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.

Why Netanyahu is bickering with the Obama Administration over Iran and Why Israel won’t attack Iran

I’ve been asked a lot lately about why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is arguing with the Obama Administration over its policy towards Iran’s nuclear program and whether Israel is likely to carry out a unilateral military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, so here’s my brief analysis:

The Netanyahu government believes that diplomatic negotiations and economic sanctions have failed to halt or slow down Iran’s nuclear program and that time is rapidly running out to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability, which it sees as an existential threat to Israel.  Prime Minister Netanyahu is therefore losing patience with the Obama Administration’s diplomatic approach, which he never really thought would succeed in the first place.  Now he is trying to use the run-up to the US election to pressure President Obama to make an explicit commitment to take future military action against Iran if it crosses a certain “red line” (Netanyahu has not publicly specified what the “red line” should be, but Israel basically wants to prevent Iran from producing large amounts of highly enriched uranium in a location invulnerable to a military strike).  In doing so, Netanyahu wants to box Obama in if he is reelected by getting him to make a public promise that he will have to keep.  The Obama administration, on the other hand, is refusing to set a “red line” because it wants to keep all its options open and give more time for diplomacy and sanctions to work.  It is very reluctant to carry out a military attack against Iran and doesn’t want to be pressured by Israel into promising to do this.

The coming US presidential election means that the Obama Administration desperately wants to prevent Israel from striking Iran before November since such an attack would probably lead to a sharp spike in oil prices severely affecting the American economy and produce major turmoil in the Middle East and beyond, risking American lives.  These negative consequences of an Israeli strike could easily jeopardize Obama’s prospects to win re-election.  The Obama Administration is also well aware of the fact that most Americans currently oppose a US or Israeli military strike against Iran.  American public opinion is primarily concerned with the US economy, especially continued high unemployment, and the last thing Americans want right now is to get involved in another war in the Middle East.  The Obama Administration’s approach to Iran is basically in line with US public opinion, so it would be politically foolish to change this approach in the run-up to an election.

American opposition to a unilateral Israeli strike is probably the biggest factor preventing Israel from attacking Iran, but it is not the only one. Israeli public opinion is also opposed to a unilateral Israeli strike and so is most of Israel’s military and intelligence establishment.  Even Netanyahu’s own government ministers, particularly the members of his security cabinet—which is responsible for authorizing any Israeli military action—are divided on the wisdom of Israel attacking Iran against the wishes of the United States.  Thus, although it is certainly not out of the question that Israel will eventually choose to go-it-alone and carry out a unilateral strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities given Prime Minister Netanyahu’s expressed fears about Iran’s nuclear program, my assessment is that it is unlikely to happen because Netanyahu simply does not have the necessary domestic and international support for this.  Despite all his bombastic rhetoric, Netanyahu is ultimately very constrained in what he can do vis-à-vis Iran.  Indeed, that may well be why he has become so frustrated about the Obama Administration’s ‘wait-and-see’ policy on Iran and its refusal to support an Israeli military strike or pledge to take military action itself.

In sum, therefore, Netanyahu is trying to push Obama to commit to taking military action against Iran in the future, and Obama is pushing back against this.  So far, Obama appears to be winning this latest tug-of-war.