The view from the ground.

The Storm Before the Calm

Just months ago, Netanyahu was screaming from the mountaintops about the Iran deal. Now it’s on the verge of passing, and Israel seems to have moved on.


TEL AVIV — Six weeks after world powers signed a nuclear pact with Iran, a billboard finally compelled Israelis to debate the subject.

TEL AVIV — Six weeks after world powers signed a nuclear pact with Iran, a billboard finally compelled Israelis to debate the subject.

The advertisement, plastered over Rabin Square in the heart of this seaside city, announced the imminent opening of the “Iranian embassy in Israel.” The phone number listed at the bottom led to a cryptic recording, asking callers to leave a message for the nascent diplomatic mission. Curious onlookers debated in the cafes below: Was it a political statement? By the left, or the right? Could it ever come true?

It has been a long summer in the United States, with the Jewish-American community tearing itself apart and supporters of the nuclear agreement with Iran slurred as self-hating Jews, even Nazi kapos. President Barack Obama’s administration sealed enough votes in the Senate on Wednesday to ensure that the Iran deal will survive congressional review, after Sen. Barbara Mikulski announced her support, becoming the 34th senator to do so. Secretary of State John Kerry said opponents who tried to block the deal had “no basis in reality.”

But despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dire rhetoric, there was never much substantive debate in Israel about the substance of the deal. The Knesset’s dysfunctional Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee has not held a single serious hearing since the deal was signed in July. Politicians like Isaac Herzog, the putative head of the opposition, simply read from the prime minister’s talking points. And with a crucial vote on the agreement looming in the U.S. Congress, Netanyahu last week jetted off to an expo in Milan to discuss sustainable agriculture.

“Let me put it very simply,” said Efraim Halevy, a former head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency. “At the time when the [U.S.] Congress is looking at every full stop and comma, the Israeli Knesset is on holiday.”

Henry Kissinger once quipped that Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic policy. The aphorism has never seemed truer: The Iran debate, like so much else, has become little more than another front in Israel’s permanent campaign. Netanyahu flew to Washington in March, two weeks before an election, to deliver a controversial speech urging Congress to block the deal. After Mikulski sealed its passage, his office told reporters that he “never believed Congress could stop the deal.”

The prime minister’s opposition to the deal is well-known: He repeats it at every turn, even invoking the specter of mushroom clouds over Tel Aviv in his response to a February report on the cost of housing.

“It became almost unpatriotic to be not all together. Netanyahu has been very successful at putting down this line,” Halevy said. “He is a purveyor of fear in this country.”

Netanyahu’s political opponents had long bet he would ultimately lose the fight in Congress and have muted any criticism of the prime minister’s stance in the hope of winning favor with skeptical center-right voters. Yair Lapid, the charismatic ex-television anchor who hopes to steal the prime minister’s chair, called the signing of the deal “Israel’s biggest foreign-policy failure.” But he also vowed to support Netanyahu “to the outside world, in English.” Herzog has gone further, saying there is “no daylight” between him and the prime minister on Iran.

Both men tried a similar tactic before the March election, when they refused to stake out a coherent position on the Palestinians. It won them little support from the right. Ironically, on the Iran deal, their ambivalence has actually strengthened Netanyahu’s case, allowing him to cite unanimous opposition to the deal. The prime minister even mentioned Herzog’s support in a recent address to the Jewish Federations of North America.

“The man who ran against me in this year’s election and who works every day in the Knesset to bring down my government … has said that there is no daylight between us when it comes to the deal with Iran,” he said.

With the politicians eying the next election, the task of promoting the pact has fallen to the retired leaders of Israel’s security services. Dozens of them signed an open letter in Haaretz last month, urging Netanyahu to accept the deal as an “accomplished fact” and work with Washington on its implementation.

