The Best Books on the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian Conflicts

Jared Kushner’s speech to several congressional interns has been making the rounds. Also garnering attention is his comment on how to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict:

So the two successes that we’ve had so far is—I don’t know if you’re familiar with the deal we’ve had on the water with the Jordanians and the Israelis and the Palestinians—so I was saying that they’ve talked about in concept for a lot of years where [unintelligible] and we were able to figure out how we were going to negotiate a solution which simply [unintelligible] talking for a very, very long time. But again, that happened just because we’re talking to all sides. We don’t let them get caught in the past.

You know everyone finds an issue, that “You have to understand what they did then” and “You have to understand that they did this.” But how does that help us get peace? Let’s not focus on that. We don’t want a history lesson. We’ve read enough books. Let’s focus on, How do you come up with a conclusion to the situation. That was one thing that we achieved, which we were quite happy about—which is, you know, small thing, but it’s actually a pretty big thing over there. But something that we thought was a pretty big step.

The other thing was working through, in this past week, it really showed us how quickly things can ignite in our history, and you have some people who don’t want to see and achieve an outcome of peace. And other people sometimes thrive in the chaos, and they thrive [unintelligible] and that’s not new to politics and it’s not new to that conflict. It’s just the way it is, and you always have people on all sides [unintelligible].

My point is that these things are very, very combustible and very, very delicate in terms of how you can do, but I think the fact that all these conversations were all done in quiet and nothing leaked out [unintelligible]. But I think we were able to keep things quiet. But I mean, any day something could happen.

So, what do we offer that’s unique? I don’t know … I’m sure everyone that’s tried this has been unique in some ways, but again we’re trying to follow very logically. We’re thinking about what the right end state is, and we’re trying to work with the parties very quietly to see if there’s a solution. And there may be no solution, but it’s one of the problem sets that the president asked us to focus on. So we’re going to focus on it and try to come to the right conclusion in the near future.

The Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts are indeed very difficult to resolve. But Kushner’s shrugging off of previous analyses and efforts and lessons learned (or not learned) is at best an ignorance of what has been said and done about them; has he really read all these books he’s dismissing? Certainly there are a lot of bad books (and bad commentary) on the conflict, but there is a lot of good stuff out there as well.

For Kushner or anyone else who’s interested, here are some very good English-language books to read on the conflict that provide important information on and insights into history, causes, narratives, emotional connections, politics, and goals. There are a lot more, to be sure, including articles and other short pieces. But in the interests of brevity these nicely cover all the ground. They are also among the least partisan or ideological.

Shlomo Avineri. The Making of Modern Zionism: Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State. New York: Basic Books, 1981. Helps explain why Israeli Jews are so attached to the land and why their needs must be accounted for.

Ian J. Bickerton and Carla L. Klausner. A History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 7th ed. New York: Routledge, 2015. Balanced overview of the entire history of the conflict, with lots of extra but interesting details.

Neil Caplan. The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Contested Histories. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Good summary of the positions and sensitivities of various actors in the conflict.

Alan Dowty. Israel/Palestine, 3rd ed. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012. Very good overview of narratives and histories of both sides.

Rashid Khalidi. Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. Helps explain why Palestinians are so attached to the land and why their needs must be accounted for.

Fred J. Khouri. The Arab-Israeli Dilemma, 3rd ed. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1985. An overview of the Arab position in the conflict.

Dan Kurzman. Genesis 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War. Cleveland, Ohio: The World Publishing Company, 1970. Multiple first-person accounts of the war, which helped lay the foundation for the contemporary condition.

Daniel C. Kurtzer, Scott B. Lasensky, William B. Quandt, Steven L. Spiegel, and Shibley Z. Telhami. The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace, 1989-2011. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013. Detailed examination of the American role in a specific period and lessons to be learned from lack of ultimate success.

Benny Morris. Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001, 2nd ed. New York: Vintage Books, 2001. Detailed history that highlights atrocities committed by both sides.

