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.

Bibi’s Not in Trouble

For all the talk that Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t want to be the one to walk away from peace talks, that he fears the global campaign of delegitimization of Israel, and of the dire consequences of failure for Israel, Bibi’s not in any real trouble at the current impasse (assuming it really is an impasse) in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at this point. He can coast on the status quo, I think, for some time to come. Indeed, his balking at the release of the fourth group of Palestinian prisoners indicates he thinks there’s room to do so.

I’ve argued before that Bibi is a pragmatic opportunist. He prefers the status quo but everything about his temperament, his history, and his politics demonstrate that he’ll move if pushed. But that push has to be serious, and it has to come from outside as well as from within the country.

Thus far the external pressure in talks has been pretty mild. John Kerry has bent over backwards to accommodate Bibi’s demands, seemingly working to get Bibi’s approval of an issue or proposal first before then taking it to the Palestinians for discussion. There doesn’t appear to have been any serious sticks applied to the Israeli delegation (though to be sure, we do not have a lot of information about the specifics of the negotiations), but there have been a lot of carrots—the Jewish state demand, Israel’s position on the Jordan Valley.

Whether it’s because President Obama is distracted by other events, because he doesn’t think he has the necessary domestic political capital, or because Kerry believes the key to genuine progress lies with Bibi rather than with Abbas, the Americans have simply been unwilling to bring the necessary pressure to bear.

On the domestic front, Bibi is doing well. The rebels in Likud who have been consistently challenging him on policy have not gotten anywhere. They haven’t been able to take control over the party’s governing institutions, and they haven’t been able to stop the talks or the prisoner releases (though it seems some movement on the latter issue is growing). Former Shas member Haim Amsalem has now joined Likud, and while it seems to be because he had nowhere else to go, the move still demonstrates the importance of Likud in Israeli politics. Recent polling has the electoral list of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu gaining a few seats.

More importantly, the left still does not pose a serious electoral challenge to Bibi. It hasn’t presented an alternate message, and there doesn’t seem to be a coherent strategy to create one. In fact, Labor leader Isaac Herzog, for all the talk of him being able to present a more serious threat to Bibi than Shelly Yachimovich, seems to be agreeing more with Bibi’s bargaining positions than Shelly ever did. His main argument is that he doesn’t think Bibi is willing to go all the way to a peace deal. It’s not a message the electorate can rally around.

Of course a lot can happen to disrupt things and generate pressure on Bibi: a breakdown in talks over Iran’s nuclear program, a sudden uptick in Israeli-Palestinian violence. But these are unplanned developments rather than carefully thought out policies designed to bring the conflict to a resolution. That’s not an effective strategy for such an important issue.