without it,” he declared.

As the public face of Israel globally, Netanyahu’s position has been viewed as reflecting the views of the nation. Polling has borne this out as a fair assessment.

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When the agreement was first signed, one poll determined that an overwhelming 69 percent of Israelis opposed it, while only 10 percent were in favor. Another survey found that over three-quarters of Jewish Israelis agreed with their prime minister that the deal posed an “existential threat” to the Jewish state. And a recent poll found that almost 60 percent of Israelis “fully approve” of the way Netanyahu is “handling the Iranian threat” – presumably that includes his opposition to the deal and efforts to nix it.

But does this mean all of Israel’s political and military establishment agree with Netanyahu’s assessment and policies regarding the deal?

Far from it.  

Particularly among the top brass of the military and intelligence agencies, to Netanyahu’s continued frustration there is little sweeping condemnation of the deal.

Labor Party head Avi Gabbay (left) flanked by opposition chair Isaac Herzog (right).
Emil salman

Criticism of it has been measured and, particularly as time has passed without evidence of Iran violating the deal’s terms, it has even been praised. 

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Asked about the agreement in an interview with Haaretz to mark Israel’s 70th anniversary, current IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot refrained from bashing the deal. Instead, he was judiciously positive  about it – saying that, to the best of his knowledge, it is “working.”

True, Eisenkot tempered his assessment by noting that while no Iranian violations of the agreement have been proven, this doesn’t mean they don’t exist. “We assume that Iran can operate secretly. Therefore, keeping watch on developments there is the No. 1 mission for both the Israel Defense Forces and intelligence agencies. We are investing vast resources in obtaining the best intelligence about Iran and its operational ability. If its intentions change, we will know,” he said.

However, he pointed out that, “Right now, the agreement, with all its faults, is working and is putting off realization of the Iranian nuclear vision by 10 to 15 years.” With the deal in place, he said, “the window of strategic opportunity is still open in our favor. If the Americans decide to withdraw from the agreement on May 12, we will have to rethink our strategic risk management,” he added. Trump, of course, will now announce his decision on whether to withdraw on Tuesday.

What does that mean? Military commentators have said that Eisenkot – like other members of the IDF brass – are appreciative of the fact that the nuclear deal has bought them time to move forward in consolidating their multiyear “Gideon Plan.”

This plan, launched right after the nuclear accord was signed, exists because the IDF has been given breathing space to close gaps in contending with threats closer to home. It was designed with the goal of preventing Hezbollah from acquiring advanced weaponry and preparing for a possible confrontation with a combination of Hezbollah, Syrian and Iranian forces – the exact scenario that is currently playing out.

Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid speaks at a party meeting in Jerusalem, February 2, 2018.
Emil salman

Retired military leaders, who can express themselves more freely than Eisenkot, have been outspoken in their belief that even if the nuclear agreement only “kicks the can” of Iranian nuclearization down the road, it is still offering Israel a valuable window of opportunity to deal with these more immediate dangers.

While Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad – the former research chief at Military Intelligence and former director of the policy and military affairs division at the Defense Ministry – admits he had reservations about the nuclear agreement when it was first signed, he now believes a continued U.S. commitment to the deal is the best – or least bad – possible scenario.

In an interview on Monday, Gilad said he believes a U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 agreement would help Iran more than Israel.

Israel, he pointed out, is benefiting from the ability to “prioritize” the threats it faces.

“If Iran now continues to suspend its nuclear project for eight or 10 years, in accordance with the agreement, that will let us focus on more urgent threats relating to the Iranian army establishing a presence in Syria, and preparing the Israeli army for the possibility that, in the future, we’ll have to deal with the nuclear [issue] if a confrontation erupts.”

Gilad said he openly fears that that “an American announcement that it’s withdrawing from the agreement would let Iran drive a wedge between the world powers and gradually loosen international oversight over its nuclear program. If the Americans abandon the agreement, they have to prepare for alternatives, and I don’t see this being done.”

Conscious of public opinion backing Netanyahu’s war on the agreement, Israeli politicians have generally backed his stance. From right to left, nearly the entire Israeli political landscape stood together against the nuclear agreement in 2015, making strange bedfellows of Netanyahu and center-left opposition leaders who bitterly opposed him on a long list of other issues.

Interior Minister Arye Dery and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of Habayit Hayehudi, attend a conference in Tel Aviv, May 6, 2018.
Ofer Vaknin

Certainly on the right, across Netanyahu’s governing coalition, there has been unwavering support for his hard line against the agreement.

Right-wing leaders have competed with each other to decry the deal in the strongest terms. The winner was probably Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, who, on the day the agreement was signed, dramatically declared that “today, a terrorist nuclear superpower is born, and it will go down as one of the darkest days in world history.”

To Netanyahu’s left, the reaction has been less consistent and changing over time.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (at the time also head of  the Zionist Union) stated during the lead-up to the deal’s signing that “as an Israeli patriot, this deal is dangerous” and it represented “a bad agreement that endangers our security interests.” He announced there was “no daylight” between himself and Netanyahu on the question of the deal, leading many at the time to incorrectly believe he was on the verge of joining the coalition.

Another prominent opposition figure, Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, teamed up with Netanyahu in sharply attacking the agreement at the time of its creation and implementation.

Both Lapid and Herzog qualified their backing of Netanyahu on the deal  with criticism of his inability to influence its content due to his “all or nothing” attitude. That, and his hostility toward Obama, they charged, had led to the disastrous agreement because “at the moment of truth, when we needed to thwart this bad deal, no one was ready to listen to Netanyahu, or even talk to him.”

The left-wing Meretz party was more circumspect, though. Its then leader, Zehava Gal-On, wrote in August 2015: “True, the deal with Iran is not perfect, far from it, but it is not nearly as bad as the prime minister portrays.” She pointed out that without the deal, “Iran would be closer to a nuclear bomb today.”

The current leader of Meretz, Tamar Zandberg, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 31, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

These days, opposition figures are struggling to balance their stated opposition to the deal and their criticisms of Netanyahu.

Last week, in an interview on Army Radio, Lapid made a clear break with the prime minister, coming out publicly against Netanyahu’s efforts to encourage the White House to scuttle the agreement immediately. He said he believed that Trump should stay in the deal long enough to make the best effort to “fix it” before “nixing it” – without the support from the European signatories of the deal.

“Netanyahu is trying to unilaterally cancel the agreement. I say let’s take six more months,” said Lapid. “I am opposed to the nuclear deal, but I am not in favor of canceling it unilaterally.”

Avi Gabbay, Herzog’s successor as Zionist Union chairman, said that he concurred with Netanyahu’s opposition to the deal. However, he disagreed with his style and strategy, saying that quiet work behind the scenes was preferable to “big speeches.” In general, though, Gabbay has avoided being pinned down on the issue – even in his maiden speech to the AIPAC Policy Conference in March, he chose not to set out a position on the matter.

To find a ringing Israeli endorsement, you have to travel all the way to the far left and Dov Khenin from Hadash (part of the Joint List alliance of predominantly Arab parties). He said last week that “the international agreement on the nuclear issue was the right move, and it must continue instead of leading to a terrible regional war that no one will win.”