William B. Quandt. Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1967, 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2005. Good summary of American efforts to resolve the conflicts.

Paul Scham, Walid Salem, and Benjamin Pogrund. Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue. New York: Routledge, 2016. A collaborative collection of thoughtful essays by people involved in the conflict, providing a nuanced discussion.

Gershon Shafir. Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914, updated ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. On the land question.

Mark Tessler. A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. Very detailed history.

 

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Diaspora Jews Won’t Force Netanyahu to Pay Any Price

The idea that the non-Orthodox segments of American Jewry—however incensed it is—will force Israel to pay a price for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cancellation of the Western Wall compromise is unfounded. Rather, a convergence of factors makes the bulk of the American Jewish community unwilling to put material pressure on Netanyahu. And since Netanyahu responds only to actual threats to his position, this means he can continue to thumb his nose at diaspora Jewry and focus on his own priorities: remaining in power and maintaining the status quo—with some increases in settlements—in the West Bank.

First, most American Jews do not donate funds or direct their political activity to Israel, but to specific ideological, cultural, religious, or policy causes in Israel close to their hearts. As Theodore Sasson, a prominent researcher of American Jewry, has noted, 78% of Jewish Federations’ campaign fundraising was allocated directly to Israel in 1967; that percentage fell to 23% in 2004. Funds have increasingly been oriented toward local Jewish communities. Filling the gap, today there are several “friends of” groups that direct their activities to, for example, universities, liberal causes, or the Israeli military. Orthodox and conservative Jews focus their donations on West Bank settlements or their religious kin.

Second, the Western Wall controversy is not a crisis in diaspora-Israel relations. To see what a real crisis looks like, one needs to go back to the “who is a Jew”? disputes of the 1980s and early 1990s. While Israel’s understanding of Jew uses both a religious (Orthodox rabbinical authorities control personal status issues in Israel) and a non-religious (the Law of Return allows for any Jew to become an Israeli citizen but there is no reference to religious determination) foundation, it also recognizes conversations to Judaism performed abroad. Jewish Orthodox parties have tried for decades to enshrine the religious definition—born to a Jewish mother or converted under Orthodox standards—in Israeli law.

In 1988 the Orthodox parties pushed for an amendment in the Law of Return that would stipulate Orthodox-approved conversions. What made such change more likely (it did not ultimately pass) was that in the aftermath of an election, Likud and Labor were jostling for support of the Orthodox parties and so trying to entice them with promises to pass (Likud) or review (Labor) such legislation. For American Jewry there was a real chance the status quo would change, which would directly affect American Jews who wanted to move to Israel. The scrapping of the Western Wall compromise means a return to the status quo, and does not materially affect diaspora Jews.

Yet as tense as those moments were, American Jews quickly rallied around Israeli governments and put aside their misgivings. They did so because events quickly became more important than intra-Jewish disputes: the First Intifada in 1987, the Oslo process in the mid to late 1990s, and the Second Intifada in 2000.

Third, American Jews are increasingly fractured in their attitudes toward Israel. But while criticisms of Israel by prominent Jewish leaders and headlines by an assertive grassroots movement against both the occupation of Palestine and the policies of the Netanyahu governments make it seem as though American Jewry is on the verge of breaking with Israel, the majority of American Jews want no such thing.

According to a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center, 66% of American Jews think security is Israel’s biggest long-term problem. In practice this has meant American Jews rally around Israel when its safety is under threat. This is what happened in 1967, 1990, 2000, and during the Gaza wars of 2008-09, 2012, and 2014. In such moments diaspora criticism of Israel was muted or shouted down within the community.

None of the national Jewish organizations that consider themselves Zionist and are usually labeled “pro-Israel” want such a break, either. While they might disagree with and even publicly critique Israel on specific issues, advocacy that supports the existence of a Jewish state is part of their mandates—even the essence of their existence.

