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Analysis

With Iran deal in the bag, what’s Israel to do now?

After the blame game, Jerusalem needs to decide whether to lobby Congress to kill the agreement, or make what might be more realistic demands

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of the United States Congress in the House chamber at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on Tuesday, March 3, 2015, in a speech warning against the then-looming US-backed deal with Iran. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of the United States Congress in the House chamber at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on Tuesday, March 3, 2015, in a speech warning against the then-looming US-backed deal with Iran. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

If the Iran deal announced Tuesday has any silver lining, from an Israeli perspective, it is that a usually bitterly divided country is joining hands in rejecting it. In unfamiliar unison, both the coalition and opposition are denouncing the agreement the six world powers struck with the Islamic Republic, lamenting that it will allow Iran to become a legitimate threshold nuclear state within the foreseeable future.

Even before she learned the details of the deal, MK Tzipi Livni spoke on Tuesday morning of a “dramatic day.”

While almost everyone in Israel considers this agreement supremely dangerous (though not necessarily an existential threat), politicians and pundits will spend the next few days arguing about whose fault it is and what should be done now that it’s a done deal.

One question that will undoubtedly arise is whether a different outcome would have been possible had the government acted more wisely. No one denies that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deserves much credit for bringing the Iranian threat to the world’s attention, and by threatening military action spurred the international community to establish an unprecedented sanctions regime. But some argue that his confrontational style in opposing the deal — so publicly differing with the US administration — maneuvered Israel into a corner, not giving it any chance to impact the ongoing negotiations.

“It’s on him. It’s his name,” said MK Yair Lapid last week, calling for Netanyahu’s resignation. “His approach led not only the United States but also the other five powers involved in the negotiations — China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany — not to take into account Israel’s concerns over the deal, concerns which are right and justified.” Opposition leader Isaac Herzog echoed these thoughts on Monday.

Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich on Tuesday went as far as stating that the prime minister’s approach to the US vis-a-vis Iran was an “utter failure” that will “yet be taught in history text books.”

One can indeed argue about whether the prime minister’s strategy was helpful. Maybe Israel could have slightly improved the terms of the deal had it worked through quiet diplomatic channels rather than constantly scorning the world powers as they negotiated with Iran, as Netanyahu and his men did for the last few months.

But that’s not guaranteed.

“I’m not a fan of prime minister, but the Iranian nuclear program was not a political issue. It’s not sure that if he had acted differently the deal would have been better,” said Yoel Guzansky, who used to worked on the Iranian threat at the National Security Council. “Maybe Israel could have had more influence in the talks, but it’s impossible to say whether that would have led to a better result.”

At the end of the day, both the P5+1 world powers and the Iranians wanted a deal, and thus Israel’s ability to avert the outcome was hamstrung from the outset, explained Guzansky, today a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

The Americans are far away from the Middle East, and President Barack Obama was keen on chalking up at least one victory in the region, where everything else he touched failed, he suggested. The Iranians also badly wanted an agreement badly, as they’re increasingly suffering from the sanctions and can now look forward to a legitimate nuclear program.

Officials wait for a meeting with diplomats from P5+1, the European Union and Iran at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel March 31, 2015 in Lausanne. (photo credit: AFP/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/POOL)
Officials wait for a meeting with diplomats from the P5+1 powers, the EU and Iran, Hotel March 31, 2015 in Lausanne. (AFP/Brendan Smialowski/Pool)

By vocally opposing the deal, Israel made plain that it is not bound by the agreement and thus maintains the right to act militarily against Iran’s nuclear facilities, former national security advisor Yaakov Amidror claimed Tuesday. In hindsight it’s always easy to say a different policy would have been smarter, he told Army Radio, “but it’s impossible to verify such arguments and therefore they can’t be taken seriously.”

Likud voters occasionally call Netanyahu a magician (for winning election after election) but preventing this deal might have been really impossible.

“Even if Israeli statecraft in everything relating to Iran had been as good as human minds can make it, I have doubts whether it would have made the difference,” Yehezkel Dror, a former adviser to several Israeli prime ministers, told The Times of Israel a few months ago, as it became clear that Iran and the P5+1 would eventually sign a deal establishing Iran as a nuclear threshold state. “I don’t think Israel had the power to change this policy. Even if it had behaved wisely, which it did not.”

Now what?

But now it’s more important to look ahead. What can Israel do at this stage?

Despite assurances from Jerusalem that it will do whatever is necessary to protect itself, it is abundantly clear to all that a preemptive military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is out of the question (unless Iran blatantly violates the agreement and dashes toward the bomb before the current agreement elapses).

