Boxed In

How Israel became the land of no good options.

Jack Guez-Pool/Getty Images
Jack Guez-Pool/Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel — Jerusalem’s response to the Iranian nuclear agreement has been immediate — and scathing. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted it as a "bad deal," Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon described it as a "historical mistake," while another minister, Uzi Landau, compared it to the 1938 Munich Agreement, in which the West tried to appease Adolf Hitler.

It’s not hard to see why Israel’s top officials are so upset. Contrary to some American claims, the deal does not significantly roll back Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and in the event that it collapses, it will only take the Iranians a few months, at most, to produce enough enriched uranium to construct their first nuclear bomb. The agreement also does not grapple with other important aspects of the Iranian nuclear project, such as the "Weapons Group," or create any international supervision over Tehran’s ballistic missile program. While Netanyahu wants to roll back Iran’s ability to produce a bomb, he suspects President Barack Obama would be satisfied so long as Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon.

But despite these misgivings, it is becoming clear that Israel is slowly, grudgingly beginning to understand that the deal signed on Sunday is now the only game in town. Netanyahu’s favorite mantra — that "all options are on the table" to deal with Iran’s nuclear program" — sounds irrelevant, almost forced. At this stage, a unilateral Israeli strike is a bluff nobody believes, least of all the Israeli people themselves.

Only the collapse of the deal, along with an international consensus that Iran was at fault, could raise the possibility of an Israeli strike again. The agreement, after all, calls for daily visits to the Iranian nuclear sites by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors — one can’t imagine that Netanyahu would ever do anything so reckless as to endanger their lives.

Israel’s prime minister should not be surprised by the bind he finds himself in, however. As far back as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s election in June, the prime minister’s advisors had told him what to expect. But Netanyahu’s real moment of decision actually came much earlier, before the 2012 U.S. presidential election. When he decided not to strike Iran then, his options became much more limited.

While the prime minister seems intent on describing this deal as a defeat, he could also have spun it as a victory if he had been so inclined. It was his threats to strike Iran, after all, that persuaded Obama to increase the international pressure on Tehran through sanctions. Those sanctions, in turn, hurt the Iranian economy and persuaded the mullahs to allow Rouhani, a relative moderate, to compete in the elections and eventually win. And it was Rouhani’s charm offensive that paved the way for the deal, which has at least somewhat slowed Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon.

That’s not the only regional boost Israel has experienced recently. The Iran deal is a direct consequence of the Russia-brokered agreement in August to dismantle Syria’s huge stockpiles of chemical weapons. And let’s recall: the original target of these weapons was Israel, not Syrian rebels or civilians. Now, this threat has vanished — and Netanyahu didn’t have to lift a finger, or give up anything, for this to happen.

But  Netanyahu doesn’t see things this way. He believes that the Americans could — and should — have driven Iran’s leaders to their knees at Geneva through the application of even further sanctions. Not all Israeli military leaders agree: It is interesting to note that two recently retired chiefs of Israel’s military intelligence, Gen. Amos Yadlin and Gen. Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, refused to participate in the government’s public campaign against the agreement. "Listening to the ministers’ cries of agony, I almost thought that the Americans had permitted Iran to produce a nuclear warhead," Yadlin noted sarcastically.

It’s not hard to see why these military leaders are loathe to criticize the agreement: It seems the Obama administration has already slowed down some of the important cooperation with Israel on crucial security issues. The current chiefs of Israel’s security agencies are acutely aware of the country’s dependence on American backing, and it is safe to assume that most of them share their predecessors’ fears.

Nor does Israel have a viable alternative to its alliance with Washington. Netanyahu recently visited Moscow and publicly flirted with the idea of improving Jerusalem’s ties with Russia, but this was an empty threat against Obama. After all, Russian President Vladimir Putin is the man who keeps providing the Syrian regime — and through the Syrians, Hezbollah — with modern weapons systems. The Americans, meanwhile, are still helping to finance Israel’s ultra-sophisticated rocket interception systems. The newest such system, David’s Sling, was just successfully tested last week, even as tensions were nearing their peak between Washington and Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the Israeli Air Force and U.S. Air Force are conducting their largest ever joint exercises over the skies of Israel.

The deal in Geneva also means Netanyahu must tend to his political agenda at home. For years, the prime minister has built up his image as the leader who Israelis can trust to safeguard their interests against growing dangers in the region. But the Israeli public was never as keen as Netanyahu about the use of military force to prevent Iran from going nuclear, and the popular response to the Geneva agreement has accordingly remained limited. It is hard to imagine the voters criticizing Netanyahu for not striking Iran or even for not achieving a better deal — but in the long run, Netanyahu desperately needs a new issue around which he can rally his supporters.

No one doubts Netanyahu’s deep commitment to stopping the Iranian nuclear threat. Like the Blues Brothers, he is on a mission from God against the bomb. Israeli journalists are fond of saying that the prime minister — a history buff with a softness for World War II memoires — wakes up every morning and stares in the mirror, only to see Winston Churchill looking back at him. But these days, with the Geneva agreement a done deal, Netanyahu should look in the mirror and ask himself: What next?

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