These reasons indicate that Israel under Netanyahu is unlikely to consider warm relations with American Jewry as a priority. The Islamic State, the Syrian war, the continuing Iranian threat, among other security concerns, are of much more immediate concern. In addition, Netanyahu and his rightwing government are keenly interested in either precluding the establishment of a Palestinian state or continuing to avoid negotiations that could lead substantively toward such an end—both policies that the non-Orthodox American Jewish population generally opposes.

Finally, political trends in Israel suggest that the left is not likely to win power in the near future. The right and the center, which leans right, are too strong.

The spate of illiberal bills and laws that Netanyahu has promoted, facilitated, or let pass combined with the breaking of the Wall compromise are proof that American Jews have less power over Israeli policy even on issues of great importance to them. Without an alternative to Netanyahu or his government, they have little leverage over either.

Trump, Obama, and Israel

So much has happened in the last days of the Obama presidency regarding Israel-Palestine, much of it including Donald Trump, that it’s sometimes feels hard to keep up. I’ve had a few pieces out trying to analyze different elements of what this process of transition from Obama to Trump means for American Jews and for Israel. I’ve put excerpts of them below.

Monkey Cage:

Here I lay out why Jerusalem’s status is so difficult to resolve, and therefore why Trump’s claim that he’ll move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is problematic.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has resisted resolution for decades. But Trump has insisted that “a deal is a deal” and that because he is “a negotiator,” he will be successful where others were not. In this case, presumably Trump plans to offer the Palestinians compensation to accept Israel’s claims to Jerusalem.

But it is not that simple.

The “let’s make a deal” approach assumes that each negotiating party has a series of material things that can be traded off. In this approach, both sides understand they will be better off with more than they currently have.

But that doesn’t apply to a place like Jerusalem.

Follow the link for more.

Texas Jewish Post:

Here I argue that Donald Trump, his team’s, and the American Jewish right’s ideas regarding Israel should worry American Jews. This is because they are trying to define what constitutes being Jewish as being all about Israel. Because this is a rightwing version, criticisms of Israel and dissent from its government’s policies are cast as heretical and anti-Israel. It also means domestic concerns that matter to US Jews, particularly social policies, are pushed aside in favor of a focus on Israel. But being Jewish in the diaspora is about much more than Israel.

The National Interest:

Ilan Goldenberg and I argue that Barack Obama’s abstention from UN Security Council resolution 2334 and John Kerry’s last speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were both quite reasonable, and should not be considered a betrayal of Israel. We conclude:

Contrary to claims that President Obama has, in his final days in office, engaged in an unprecedented betrayal, the United States has voted for or abstained on Security Council resolutions critical of Israel under every administration since 1967. The 2016 abstention represented a reasonable approach to one obstacle to peace while the Obama administration’s other policies over the past eight years – captured and updated in the Kerry speech – reflect a deep commitment to Israel’s security and reaffirmed Israel’s and Palestine’s right to exist together side-by-side in peace and security.

Read our full explanation.

Haaretz:

Finally, here I set out what I think is an over-looked element of the American-Israeli relationship: There’s nothing automatic or inherent about its closeness. Indeed, the relationship has grown closer over time due to domestic changes in both countries and shifts in international politics. That means, though, that as these conditions change again, the relationship can grow more distant. I think that’s what is happening now. I think it will remain strong, certainly for the near future, and there is no way to predict what it will look like in 10 or 20 years. But I do think we are witnessing a shift at this moment.

The Israeli government’s commitments to the settlement enterprise – discussed also in the National Interest piece – are a big part of this:

What has changed is that the international community now firmly opposes the settlement enterprise, and is willing to push Israel hard on them. UN Resolution 2334, for example, explicitly calls on the world to “to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.”

Any Israeli government that promotes settlements will find itself increasingly isolated on this issue in world opinion and in international institutions. Israel’s domestic politics reinforce that type of government. The country’s electorate has shifted to the right. It’s not a permanent move. But the lack of a viable leftwing alternative to the political right and to Mr. Netanyahu specifically has facilitated the dominance of the nationalist right. That segment of the political class is committed to expanding settlements. Any international effort to push Israel to end that enterprise is a threat to both the right’s political position and to its deeply held beliefs.

