U.S., Israel Need to Put Aside Mutual Suspicions Over Iran Deal

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U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd L) stands next to Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd R) as he speaks with Israeli ministers after landing at Ben Gurion International Airport.Credit: Reuters

The mantra shared by the president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel throughout the period leading up to a framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program was: Better no deal than a bad deal.

While each party maintains that view even after the framework agreement has been reached, each believes fiercely that the other side does not hold to that concept. These perceptions of the other will make it difficult to proceed in a constructive manner over the next few critical months.

The White House strongly believes that Israel's true perspective is not that no deal is better than a bad deal, but that no deal is better than any deal. This conclusion is based on demands that Israel has been making, beginning with the address by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before the joint session of Congress. In that speech, the prime minister seemed to lay down new markers for a deal and the lifting of sanctions, suggesting that a deal should not be signed unless Iran ceases its terrorist activities and support for extremist groups in the region.

More recently, the prime minister said that a final agreement should not be inked unless Iran accepts the existence and legitimacy of the State of Israel.

From the Obama administration’s point of view, since these goals, as admirable as they may be, are not even close to being achievable in the near term, their espousal by Israel's leadership reveals the naked truth -- that Israel is opposed to any deal and prefers to address the Iran issue through continued sanctions and eventually a military solution.

Meanwhile, the Israeli leadership sees an administration that seems overly eager to reach an agreement at a time when Iran is on the ropes, staggered by sanctions and collapsing oil prices. It therefore concludes that rather than “a bad deal is worse than no deal,” the White House’s unrevealed but true approach is that any deal is better than no deal.

The Israelis reach this conclusion based on their reading of American unwillingness to consider a serious military option against Iran, their resistance to expanding sanctions and their acceptance in negotiations of Iran maintaining a vast nuclear infrastructure, rather than dismantling that infrastructure.

In fact, each side is undoubtedly over-reading the intent of the other, a reflection of and a catalyst for the mistrust between the sides.

Nevertheless, this perception gap has real consequences going forward. The United States sees any effort by Israel to criticize the framework arrangement as an effort to scuttle the deal. And Israel sees American hyping of the deal, and rejection of criticism or desire for change, as determination to sign an agreement no matter what.

So instead of constructive conversation that could produce a better final agreement, what we get is carping and assaults on the other. How to resolve this counterproductive conflict?

Each must take steps to ease the concerns of the other. Concerning the American side, it is not only Israel but well-respected independent observers such as Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Dennis Ross and Amos Yadlin that question elements of the agreement. More openness by the White House for the need to clarify and strengthen the clauses dealing with inspections, the easing of sanctions and what happens when the accord is violated would increase the chances of a more constructive Israeli role despite that side's suspicions.

Similarly, Israel has to recognize that a deal has been struck with the support of the international community, and it will not go away. Therefore Israel should look to focus on those same issues of inspection, sanctions and violations that are the focus of the deal, rather than simply condemning the whole business or coming up with a laundry list of demands. Because of where it sits, Israel will never be as satisfied with a compromise agreement as will the United States., but it can focus on the most egregious ambiguities. This should increase the chances for American reciprocity and openness to conversation.

Gaps and suspicions will remain, but by working together there is a much better chance to improve the package in meaningful ways. In addition, the administration should begin parallel conversations with Israel (and Saudi Arabia) to concretize the president’s recent statement of reassurance that the U.S. will have Israel’s back. This can involve further security arrangements going forward, particularly ten years down the road. The U.S. administration should also show greater sensitivity to Israeli and the Gulf states' concerns about Iranian expansionism in the region, which is likely only to grow once sanctions are lifted.

Abraham H. Foxman is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.