The two principal protagonists in the debate over the Iran nuclear deal – U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – are each gambling on an outcome: Obama believes that the agreement will achieve its objectives, while Netanyahu hopes the U.S. Congress will scuttle it before it is implemented. Obama’s gamble is understandable – his stake so far is not big enough. Netanyahu’s is hard to fathom – he's risking too much: Israel’s security.
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Obama is confident enough that the deal will deter Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons that he’s willing to make commitments to Israel and the Arab countries that feel threatened by the Iranians. In his speech on the Iran deal on August 5, he asserted, “We need to check the behavior that we are concerned about directly, by helping our allies in the region strengthen their own capabilities.” In addition to a possible increase in aid, his is administration is discussing other forms of military support for the Jewish state, including shipments of sophisticated offensive weaponry and arms stockpiles. This is a good start, but not enough, especially regarding support for the Israelis.
Netanyahu may have gone too far in publicly challenging the current American administration on Iran, but, after all, he leads the only country that the current Iranian regime declares has no right to exist and should be eliminated. Even if the threat from Tehran remained conventional, the lifting of sanctions would likely enable a richer Iran to provide Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist groups with far more sophisticated arms, which Israel will have to counter. Since the U.S. made the Iran deal possible, it has an obligation to provide Israel with the necessary means to do this.
In addition to arms promises, the Israelis need a NATO-style defense pact that clearly announces that a weapons-of-mass-destruction attack on Israel will be regarded as equivalent to an attack on the United States, whether or not the treaty mentions Iran by name. Such an accord would validate Obama's faith in the Iran deal, and committing to it would be easier for Obama than previous presidents because his record on military aid to Israel is unprecedented in U.S. history (despite the criticism he receives from many of Israel’s supporters).
On the other side, Netanyahu has so far demonstrated that his opposition to the nuclear accord is so strong that he will not accept what Obama is offering. As far as we know, he refuses to seriously negotiate on strengthening Israel's military edge with U.S. support until he sees whether or not Congress can override the president’s veto. That’s Netanyahu’s gamble.
Israel has sought a defense treaty with the United States since Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion proposed it in the 1950s. Would Netanyahu really turn down this opportunity if he was offered it at this crucial moment for Israel’s security because he is afraid it would weaken his opposition to the deal?
If Netanyahu truly believes that the Iran agreement is as dangerous as he claims, how could he reject a NATO-like treaty with the United States? After all, a Congressional rejection of the deal would not make Israel safer, as Teheran presumably would race to develop nuclear weapons and the international community would decrease sanctions. In addition, any lone Israeli pre-emptive attack on Iran would be extremely difficult and likely to backfire.
If the Iran accord survives Netanyahu’s attempt to stop it, the Obama administration will have far less incentive to offer a NATO-style treaty to Israel, because it will have less at stake. Given that, can Netanyahu viably argue that fighting to the end against the deal really offers Israel the best protection from Iran?
Moreover, if Netanyahu is correct that the Iran deal represents an existential threat to Israel (and most Israeli’s agree with him), is the best way to protect his country from this perceived threat achieved by betting on the long-shot fight to get Congress to vote it down? Wouldn't entering a concrete alliance with the United States offer more protection to Israel? If Netanyahu’s main aim is to safeguard Israel, as presumably it is, then agreeing to a NATO-style treaty would be more consistent with his views than opposing the deal until the bitter end.
That’s why the Israeli leader’s gamble regarding the Iran deal is so hard to fathom. Obama’s gamble makes sense, but he should increase the stakes by proposing a NATO approach to the American-Israeli alliance – an offer no Israeli leader should refuse. Either way, Netanyahu should accept the security protections Obama offers, confirming that his prime objective is indeed securing Israel’s existence.
Steven L. Spiegel is a professor of political science and the director of the Center for Middle East Development at UCLA and a scholar at the Israel Policy Forum.