Here is the full piece.

 

Peres, Nuclear Weapons, and Avoiding Responsibility

One of the arguments put forward by those criticizing Shimon Peres’ legacy as well as excusing Arab leaders’ decision not to attend his funeral focuses on Peres’ critical role in developing Israel’s nuclear arsenal. This includes the leader of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, who gave as one of his reasons for not paying his respects to Peres as, among other things, “strong opposition in Arab society to the architect of the occupation who introduced nukes to the Middle East.”

The argument is at best tendentious, and dismisses the context in which Peres operated at the time.

Along with David Ben-Gurion and Ernst Bergmann, Peres was the primary architect of Israel’s nuclear program. He was also the main driver of the French-Israeli alliance in the 1950s and 1960s. He also launched the creation of the country’s defense industry, promoted the development of Israeli technology, and laid the foundation for the shift from a socialist to a free market economy, which contributed to further developments in defense and high tech.

All of this makes Peres one of the giants in Israeli history; he developed and strengthened the country, making it the secure and prosperous state it is today. But I don’t see how it makes him unfit to be remembered and grieved.

For Israeli leaders in the 1950s and 1960s, the Holocaust was a real event. By the 1967 war Israel had engaged in 2 major wars with its neighbors (1948 and 1956), and was under constant attack from Palestinian guerillas and terrorists. Israeli reprisal raids and efforts to undermine the capacity of its enemies to attack broadened the scope of the violence. In addition, Arab leaders were consistently threatening Israel not only with attack but with destruction.

To claim that Israeli leaders at the time should have dismissed these attacks and threats as un-implementable or easily fended off is to apply today’s conditions to that period. It also assumes Israeli leaders had perfect information, could accurately assess the outcomes of their actions all the time, and could predict whether nuclear weapons would or would not come to the region without Israel’s own nuclear program. In fact, Israeli leaders and others did debate amongst themselves many of these issues; but the decision to move forward with a nuclear program was ultimately made as the safest course of action.

In addition, the claim that Peres’ introduction of nuclear weapons to the Middle East means he should be remembered poorly also assumes, without evidence, that the decision to do so was made with malicious intent.

One can certainly criticize the decision, and consider what did in fact occur in the wake of the nuclear program. But to contend that it was, without qualification, the wrong decision is ahistorical and decontextualized and therefore any conclusions drawn from that decision are skewed and misleading.

Finally, to also claim that Peres’ efforts to protect his people, which did not involve attacking or repressing other people, mean he is undeserving of last respects is just an excuse to avoid making hard choices about coexistence. That, of course, says much more about those making the excuse than it does about Peres.

New Book on Israeli Politics

Harold Waller and I have co-authored a text on Israeli Politics, due out with Oxford University Press in February 2016. The Politics of Israel: Governing a Complex Society serves as an introduction to the topic, and covers a wide range of issues and areas, including the impact of Zionism on Israel’s political culture, religion in politics, the politics of the Arab minority, interest groups and public protest, and debates over the meaning of Israel as a Jewish state.

Don’t Be So Quick To Count AIPAC Out

Given AIPAC’s prominent role in the fight against the Iran deal, questions have already been raised about the impact of its defeat—it won’t convince enough Democratic members of Congress to vote against the agreement—on its influence in DC. It’s a perhaps inevitable question to ask, but the answer should be obvious: the effect will be minimal. The influence of interest groups like AIPAC can’t be measured by a single political fight.

It was never likely that AIPAC could derail the deal in Congress. Presidents are the dominant players in the making of foreign policy. When they are committed to a specific policy, there is little that can push them back. Since the mid-twentieth century Congress and the Supreme Court have generally accepted that preeminent role.

So AIPAC was starting at a disadvantage. Add to that the fact that this Democratic President sees the Iran accord as his signature piece of foreign policy, and the chance of lining up Democratic Senators and Representatives became even slimmer.

