An interim nuclear deal: the view from Israel

By Chuck Freilich

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has some legitimate concerns about an interim deal, but his extreme opposition to a deal is hard to understand even from an Israeli perspective. Netanyahu's focus now should be on ensuring a final agreement produces the best possible outcome for Israel, though not through an open confrontation with the United States.

---Prime Minister Netanyahu has charged that the interim deal signed by the P5+1 and Iran is an “historic mistake” and implicitly, a virtual American sellout. During the three weeks from the buildup to the previous abortive round of talks in Geneva, to the current breakthrough, Netanyahu and other senior leaders portrayed the impending deal as a near catastrophe for Israel, and most media commentators and pundits bought into their gloomy assessment.

Since the text of the final deal was made public, however, an increasing number of pundits and opposition politicians have begun speaking in considerably more favorable terms, some allowing that it is “not that bad,” others averring that it is actually a good deal for Israel. There is also mounting criticism of the airing of the disagreements that have emerged with the U.S. over the issue, which some claim has led to the worst crisis in bilateral relations in decades. Nothing raises sensitivities in Israel as much as charges that the all-important relationship with U.S. has been mishandled.

Netanyahu’s opposition to a deal

Netanyahu certainly has some legitimate concerns, over and beyond the simple magnitude of the stakes involved for Israel. Iran, he believes, is near the end of its tether, just about to reach the point of capitulation, and the compromises embodied in the interim agreement—first and foremost the absence of a demand for a complete suspension of the nuclear program—are thus not only potentially dangerous, but unnecessary. This contention is debatable: the P5+1 clearly believe that this demand would have proven a deal breaker, but Netanyahu is correct in stating that suspension was a basic U.S., EU and UN Security Council position until now. The big question is whether it should be a condition for a final agreement.

Netanyahu fears, and he is far from alone in this, that the P5+1 and Iran will not be able to reach a final agreement and that the interim deal will end up being the final one. Should this be the case, Iran will be left with its nuclear program fully intact and probably with greatly diminished international resolve and capability to deal with it. If the international community does not have the wherewithal to force Iran into accepting a reasonable deal now, when its pressure is ostensibly at its height, it will be hard pressed to do so at a later stage.

The interim deal explicitly provides for a continued Iranian nuclear program even after a final agreement is reached, albeit a civil one, but in reality leaving Iran a nuclear threshold state should it decide to renew the program. Rather than solving the problem, the approach embodied in the interim deal, and the final agreement it presages, is one of crisis management, not resolution, sometimes an appropriate response, but certainly not what Israel and, at least until now, the U.S. sought.

Moreover, Netanyahu is concerned that even limited and supposedly reversible sanctions relief, as provided for by the interim agreement, will actually lead to a rapid unraveling of the entire sanctions regime, as governments and companies compete once again to do business with Iran. This fear may be overblown, but the Obama administration’s emphasis on the measures it will take to prevent this indicate that the argument is not baseless.

Finally, there is a broad sense in Israel (shared by many U.S. Arab allies) that Obama, an otherwise brilliant person, is psychologically unprepared, or unsuited, to deal effectively with the Middle East. The perception is that he has consequently mishandled most of the regional issues he has dealt with, including the peace process, transition in Egypt and above all, the Syrian use of chemical weapons. This sense is further reinforced by the perception that he was too eager to reach a bad deal in the last round of negotiations, two weeks ago, and thus feeds the concern that he may prove to be so again as the negotiations for a final deal progress.

Looking ahead to a final agreement

These concerns notwithstanding, Netanyahu’s extreme opposition to the deal is hard to understand even from an Israeli perspective. The final version of the agreement, in contrast with what is known of the draft proposal in the previous round of talks, does constitute a true six-month freeze of the Iranian program, may even set it back by a matter of months, and as such is an important achievement for Israel, too, hopefully leading to a final agreement. Given the stakes, no one has a greater interest than Israel in a diplomatic resolution of the issue.

The question is not whether the interim deal is the best outcome possible for Israel—it is not, nor for the U.S.—but whether it is the best one feasible given the options. Should the sides fail to reach an agreement, Israel will rapidly find itself with just two options: to try and live with a nuclear Iran through a policy of deterrence—something it has rejected outright to date—or launch a military attack. Israel, however, has clearly not been eager to go the military route. Strong opposition has been expressed by Israel’s defense establishment, especially if conducted against American wishes. In any event, a fully successful military attack will only delay the program by a few years, important in itself, but will not solve the problem and may incur a heavy Iranian (Hezbollah) response. As long as Iran is truly subject to a freeze, Israel’s ability to attack at a later date will be unaffected. Maintaining a credible military option, as a prerequisite for effective diplomacy, is something the Obama administration has unfortunately not done.

The final agreement, like the interim one, will not be perfect either from the U.S. or Israeli perspectives—such is the nature of compromise agreements, unlike diktats—and Netanyahu’s efforts should be focused at this point on ensuring that it is the best one possible for Israel. His hard line is understandable and even justified in its own right, especially when Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, referred last week to Israel as a country “doomed to failure and annihilation,” “an illegitimate regime led by untouchable rabid dogs” whose leaders “cannot be called human beings, they are like animals.” An open confrontation with the U.S., however, is not the way to achieve Israel’s ends, as overwhelmingly important as the Iranian issue is for Israel. 

Chuck Freilich, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center, was a deputy national security adviser in Israel. He is the author of Zion’s Dilemmas; How Israel Makes National Security Policy (Cornell, 2012).