The Bad Cop Syndrome

Stung by the Obama administration's Iran deal, Israel's political class is now convinced that there's no one to trust but themselves.


TEL AVIV — "Everyone had to play their role," Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid said in an interview on Israeli television Sunday night, Nov. 24, less than a day after the interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program was signed in Geneva. He was trying to parry criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stern handling of the diplomacy surrounding Iran — but his statement could have easily substituted as a deeper observation for how Israelis see the international diplomacy swirling around their country.

In the borderline hysterical response from Israel to the interim deal, what is often lost is that each actor in the unfolding drama had a role to play. For Israel, that role is (and has always been) the "bad cop," or, as one Israeli columnist put it last year, the "Polish mother" — constantly nagging Israel’s allies to make more of themselves. That has been Netanyahu’s default setting over the past several weeks, as he emerged as the staunchest international critic of the deal while the talks were underway, and subsequently castigated it for making the world "a much more dangerous place" even before the ink on the agreement was dry.

"What was the alternative [on offer to Netanyahu]?" Lapid asked rhetorically, about Netanyahu’s response before the deal was signed. "To come out [publicly] after a deal was struck?" Lapid could have been echoing the old rabbinical saying, attributed to Hillel the Elder: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if not now, when?"

For the Israeli political elite, the exact details of the interim deal struck in Geneva are secondary, as are the utterances from Israeli security professionals who see the agreement as better than the alternatives No, the prevailing sentiment is that Israel came out a loser — abandoned by its great power ally and left to fend for itself in a volatile region.

Israeli government officials’ prognostications have accordingly vacillated between ominous and mildly apocalyptic. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman assuredly said the deal "brings us to a nuclear arms race," while Naftali Bennett posited that the deal may lead to a "nuclear suitcase explod[ing] in New York or Madrid" in five years’ time.

The Israeli public, so far, has taken all of these developments, all of this bombast, in stride. The biggest story of the past few weeks, in fact, has been a sordid sex scandal involving a prominent pop star and a bevy of underage teenage girls — not exactly an issue of existential importance.

Part of this is likely due to "nuclear fatigue," coming as it does after years of screaming headlines declaring that the "moment of decision" regarding Iran was at hand. "[The agreement] isn’t good, but it’s not the end of the world," Nahum Barnea, the veteran political columnist for the Yediot Aharonot daily, wrote yesterday.  "Every Israeli, whether a nuclear expert or not, understands this." Indeed, the Tel Aviv stock exchange has reached record highs over the past few weeks, despite — or perhaps because of — the Iranian nuclear talks.

But part of it might also have to do with the clear-eyed realism of the Israeli public. The role of Israel’s political and military leaders is to keep the country safe, whether Iran has more or fewer centrifuges. The role of the international community, in many Israeli minds, is to disappoint the Jewish state. As one acquaintance put it with a heavy shrug, "This is an existential issue for us, but it’s not the first one. I hope the world powers know what they’re doing."

The complete lack of trust and communication between the Obama administration and the Israeli government, however, may have surprised even the most cynical of Israelis. It’s not only that Obama didn’t apprise Israel of the year-long secret talks taking place with Iran in Oman. The real anger began a few weeks ago, during the first round of talks in Geneva, when it became clear that the United States would adopt a gradual, confidence-building strategy toward the Iranians, rather than the hardline positions championed by Netanyahu. More than anything, the latest spasm of official Israeli statements is anger at Washington’s perceived naivety in the negotiations.

Despite the protestations of the U.S. administration, there is little belief in Israel that if it came down to it, military force remains "on the table" for resolving the Iranian nuclear problem. The aborted U.S. strike on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its use of chemical weapons weighs heavily on the minds of many Israeli officials and analysts. "The Obama Doctrine," said Udi Segal, the diplomatic correspondent for Channel 2 news, can be summed up thus: "Avoid military action at all cost."

For the Israeli political class, however, the public tone has already begun to shift from one of anger to one of resignation. "We won’t surrender, and we will continue with our efforts" to stop Iran’s nuclear program, Lapid said in his Sunday television interview. What these efforts might include are open to speculation, but in all likelihood we can expect a redoubled Israeli offensive in the diplomatic arena, an attempt to drum up public and government support against additional concessions to Iran, as well as a ramping up of the covert war inside Iran (think more dead scientists).

Some in the Israeli commentariat are already counseling restraint. Roni Daniel, a veteran military analyst not usually known for his cool head, highlighted the work that must be accomplished in the coming months, soberly observing that "Israeli intelligence on Iran is going to be crucial, as will the international inspection regime."

What the above efforts will likely not include is any unilateral Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities — not as long as the United States and Europe are negotiating with the Iranians. Israel might not be bound by the Geneva agreement, as Netanyahu stated emphatically after its signing, but it is bound to its relationships with the West. Grumblings from inside the political arena at the prime minister’s handling of the Iran issue have more to do with his style than with his policies on Iran. If, as an anonymous Israeli politician said, "at the end of the day, Israel will look for someone to blame," it won’t be Netanyahu — it will be Obama.

With all the talk of "winners and losers," the biggest casualty of the Iran saga might very well be the Middle East peace process. Netanyahu himself linked the Iran and Palestinian issues in his hurried and impromptu press conference a few weeks ago at the Tel Aviv airport, right before Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Geneva for the first round of talks. The implication could not be clearer: Israel would not move on the peace track without progress on the Iranian track. Absent Israeli trust in the American president, the chances for a breakthrough will likely vanish. 

That’s a sad thought, to be sure, and even a
dangerous one. But after this saga, the belief that trusting outsiders is simply too fraught with risk for Israel is no longer simply a fixation of right-wing revanchists — it has entered the Israeli mainstream.

"We always knew that we can only trust ourselves," Lapid said retrospectively. In the Israeli perspective, everyone has a role to play — whether right or wrong, whether real or imagined.

Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Twitter: @NeriZilber

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