The incline was made steeper by the fact that a lot of security and nuclear proliferation experts—both in the United States and in Israel—contended that the deal wasn’t so bad, or was good enough to build on. This made the case for opposing it weaker.

Nobody with any experience in DC who drops their ideological blinders thinks that under these conditions, a failure to gather enough opposition votes means AIPAC is losing influence.

More important is the fact that AIPAC is embedded in the policymaking system. That’s what gives it influence, not its wins or losses in specific cases. It’s the fundamentals of participation that matter.

AIPAC’s ability to influence Congress stems from Israel’s place in the political game, and the conflation (as inaccurate as it is) between Israel and American Jewry. Jewish voters are concentrated in key electoral districts; public sympathy and support for Israel is consistently high, and politicians don’t pick unnecessary fights; Republicans have for the last few presidential cycles worked under the assumption that US Jews are about to migrate en masse to their party; and both Democrats and Republicans think taking a position on Israeli security wins Jewish votes.

Elected officials are open to hearing the ideas of an organization claiming to represent the Jewish community on Israel-related issues. AIPAC officials regularly participate in the writing of bills that touch on the American-Israeli relationship, even if indirectly (such as aid to third parties in the region).

AIPAC officials and board members have regular access to politicians and their staff. AIPAC-approved donors are courted during election campaigns.

So to judge the influence of AIPAC, or any lobby group, look to its daily operations and to policy outcomes over time. On the most important issues that define its mandate, such as military aid to Israel and a close American-Israeli relationship, AIPAC “wins” all the time. Partly that’s because the issues are easy for politicians to endorse, and partly because AIPAC has successfully built its capacity over time.

AIPAC picked a losing issue to spend its money on this time. But nobody in Congress is going to ignore AIPAC when it comes to thinking about the next foreign aid bill or funding for an Israeli anti-missile system. Nobody is going to refuse an invitation to its annual policy conference. Nobody did any of these things after previous defeats to American presidents on specific issues.

Where AIPAC might be constrained is the growth of other Jewish advocacy organizations making claims on the community’s resources and representation and intensifying divisions within the community at large. The fight over the Iran deal might represent an example of how this process play out, but it’s not a cause of it.

These divisions are related not just to expanding fractures in the community across religious, denominational, political, and generational lines, but also due to changes in Israel itself. The community’s once-famous ability to mobilize in support of Israel during moments of crisis is declining as individuals and specialized organizations now donate to and work on behalf of specific social, religious, or political issues in Israel that fit with their narrow mandates.

This is a long term process. We need more time, and more political fights, before the outcome becomes clear.

On AIPAC and Lobbying

AIPAC’s prominent role in the fight against the Iran deal has, unsurprisingly, led to increased attention about its advocacy activities. Those who support the deal, and oppose AIPAC’s own position against the deal, have made some inaccurate or misleading claims about its activities. The crudest simply argue that AIPAC is a foreign agent and is looking out only for Israel.

But the more sophisticated have tried to draw a connection between AIPAC’s stance on the Iraq War and the Iran deal. That is, they claim AIPAC lobbied in favor of the war, and so cannot be trusted to make smart policy arguments today.

But there’s no evidence that AIPAC did lobby for the invasion of Iraq. The claim is supported only by statements by AIPAC leaders and others (sometimes second hand) that they lobbied. But while those seeking to undermine AIPAC’s arguments credit these few statements as truth, they ignore statements by other AIPAC people saying the exact opposite. That’s selection bias.

Moreover, some of these statements aren’t explicit acknowledgement of actual lobbying, but hypotheticals and qualified “we might do so.” One should also note that lobby groups prefer to play up their credentials and their successes; power is partly perception, especially in a place like D.C.

Finally, this is D.C. we’re talking about. People meet other people all the time, and talk about policy and political issues all the time, sharing ideas and information. That’s perfectly normal, but it’s not lobbying.

