Face It: U.S. and Israel Don't Have the Same Interests

For Netanyahu, enemy number 1 is Iran; for Obama it's ISIS.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint press conference in Jerusalem, March 2013.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint press conference in Jerusalem, March 2013.Credit: Yonatan Zindel/Flash 90
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

In the coming weeks, U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will both utter thousands of words about the Iran nuclear deal. Here’s one thing they won’t say: America and Israel have different interests.

Obama won’t say it because it would confirm the right’s claim that he doesn’t care about the Jewish state. Netanyahu won’t say it because he’s trying to convince Americans that the Iran deal is bad not just for Israel, but for them. But you can’t understand the drama playing out right now in both countries without understanding this simple truth.

America has a vital interest in preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, since that could spark a nuclear arms race in one of the least stable regions on earth. And America has a vital interest in avoiding another Middle Eastern war, since the last one cost the U.S. dearly. These aren’t just Barack Obama’s priorities. They would have been Mitt Romney’s too. And this nuclear agreement, while imperfect, achieves them better than any alternative. It’s fanciful to imagine that the U.S. could have walked away from a deal favored by all the world powers and then expected those powers — many of which have strong economic ties to Iran — to not merely maintain the existing global sanctions, but strengthen them. In May, Britain’s ambassador to the U.S. warned, “You would probably see more sanctions erosion” if nuclear talks collapse. Germany’s ambassador predicted, “If diplomacy fails, then the sanctions regime might unravel.” Netanyahu’s proposed alternative to the current deal — increase global economic pressure until Iran capitulates — it utterly detached from reality.

But if the U.S. has a vital interest in peacefully preventing Iran from getting a bomb, it does not have a vital interest in keeping Iran weak. Yes, Iran is supporting some nasty organizations and regimes: Bashar Assad, Hezbollah, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and (along with some Sunni benefactors) Hamas. But none represent a direct threat to the United States. None are likely to commit a terrorist attack on American soil. The people most likely to do that are Sunni Jihadists organized or inspired by groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. The groups, in other words, that Iran is fighting against.

This isn’t to say America wants Iran to dominate the Middle East; it doesn’t. It wants a stable balance of power between Iran and its Sunni (and Jewish) foes. But keeping Iran, and its proxies, weak is not reason enough for America to torpedo a deal that peacefully limits Iran’s path to a bomb.

Israel’s interests are different. Yes, Netanyahu says the Iran deal will pave — rather than curb — Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon. But behind this technical disagreement over centrifuge limits and inspection protocols lies a more fundamental one. Netanyahu, like most other Jewish Israeli politicians, believes Israel has a vital interest in keeping Iran weak. What scares them about the nuclear deal is that it legitimizes Iran’s regime internationally and ends sanctions, which gives Tehran a lot more cash. If Netanyahu torpedoes the Iran nuclear deal, he may not have a plausible alternative for keeping Iran from the bomb. But at least he denies Iran’s regime the money and legitimacy that enhances its power.

It’s understandable that Israeli leaders feel this way. When Americans lie awake worrying about terrorism, they think about ISIS and Al Qaeda, which Iran fights. When Israelis lie at night worrying about terrorism, they think about Hezbollah and Hamas, which Iran funds. Netanyahu and his Republican allies can talk all they want about how Iran is the world’s greatest sponsor of terrorism. But the terrorist groups that will benefit from Iran’s enhanced power — Hezbollah and Hamas — pose a much greater threat to Israel than to the United States.

In less guarded moments, Israeli officials admit this openly. “The lesser evil is the Sunnis over the Shias,” Michael Oren said last summer. “There is no doubt that Hezbollah and Iran are the major threat to Israel,” former head of Israeli military intelligence Amos Yadlin told the Wall Street Journal in March, “much more than the radical Sunni Islamists, who are also an enemy.” Even Netanyahu’s Republican allies wouldn’t say that because, from an American perspective, it’s not true. When U.S. officials talk about the terrorist plots that were designed to hit America on July 4, they’re not talking about Tehran. They’re talking about ISIS.

That Israel and America have different interests shouldn’t surprise Bibi at all. After all, one of Zionism’s core tenets is that foreign powers, even sympathetic ones, can never fully be trusted. And thus, that Jews should never again entrust their safety to anyone but themselves. But that’s exactly what Netanyahu has done. For six years, he’s been telling the world it’s 1938 and implying that Barack Obama is Neville Chamberlain. For six years, he’s been warning that Israel will take matters into its own hands. Yet he has not. And now, six years later, he’s reduced to begging Congress to kill Obama’s nuclear deal.

Perhaps Bibi tried to take military action but Obama stopped him. But given how little he has heeded Obama on anything else, I find that hard to believe. Perhaps Israel’s military options were awful. Or perhaps Netanyahu just didn’t have the nerve. Whatever the reason, he shouldn’t be surprised that America is now pursuing its own interests rather than Israel’s. It’s what any good Zionist would expect

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