Israel Can Live With the Iranian Nuclear Deal, Can Netanyahu?

The removal of the 'Iranian threat' can provide a huge positive impact on Israeli politics and on the quality of life in the country.

Avner Cohen
Avner Cohen
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement in his office in Jerusalem on July 14, 2015.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement in his office in Jerusalem on July 14, 2015.Credit: AFP
Avner Cohen
Avner Cohen

It’s hard to think of another time in which the leadership of Israel looked as pathetic as it did this week with the signing of the nuclear agreement between the world powers and Iran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s whimpering and his ridiculous declarations condemning the accord, which have been ignored by the leaders of the world, present Israel not only as complainer lacking in political wisdom but also indicates how isolated and trapped it is in its fears of persecution.

The agreement, which in Western capitals has been presented as one that will distance Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb, a victory of diplomacy over force and proof that a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program is possible, has been portrayed in Jerusalem as an Iranian trap that includes short-term tactical concessions in favor of long-term nuclear progress. It has been presented as an Iranian plot constituting an existential threat to Israel. While the world applauds American diplomacy, Israel remains suspicious, grumbling and angry.

That’s not only how the government reacted but also how (almost) the entire Zionist political spectrum in the country did. The Herzog-Livni duo at the helm of the Zionist Union as well as Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid parroted Netanyahu, arguing that when it comes to the Iranian issue, there is no distinction between coalition and opposition. The world leaders are political novices who in their naveté don’t understand the Iranian trick, whereas Israel and its leaders are the only ones who see the true picture. The United States and its partners are deluded into thinking that the agreement creates a safer world, while only realistic, wise Israel knows that it make it more dangerous. Give me a break.

This isn’t the place to relate to the details of the long and complex accord. The document is built on tradeoofs involving three basic elements: prohibitions and constraints; control arrangements; and a process involving the lifting of sanctions on Iran. The final product is a document that is far from clear and perfect, but it is a reasonable, realistic compromise, and on certain points, it’s actually good. It’s a compromise based on the principles and red lines of the two sides, that at the outset many thought would be difficult, maybe even impossible, to stitch together into an agreement. The deal is based on a compromise between principles or interests among which there is tension.

On one hand, the world has forced Iran to agree to significant limitations on its nuclear activity, repairing loopholes in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which Iran exploited in order to build its nuclear program. Even though technologically, if it had wanted to, Iran could have long ago become a nuclear state, it understood that the price for such a step would have been too steep. By limiting its nuclear activity, the agreement enshrines the understanding that a sovereign state such as Iran is not entitled to decide on its own how to interpret the vague prohibitions of the treaty. Ultimately, Iran needs international consent to apply its interpretation of what it can and cannot do with respect to its nuclear activity. The new agreement significantly limits Tehran’s nuclear activity for at least 15 years. One may quibble over the details, but in general, it’s a substantial diplomatic achievement.

On the other hand, the agreement gives legitimacy to Iran’s special nuclear status, which exceeds the status of all of the other non-nuclear signatories to the non-proliferation treaty. It’s true that for 15 to 20 years, Iran won’t be a nuclear threshold state in the precise sense of the term, but it will still have a special legitimate status. Furthermore, in the distant future, Iran will be able to translate its special status into standing as a nuclear threshold state. From the Iranian standpoint, that’s certainly a significant symbolic political achievement.

When it comes to the bottom line, a complex compromise was achieved that from Israel’s standpoint has good and less good elements. Diplomatic wisdom requires Israel, in close coordination with the United States particularly on the intelligence level, to put together a package of understandings that will compensate and balance the problematic and weaker parts of the agreement. If Israel manages to create such a package, it will certainly be able to live with the agreement.

More importantly, there is a much deeper reason why the agreement is good for Israel. It’s good because it contains the potential to drastically change the Israeli agenda and the Israeli condition. After a long period of manipulation of national fears over what has been known as “the Iranian threat,” finally there is the possibility that the issue, and with it the politics of manipulative scare-mongering, will drop off our public agenda. More precisely, the Iranian nuclear issue will remain on the agenda, but it will be dealt with quietly in the professional settings that it deserves.

The removal of the “Iranian threat” can provide a huge positive impact on Israeli politics and on the entire public agenda and quality of life in the country. That perhaps is the real reason why Netanyahu has been whimpering that the accord is a bad one. If the pact works, it could change all of our priorities and force us to deal with Israel’s real pressing issues.

The writer is professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California and author of “Israel and the Bomb.”

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