I’ve yet to see any actual evidence of lobbying. This might include specific meetings or strategy documents about lobbying, a chronological discussion of a politician changing her mind on the invasion of Iraq after a series of meetings with AIPAC officials or board members, or highlighting the same language used by AIPAC on a potential Iraq invasion in a Congressional resolution or some other official policy document.

Without any of this, claims about AIPAC and the Iraq war are at best uninformed, at worst conspiratorial. Surely a serious public debate about an important foreign policy like the Iran deal deserves much more than either of those.

Danny Danon at the UN

There is no doubt that the appointment of Danny Danon as Israel’s next ambassador to the United Nations is a bad move. Danon is belligerent, uninterested in hearing alternative views about issues he cares about, and exhibits a disdain for the international community, which he seems to think is generally hostile to Israel. He is a member of Israel’s younger generation of secular ultra-nationalists, and as such is unapologetic about anything Israel does. He is also staunchly opposed to a Palestinian state.

All of that is fine for Israel’s domestic arena, particularly in the current political climate. But it’s highly problematic for an envoy to the world’s premier multilateral body—one dominated by countries that already view Israel’s international policy with skepticism and support a Palestinian state. At a time when his prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ticked off much of the international community (partly on the basis of policy, partly because people like to dislike Netanyahu) even while concern over Israel’s occupation is transforming into active policies against it, Danon is not the man to repair Israel’s relations with the outside world.

The thing is, it doesn’t matter all that much. Netanyahu, and most of his government, already views the world as at best indifferent, at worst inimical to Israel. That’s doubly true of the United Nations specifically. Netanyahu’s policy on settlements and on Israeli control over the West Bank isn’t going to change. The best chance of that—the John Kerry talks—has passed and won’t come around again.

While Netanyahu does care what other governments think, I think he prefers direct diplomacy to public pressure. The only place where he is willing to use public diplomacy is in America, where he thinks he can sway public opinion to his side. He doesn’t think he’ll be able to sway public sentiments in Europe, Africa, or Asia. Trade and direct humanitarian aid in the latter two places are more likely to matter than speeches at the United Nations.

The days when Israel could change minds in the General Assembly are gone, probably by the 1980s if not earlier. And even then Israel needed the help of the United States and other allies to help persuade others.

Today Netanyahu has pushed many of Israel’s traditional allies away. At the same time his settlement building and public statements overshadow anything his UN ambassador might say. Danon’s predecessor, Ron Prosor, was far more articulate and sympathetic, and yet even he couldn’t do much for Israel’s case.

Danon might be able to push Israel’s interests further in the quieter interactions that take place out of the spotlight of the General Assembly. He certainly won’t be deterred by polite rejections and brush-offs. But even here Danon is up against a wall of concern about Israeli policy, and he simply can’t allay those concerns because he doesn’t view these policies as problematic. If anything, they aren’t forceful enough for him. I mean policy regarding the expansion of Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, toward Hamas in Gaza, toward Iran, and so on.

Maybe Danon’s views about the occupation, about the UN, and about the world have changed, and maybe they haven’t. It doesn’t matter. Even Abba Eban would have trouble making Israel’s case at the UN today.

Tehran’s Post-Deal Rhetoric

Guest post by James Devine:

Everyone expected the vitriolic reaction to the Iran nuclear deal from the Republicans and Benjamin Netanyahu. The rhetoric coming out of Iran, however, is less easily understood. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, recently tweeted a picture of what appeared to be Barak Obama with a gun to his own head. He also claimed that Iran’s hostility toward the US was unabated and that the deal needed to be examined very carefully before it was accepted, suggesting his support was in doubt. Similarly, Ali Jaffari, the head of the powerful Republican Guard, claimed the deal crossed several of Iran’s red lines and was therefore unacceptable.

