Faint Praise: Why Israeli Moderates Aren’t Thrilled with the Iran Deal

Originally published on Aug 18th 2015 for The American Prospect

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When diplomats announced a landmark deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program last month, Tehran celebrated in the streets. Jerusalem and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu danced to a more morose tune: he promptly knocked the agreement as a “historic mistake.”

Although the prime minister’s apocalyptic warnings about the Vienna accord may sound hysterical to American liberal ears, even Isaac Herzog, the head of the opposition Labor Party, sounded an awful lot like Netanyahu when he told The Atlantic that the accord “will unleash a lion from the cage, it will have a direct influence over the balance of power in our region, it’s going to affect our borders, and it will affect the safety of my children.” This may seem an odd position for the leader of Israel’s largest left-leaning party to take, but it won’t surprise those who have been watching the country’s mainstream political parties converge for some time, at least on issues of national security.

Parts of the Israeli moderate left give the deal lukewarm support on two grounds. First, people don’t want to jeopardize Israel’s fast-deteriorating relationship with the United States. Second, it seems a possible improvement over the status quo, but few people have illusions that it will bring lasting security.

In one of the numerous cafes that line the streets of Tel Aviv, Ari Shavit, a columnist for the left-leaning daily Haaretz, explained why he has been writing about the threat of a nuclear Iran for years. He devoted a chapter—“Existential Challenge”—to the Islamic state in his 2013 bestseller, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.

Shavit, who favors a two-state solution and writes critically about West Bank settlements, is just the sort of Zionist one might expect to align with the views of a group like J Street—the pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group that supports the Iran deal. But Shavit is a skeptic, and while he applauds parts of the deal as major achievements—including the reduction in uranium stockpiles and centrifuges and the extraction of a commitment from Iran not to build a nuclear weapon—he’s worried about the centrifuges the country will be allowed to keep and is concerned that the verification process may give it space to clandestinely pursue a bomb.

Shavit doesn’t believe Iran will drop a nuclear bomb on Tel Aviv—although he doesn’t completely rule it out—instead he’s bothered about regional proliferation if Iran does eventually go nuclear. “I don’t see any contradiction between being a devoted peacenik and being cautious on the Iran issue,” he told me over a very black coffee. “On the contrary, if god forbid, Iran goes nuclear, that would be the end of peace.”

Shavit’s disquiet on Iran reflects a larger trend in the moderate left. With the exception of individual outliers, it is a journey fairly far from the center of Israeli politics to find a party wholeheartedly endorsing the deal. Zahava Gal-On, chair of Meretz, supports the agreement. But that’s not much: Her once powerful party won only five seats in the recent elections. The Knesset’s third largest party, the Joint Arab List, has also spoken out for the P5+1’s accomplishments. But Arab-Israeli voices are marginalized in Israeli politics—no Arab party has ever been part a coalition government—and even more marginalized on security issues.

The left in Israel is weak and even those who support the deal do so with little enthusiasm. The cynical, or perhaps the realistic, argue that’s why the Zionist Union alliance—Labor plus Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah Party—is cozying up to Netanyahu on Iran. Livni, a centrist and once Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians, told me in no uncertain terms that the diplomats came up with “a bad deal.”

“I believe by making this deal, Iran gets legitimacy as a state that supports terror in the region with its extreme religious ideology,” she said in a phone interview. The former minister of foreign affairs sounded as uneasy about the deal as Netanyahu. “[Iran] is not a political issue here,” she said. “We are talking about Israel’s security, so our position isn’t based on whether we are in the opposition or the coalition.”

The Zionist Union rather, has criticized Netanyahu for jeopardizing Israel’s relationship with the United States. Now that “the train has left the station” on the agreement, Livni argues that Israel should look to strengthen its ties with Washington.

Livni has called for hearings on how Netanyahu is conducting himself. It’s time for Israel and the United States to work with Sunni moderate states in the region, she told me, in order “to delegitimize Iran’s proxies like Hezbollah, and to get legitimacy to act against Hamas and other terrorist [groups].”

Here, Israeli moderates seem to be in agreement, albeit for inconsistent reasons. Shavit believes Israel must tread carefully to maintain—and hopefully improve—the damaged relationship with its traditional ally. “Whatever one thinks about the Vienna accord, Israel must not be seen as the nation stopping it. The decision on this critical issue must be an American one.”

