Daniel W. Drezner

Israel is Wigging Out

Israel is Wigging Out

Pop quiz:  imagine for a second that you’re a very small but very powerful country in a region where everyone either despises you or, at best, barely tolerates your existence.  You have the most powerful nation in the world for a close ally, which is nice.  On the other hand, your greatest existential threat for the past decade has made life uncomfortable, doing things like funding terrorism, fomenting civil wars near your border, accelerating a nuclear program that could lead to weapons capability, and having its #2 leader say crazy stuff about wiping you off the map and denying that your people ever experienced a genocide that everyone else knows happened.  You’d be pretty tense, right? 

Now imagine that the crazy #2 guy got replaced by someone who sounds much more reasonable.  This new leader isn’t talking about wiping countries off maps.  This leader starts talking about cutting a nuclear deal with the great powers.  The IAEA confirms that the country has restrained its nuclear program since the new #2 took over.  The #1 leader seems willing to provide cover for the #2 guy to cut a deal.  The negotiations between this country and the great powers sanctioning it — including your closest ally — have shown considerable progress.  The interim deal that seems in the offering might be imperfect, but would clearly curtail that country’s nuclear program far more effectively than the sanctions regime currently in place.

What do you do? 

A)  Have your cabinet start singing "Kumbaya" to signal support for further negotiations;

B)  Ensure that a consultation pipeline remains open between you and your great power protector

C)  Publicly state a set of criteria that seem both doable and necessary before you’d support any nuclear deal;

D)  Announce that the still-being-negotiated deal is a bad one and that you’re prepared to take unilateral military action against your adversary unless it abjectly surrenders its negotiating position, which it won’t do.

You can guess what Israel did over the weekend.  And the amazing thing is that I’m not even sure that’s the craziest thing Israeli officials have said in the past few days. 

To use fancy international relations theory jargon, what the Netanyahu administration is doing right now is "wigging out" — and not in a productive way, either.  Let’s stipulate that Israel has reason to be more concerned about Iran’s nuclear program than the United States.  Nevertheless, this gambit has zero upside. 

First of all, the Israelis keep describing a deal that no one else seems to be describing.  For example:

Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s intelligence minister, said last week that the total boost to the Iranian economy of easing sanctions could be $40bn a year.

However, US officials have described such figures as wild exaggerations. According to Jen Psaki, a State department spokeswoman: “There are very large, inaccurate, false numbers out there in terms of what’s on the table.”

Colin Kahl, a former senior Pentagon official, said the figure was closer to $6bn-$7bn.

Both Eli Lake and Laura Rozen cited a similar "under $10 billion" figure for direct sanctions relief, and even Lake reports that the indirect benefits don’t reach the $40 billion figure. 

Second, Israeli jaw-jawing about a military strike puts it into a corner with no good exit option.  Netanyahu’s definition of a bad nuclear deal seems to include… any nuclear deal.  So say that one is negotiated.  What can Israel do then?  Netanyahu could follow through on his rhetoric and launch a unilateral strike.  Maybe that would set Iran back a few years.  It would also rupture any deal, accelerate Iran’s nuclear ambitions, invite unconventional retaliation from Iran and its proxies, and isolate Israel even further.  If Netanyahu doesn’t follow through on his rhetoric, then every disparaging Israeli quote about Obama’s volte-face on Syria will be thrown back at the Israeli security establishment.  Times a hundred. 

It should be noted that poor U.S. consultation with Israel could be a cause for this kind of behavior.  But consultation is a two-way street, and right now Israel is pretty much pissing all over the Obama administration.  That’s its prerogative — but over the past few years Netanyahu has repeatedly bet against Obama’s political position and lost.  I don’t see that changing. 

What do you think?