It is not surprising that there was some hardline opposition to the deal in Tehran. A segment of the political elite prefers to maintain an ideologically driven confrontational policy toward the West no matter what the economic and diplomatic cost. Iran’s current moderate president also has political enemies who would rather see the deal fail than allow their adversary to score a political victory. Nevertheless, Khamenei is the dominant figure in Iranian politics and if he approves the deal, it would be very difficult for Rouhani’s opponents to attack it too vigorously without seeming to be challenging his authority. There is little doubt that Khamenei was well briefed throughout the negotiating process, and he made it clear on numerous occasions that the negotiating team had his support. While it is possible that he was not aware of a few details before the deal was signed, it is not likely that there was anything so unexpected in the deal that he would change his position. Indeed, Jaffari had also given his support to the draft framework earlier. So why the change in heart?

Part of the reason is Iran’s complex and tumultuous political system. Khamenei is the most powerful figure in the state, but he guards his political capital jealously. He has traditionally avoided getting too closely associated with any one of Iran’s political factions for fear of alienating the others. He has only broken this pattern under the most extreme circumstances, such as the 2009 election unrest. This allows him to maximize his political influence and maintain the stability of the political system. Khamenei’s current rhetoric can therefore be seen as consistent with his leadership style. He could push the deal through if he wanted to, but it would mean snubbing his traditional power base among the conservatives, and moving closer to Rouhani and his pragmatist-Green party supporters, whom he does not trust. Moreover, if the deal does get blocked in Congress, or somehow breaks down later, it is better for Khamenei that the deal is seen specifically as Rouhani’s work. That way its failure would be a black mark on the President’s resume, not his. Therefore, distancing himself from the deal, at least a little, makes good political sense.

The rhetoric is also likely a response to the debate taking place in the US. With the deal under attack, the Obama Administration has defended it by saying the US can reapply the pressure on Tehran whenever it wants, and bring the Islamic Republic to heel. Khamenei therefore needs to send a message back to Washington: Tehran cannot be bullied. At the same time, it is also a message for the Iranian people. The regime may have compromised with the Great Satan, but it has not lost its teeth.

It is possible that the rhetoric is a sign that the deal is in serious trouble in Iran, as some have suggested. The spiral of inflammatory rhetoric continues to escalate, it could reach such a point that Khamenei feels he has to disavow the deal to protect his own position. However, it is more probable that the rhetoric will have an impact on the US side, where no one will want to look soft on Iran lest they weaken their position for the upcoming presidential elections. In all likelihood though, the deal will be ratified in both countries. Obama still has a veto over congressional overview, and Khamenei would probably not have let the process get so far if he did not really want to have a deal in place.

The real problem is likely to be further down the road. Indeed, the rhetoric we are experiencing now is likely just a taste of what there is to come. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is a complex document. As it is put in practice, there will be debates at each step about what was agreed upon and how it must be implemented. Both sides will fight strenuously to protect their interests and demonstrate resolve. If the rhetorical posturing grows too intense, one side or the other may decide that they no longer have a negotiating partner, or that the domestic costs of the agreement are too high.

Bargaining always involves both carrots and sticks. It would be unrealistic to hope for no rhetoric or posturing, or for either side to make concessions without the threat of punishment at least implied. However it is essential that both parties recognize the complex dynamics behind the other’s signaling, and understand the underlying meaning. They must also realize their own rhetoric and coercive threats strengthen hardliners on the other side, and force their negotiating partners to respond in kind. Carrots and sticks therefore need to be carefully calibrated.

Rouhani and Obama have been able to manage these dynamics so far, something few people would have predicted as recently as 2013. If the deal is to survive, there is 10-15 years of more work ahead.

On Iran, Don’t Just Blame Bibi

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to stop the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. He just doesn’t know it yet. That’s dangerous for Israel, because it undermines Israel’s ability to react proactively to the agreement, putting the ball in Iran’s court to carry or drop.

But while observers love to blame Netanyahu for Israel’s foreign policy problems, they should also hold Israel’s Jewish opposition parties accountable for their role in Israel’s unwillingness to address the aftermath of the deal. Not only have they consistently failed to challenge Netanyahu on his foreign policies and to propose new ideas for dealing with a resurgent Iran, but they have actively supported his claims.

