Can Israel Still Scuttle the Iran Nuclear Deal?

Benjamin Netanyahu has legitimate worries about the nuclear deal with Iran. But with no leverage in Washington to argue his case, how far is he willing to go?

Israeli PM Holds Press Conference
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL, JULY 26: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference on July 26, 2011 in Jerusalem, Israel. The PM made comments on Israel's housing crisis. (Photo by Ariel Schalit-Pool/Getty Images)

Theoretically, Benjamin Netanyahu should be pleased. After all, none of the current international action focused on Iran would have happened without him. If he hadn’t been elected as Israel’s prime minister in 2009 — and hadn’t won elections twice more, since — it is likely that no other Israeli leader would have shown such an obsession with Iran’s nuclear threat. Furthermore, no other Israeli premier would have spent so much time, energy, and resources in order to build a credible military threat to counter the Iranian nuclear program.

It was this Israeli threat that persuaded President Barack Obama to launch a worldwide sanctions campaign against Iran, which in turn brought Iran’s economy to its knees. Only the financial collapse convinced Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to allow a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, to run for the presidency and win the elections — which in turn paved the way for the negotiations that led to the nuclear framework deal announced last week in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Netanyahu, of course, is in no mood to claim credit for all this. In a public statement on Friday, April 3, the Israeli prime minister repeated his castigation of the deal, saying that it would “pose a grave danger to the region and to the world and would threaten the very survival of the State of Israel.” But he still failed to present an outline for a better agreement, except for raising the unlikely scenario in which Tehran would be forced to dismantle its entire nuclear program.

While Netanyahu will no doubt continue to slam the deal before the deadline for a final agreement in June, the reality is that he has precious few options for affecting the outcome of the talks between Iran and the world powers. His insistence on systematically burning all the bridges with Washington took care of that. As a result of his own actions, Netanyahu has reduced to a minimum Israel’s ability to influence a deal he believes is an existential issue for the Jewish state.

This is all the more troubling because Netanyahu does have a point about many of the framework agreement’s shortcomings. The Lausanne agreement reminds many Israelis of the 1993 Oslo Accords, famously described by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak as having “more holes than Swiss cheese.” Key issues related to the deal still remain unresolved: It is unclear when and how quickly the international sanctions on Iran will be lifted, what the monitoring mechanisms for Tehran’s nuclear program will look like, and how the conflicting U.S. and Iranian accounts of the deal will be reconciled.

Even if Iran does abandon any efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon, Israel has good reason to be concerned about the repercussions of the deal. The Iranian economy will soon get back on track as a result of the sanctions being lifted, giving Tehran even more resources to expand its influence in the Middle East and Central Asia. Moreover, Iran will achieve international recognition as a threshold nuclear state, even as the potential resolution of the nuclear issue could allow it to enjoy a sort of détente with the United States. The first signs of this are already evident, as Washington and Tehran appear to have partially coordinated their efforts to confront the Islamic State in Iraq — most recently, it was U.S. airstrikes and Iran-backed Shiite militiamen who drove the jihadi group from the city of Tikrit.

But what can Netanyahu do about this now? A unilateral military strike against Iran seems extremely unlikely — that train has already left the station. The Israeli premier has indeed considered the possibility at least three times between 2010 and 2012, but in all cases he gave in to U.S. pressure and the outspoken objections of his own security chiefs. Striking now would risk arraying Israel against the joint opinion of the whole international community, and place its alliance with the United States in jeopardy.

There is no doubt that that the Israeli prime minister will continue to criticize both the agreement and Obama’s policies. The question is whether he is going to back these attacks with political action. He made his case before the U.S. Congress last month — but faces serious risks if he returns to Capitol Hill to advocate for legislation that could undermine the negotiations. At the moment, it seems unlikely that additional sanctions bills written by Sen. Bob Corker and a new version of legislation proposed by Sens. Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez will be passed.

Even attempting to use Congress to sabotage the agreement could provoke serious blowback from the White House. Netanyahu is aware of the growing anger in Washington toward his refusal to advance the Palestinian peace process — especially after his awkward U-turns regarding the two-state solution, before and after the recent elections. Obama may only have 21 months left in office, but he will probably be thinking of new ways to use this time to make the Israeli premier’s life miserable. One of these could be an American decision not to veto pro-Palestinian resolutions at the U.N. Security Council.

Netanyahu, however, does have another alternative. Obama told the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman in an article released on April 5 that he would maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region. “If anybody messes with Israel, America will be there,” the president promised. Though it is doubtful whether Netanyahu fully believes that — he made a point of evading a similar question on CNN — he could push to hold Obama to his word, pressuring the United States to strengthen Israel’s security position across the Middle East.

Previous Israeli leaders knew how to use such statements by American presidents in their favor. Former President George W. Bush’s administration deployed the long-range X-band radar in Israel’s Negev Desert to warn of possible missile attacks from the east, for instance, while the Obama administration spent more than $1 billion on financing Israeli development of three different missile and rocket-intercepting systems. These steps were perceived by Israel as rewards for good behavior — especially for not attacking Iran’s nuclear sites.

More carrots may be forthcoming. It is likely that this administration would be willing to go even further, on both military assistance and intelligence sharing, if Netanyahu decides to restrain some of his criticism over the next several months. Israel could also use the current deal to deepen its tacit coordination with the Saudis and other Gulf states, which share its concerns over the nuclear threat and Iran’s ongoing campaign for hegemony in the region.

For the time being, at least, the Israelis seem intent on bombarding the international community with statements, not airstrikes. During the last week, Israel has unveiled its fourth submarine — believed, according to Western media reports, to possess “second strike” nuclear capabilities — while announcing new successful trials for its David’s Sling missile defense system. The Israel Defense Forces’ home front commander discussed possible scenarios of attacks against the Israeli population during a regional war, while its air force chief speculated that “from a purely military standpoint,” Israel could benefit from a pre-emptive strike.

All these statements, however, only serve to disguise the fact that Israel’s most important influence on the future course of events will not be in the military arena. The challenge for Netanyahu is to collect information that proves that Iran continues to deceive the international community regarding both its nuclear aspirations and actions. If he fails to do that, he will face an even more difficult task — adapting to a new political reality that he has fought tooth and nail to prevent his entire political career.

Ariel Schalit-Pool/Getty Images

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