Once Jerusalem realizes that it’s impossible to avert the evil decree of Tuesday’s nuclear deal, maybe it’s time for the government to change tack and ask the Americans for a handsome compensation package.

Washington went to great lengths to reassure the Gulf States, making generous promises. Israel might be well-advised to likewise appeal to the administration’s largesse and try to make the best of a bad situation. It could ask for additional F-35s and Iron Dome batteries, for specific security guarantees or an increase to the Washington’s annual defense payments.

Before the agreement was finalized, officials in Jerusalem didn’t want to discuss such requests, choosing to fight the prospective deal to the bitter end. It stands to reason that, at least initially, Netanyahu will not publicly talk about compensations. Rather, he will attack the agreement with everything his verbal arsenal has to offer. His next move will likely be to try to influence American lawmakers, who could still kill the accord.

The deal announced in Vienna is now headed for scrutiny by the US Congress, which fought hard for the right to review it. But it currently appears highly unlikely that the American lawmakers would overturn the deal. Even if the Republican-controlled Congress were to pass legislation seeking to tank it, the president will use his veto.

Despite Obama’s lame duck status and the assumption that, in the fight for the presidential nomination, many Democrats will want to prove their pro-Israel credentials, very few analysts believe that the necessary two-thirds majority against the deal is realistic. It would need 13 Democratic senators voting against their own president — a rather outlandish scenario.

And yet, some Israeli pundits believe that Netanyahu will now launch a “world war” in Congress. After his controversial March 3 speech there, essentially lobbying the US against its own president, nobody can claim that he shies away from rabble-rousing at the Hill. “Israel certainly is expected to give its opinion to all the branches of the US government that have a role under the US Constitution on foreign affairs,” said Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold in an interview with The Times of Israel this week, emphatically including Congress.

But again, it is unclear whether openly taking sides in a Republican-Democratic standoff on Capitol Hill would be the smartest course of action.

“The prime minister will come out and object to this deal. That’s fine. But I would encourage restraint,” said Ilan Goldenberg, who directs the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “I would encourage him not go for a full-out campaign in Congress — because he’s going to lose. All he’d do is actually make it worse.”

As the fight over the Iran deal gets political, Democrats will be less inclined to oppose the president, explained Goldenberg, a former senior staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee covering Middle East issues. “The more the question becomes — ‘Do you trust Obama or do you support Netanyahu and the Republicans?’ — the less likely the Democrats are to vote against the deal.”

Rather than confrontation, the Israeli prime minister should seek to make amends with the administration and start a serious dialogue about what Washington and Jerusalem can do together to counter Iran’s aggressive actions in the region and to ensure Tehran does not violate the nuclear agreement, Goldenberg suggested.

“The biggest strategic mistake Netanyahu can make is to walk away for the next 18 months and wait for next president,” he said. “I don’t think Israel can afford that. If he does that, he’s only going to further widen the partisanship and turn Israel into a political wedge issue.”

Instead of hoping for Congress to shoot down the deal, Netanyahu should encourage it to pass legislation that would support the agreement’s vigorous implementation, Goldenberg continued. The Hill has several tools at its disposal: mechanisms to ensure sanctions snap back automatically if Iran violates the deal, more money for international inspectors, the creation of a permanent board with a congressional mandate to oversee the arms control agreement, and so on.

‘Nobody can judge either Obama or until we see whether Iran actually develops a nuclear weapons’

Other experts say Israel could aim even higher in its demands of the Americans. Jerusalem should press the administration and Congress “for the most explicit, clearest possible statements and actions [asserting] that the US is ready to destroy Iran’s nuclear program if Iran is close to developing fissile capability,” said James Jeffrey, a former senior US official focusing on Iran. “That’s the most essential thing in this entire debate.”

Jeffrey, who served as deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration and today is a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, made plain that he was not merely talking about security guarantees. Rather, he is advocating “a security threat,” which should be made plain that the US “will act if Iran develops, or is about to develop enough fissile material to make one or more bombs.”

Technically, the administration makes such threats all time, he noted. “The problem is that nobody believes them because they’re backed up by nothing … other than constant emphasis on how military force doesn’t accomplish anything and that striking Iran is not the solution. So they undercut their own threat.”

Here, again, Congress can be useful, Jeffrey indicated. It could authorize the use of military force or pass a joint resolution declaring that the policy of the United States is to do whatever is needed to keep nuclear weapons out of Iran’s reach.

At the end of the day, he added, all this brouhaha is about preventing Tehran from getting the bomb, and it remains to be seen how this is going to play out.

“Nobody can judge either President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu until we see whether Iran actually moves to develop a nuclear weapon, develops a nuclear weapons or uses its almost-status to extend its power,” Jeffrey said. “That is, the jury is still out on all of this.”

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