It’s understandable why Netanyahu holds to his position. He believes in the biblical maxim that Israel is a “nation that dwells alone,” and that the world is a hostile place for Jews and for Israel—and always will be. So the deal is only one event in a long line of iniquities the Jews have suffered their entire existence. Most members of his government share this worldview.

But we should expect Israel’s Jewish opposition parties to hold a different view; at a minimum they should at least challenge Netanyahu for political gain. While crass, this would still mean a public debate on a security issue of critical importance. Instead they have failed to put forward any alternate proposals for reacting to the agreement, compounding the government’s failures with their own.

Their silence is all the more striking given that several former and serving security officials have publicly stated that the deal, while not perfect, does contribute to Israel’s security and can serve as the core element of a broader regional strategy. Israeli public opinion is also skeptical but there are hints of tolerance for the deal. The foundation for a challenge to the prevailing mindset is there; but no-one is opening their eyes to it.

Instead they’ve hewed to Netanyahu’s line. Yair Lapid, leader of the center-right Yesh Atid party, has criticized the prime minister’s handling of the crisis, but he committed to “fighting to the last minute so that the whole world and the US Congress understand that lifting sanctions without changing the issue of inspections would be wrong.”

Avigdor Liberman, of Yisrael Beiteinu, repeated the Netanyahu line and called the deal “a total surrender to terrorism.”

Labor leader Isaac Herzog even decided to travel to Washington to convince the Obama Administration that the deal is a terrible one and should be re-negotiated. It’s hard to avoid the impression that the leader of the main opposition party is acting as Netanyahu’s personal envoy. This might be appropriate during wartime, but it’s hardly suitable as a reaction against an international treaty.

The reason for their submission is that most of them, with the exception of the leftwing Meretz, are competing for the same electorate. They think there is no room in the public’s mind for a different position on Iran.

Surveys seem to bear their concerns out. On political and security issues, 29.1 percent of the Israeli public identifies as “right,” while 20.7 percent identity as “moderate right,” 23.9 percent as “center” and only 8.3 percent as “moderate left.” Also, 45 percent of the Jewish public identifies to varying degrees with the national religious camp in Israel—the sector of the population that is more nationalist, more rightist, and more suspicious of the outside world.

The proliferation of smaller, centrist parties in 2000s and the Labor Party’s shift toward the center has intensified the competition for these voters. Given these voters’ skepticism toward the Palestinians, Obama, and most of all Iran, the parties believe they need to avoid saying anything that might be construed as positive about these issues.

Only Meretz head Zahava Gal-On has unconditionally taken Netanyahu to task. But her party is marginalized within Israeli Jewish politics. Only 7.8 percent of Israeli Jews identify as “left” and therefore would be likely supporters. In the 2015 election Meretz received only 3.93 percent of the vote, barely above the 3.25 percent threshold for entry into the Knesset. She is considered naïve on foreign policy, too.

But looking at surveys tells only one part of the story. A broader view suggests that there is space to present different ideas. Historically, on major issues of security and peace, the Israeli public has followed its leaders. Even when polls indicate Israelis oppose a particular policy, once the government decides to pursue it, support increases—particularly when the prime ministers works to sell it.

This was true of the Yitzhak Rabin’s Oslo Accords and the major concessions it entailed to the Palestine Liberation Organization, and it was true of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza.

This “follow the leader” position stems from the country’s history. Its precarious security situation for the first two decades of its existence facilitated a trust in and tolerance for secretive government decisions, without public debate. While that has diminished over time, Israelis have retained their sense that government decisions necessarily should be supported in major security decisions outside of war. Israel’s wars have, since the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, increasingly been challenged by its citizens.

With Israel’s Jewish opposition parties accepting Netanyahu’s limits on the terms of the public debate over the JCPOA, Iran is free to react as it pleases. Its ability to expand its regional activities and its influence is its own to lose. It seems most of Israel’s leaders have forgotten the ultimate purpose of Zionism: for the Jews to exert their own agency, rather than be subject to history.