Critics dismiss the letter as irrelevant and the list of signatories as mere name-dropping. Among the best-known is Ami Ayalon, a former Shin Bet director who traveled to the United States last month to urge lawmakers to support the deal. The agency he headed is tasked with domestic security — keeping track of Palestinian militants, not Iranian centrifuges. Others include an ex-police commissioner and the onetime head of the fire brigade, neither of them noted experts on the nuclear fuel cycle. Of the 67 signatories, perhaps five have relevant expertise.

Halevy, a 30-year veteran of Mossad who was appointed to run the agency during Netanyahu’s first term, is harder to dismiss. He sees the deal as a first step toward undermining Iran’s revolutionary regime: The fact that Tehran was even willing to negotiate, he argues, was a major concession by hard-liners.

“I think Obama understands this. He can’t say it in the way that I’m saying it, but he understands this,” he said in an interview in a Tel Aviv cafe.

“[Iran] made concessions … nobody would have dreamed they would have made a year or two ago,” he went on. “They didn’t even agree to talk about it. And now they’re going into all the nitty-gritty, the nuts and bolts of the piping, and this and that. People don’t realize. They think this is a given. It’s not.”

Uzi Eilam, a longtime Israeli army officer who went on to head Israel’s atomic energy commission, also supports the deal. He offered strong praise for many of its provisions, particularly the shutdown of the heavy water reactor at Arak, a step he called “quite good,” as it effectively blocks Iran’s path to a plutonium bomb. In a perfect world, he added, the agreement would also have barred Iran from producing enriched uranium.

“But if it were possible, it would have reached along these very long two years of haggling,” he said. “And frankly, [regarding] those who oppose the agreement, I didn’t see anybody that came out with a real comprehensive solution that is different. So I think that we should be realistic.”

The security services are not monolithic, of course. Amos Yadlin, a former head of military intelligence — and the Israeli Labor Party’s candidate for defense minister in the March election — called it “a highly problematic agreement that entails risks to Israel’s national security.”

Meir Dagan, the Mossad chief who led the covert campaign against Iran’s nuclear program, has been conspicuously quiet. He has emerged in retirement as a fierce Netanyahu critic, memorably describing part of the prime minister’s March speech to Congress opposing the nuclear agreement as “bullshit.”

Many interpret his silence to mean that he harbors doubts about the deal but feels he cannot voice them without boosting Netanyahu. (Dagan did not respond to a request for an interview.)

Still, the evidence suggests that most of Israel’s generals see the deal as an opportunity, not a disaster — a view not limited to the retired ones. Last month, for the first time, the Israel Defense Forces released its strategic program to the public that does not mention Iran as a nuclear threat. An IDF spokesman cautioned against reading too much into the text, but analysts quickly interpreted it as a sign of discord with Netanyahu.

These views are aired in the Israeli media, but they are swiftly drowned out by the prime minister’s line. Critics of the deal have simply shouted down nuanced arguments: While Eilam speaks in granular detail about International Atomic Energy Agency inspections, Netanyahu confidant Yuval Steinitz warns the deal is like “pouring fuel on [a] burning Middle East” and accuses the major powers of “sacrificing the future of the world.”

The stilted discussion has become a symbol of the left’s broader failure to present a foreign policy. Herzog barely mentioned the Palestinians during this year’s election campaign, promising only to renew talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — even as he averred that such negotiations were unlikely to succeed. His hedging won little support from an increasingly hawkish electorate, especially after Netanyahu bluntly vowed never to create a Palestinian state.

Herzog and Lapid have lately urged the prime minister to stop trashing relations with Obama. Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni wants the Knesset to hold hearings on why the security cabinet, a select group of senior officials, has not debated Netanyahu’s strategy — an ironic turnabout for a politician who was a member of the cabinet until last winter. But there has been no discussion of the deal’s merits or lack thereof.

As for the billboard, the mystery was finally solved last Thursday: It was part of an advertising campaign for a new movie, Atomic Falafel, a comedy in which Iranian and Israeli girls work together to stop a nuclear war. Fittingly, even this summer’s one substantive debate about Iran turned out to be a stunt.

Photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images

Gregg Carlstrom is a journalist based in Cairo.

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