But if the deal is blocked, will anyone doubt Israel’s role in killing it? The Netanyahu government and its allies in AIPAC are going all out to make the U.S. Congress vote it down. Members of Congress have been visiting Jerusalem to hear the government line and Obama told CNN that Netanyahu’s interference in American political affairs is unprecedented for a foreign leader.

Yossi Alpher, an analyst who has been involved in Israeli-Palestinian talks and addressed his country’s relationship with Iran in Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies, also fears Netanyahu is mistaken to mess with American politics. The self-described centrist is backing the deal both because “there is not a better one to be had,” and because he’s afraid the prime minister is “putting the American Jewish community in a position where questions [can potentially be raised] about their loyalty.”

In general, the moderate Israeli voices who support Obama’s deal tend to be pragmatists, rather than enthusiasts. Admiral (res.) Ami Ayalon, former director of Israel’s internal security service Shin Bet, is one of them. Until now, the former Labor Party Knesset member was best known stateside for his participation in The Gatekeepers, a documentary about the agency he led in the late 1990s. His belief that the deal is worthwhile reflects the tempered support of many in the intelligence and security communities. “It’s not a perfect deal,” he told me from his home in northern Israel. But “it is better than the military option and it is better than the status quo,” he added, despite his reservations about what Iran will do with the infusion of cash it will get from sanctions relief. “We are in a way empowering Iran, which is playing a very negative role in the Middle East.”

Ayalon’s measured endorsement is about as much praise as one will find in Israel for the agreement, insomuch as people are even talking about it. Although Iran makes the international news, Israeli politicians and civilians alike are more occupied with a new natural gas deal and high housing prices. Various sources suggest that more Knesset members across the spectrum may cautiously favor the deal, but it isn’t worth putting their heads above the parapet for an issue that won’t even be decided in Israel.

Then there’s the fear—the underlying anxiety about Iran that many Israelis feel, and that their coreligionists in the United States don’t have to face. For Shavit, the difference between American and Israeli progressives comes down to location, location, location. “We are the canary in the mine. It’s closer,” he said. “If anything goes wrong we will be affected first. While America is a huge vessel, Israel is a tiny boat in the rapids. Any mistake we make could soon prove to be fatal.”

Alpher writes a column for Americans for Peace Now’s website, but J Street’s enthusiasm for the deal leaves him cold. “Very few Israelis believe this is a good deal,” he told me. There are Israelis who reluctantly support it, because the profit and loss calculation points to the need to let it go.” But his gut feeling is that Israelis, himself included, feel a sense of resentment that the U.S. “appears to be engaged in a careful rapprochement with Iran, a country that actively targets Israel for destruction.” “This deal,” he continued, “has in effect reminded Israelis of just how isolated we can be.”

Ayalon, too, believes fear plays a major role in the psyche of Israelis on this topic. “For Israelis, at least Jewish people in Israel, it is very easy to play with our fears. It is very easy because of our history,” he said. “Our leaders are competing in describing and empowering the fear,” said the ex-intelligence official, “because it is much easier than to try to create hope by detecting opportunities.”

But if Israelis fear Iran, they may have more to fear if Congress rejects the deal and relations between the two countries reach an all-time low. Shavit wrote late last month that the “consequences will be grave” if Israel is seen to have forced Washington’s hand, as “from that moment forth Israel will become the ‘owner’ of the Iranian file” and blame for anything connected will be placed at Israel’s feet. For his part, Ayalon believes if the deal fails, Israel and the Middle East will be hurdled down a dangerous path: The other signatories may very well go ahead with sanctions relief, not to mention investment in the Islamic Republic, but there will no monitoring process to stop the country from going nuclear.

This warning is echoed by Major General (res.) Amos Yadlin, former head of Israel’s military intelligence and the executive director of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies. Yadlin calls the deal “problematic,” but as he wrote in late July, if the Israeli government manages to obstruct it, “Iran will remain closer to a nuclear bomb in the coming years, and the chances of a collapse of the sanctions regime will be much worse.” And this, for many Israelis, is about as bad as it gets.