Israel is in the midst of an election, and like many American Jews, I am following it closely. And one issue in particular both fascinates and distresses me: What happened to discussion of the Iranian nuclear threat?
Iran has simply disappeared from Israel’s political agenda at a time when one might expect it to be central.
For more than 3 years, virtually every meeting that I attended with Israeli officials began with the subject of Iran. The Israelis said—and I accepted it then, as I accept it now—that an Iranian nuclear weapon is an existential threat to the Jewish state and that it must be a priority issue for American Jews. Special committees were created to deal with Iran; briefings were organized to discuss the topic; campaigns were devised to educate the Jewish community. And as we all remember, Israel’s Prime Minister expressed his concerns about Iran with such urgency that both candidates in America’s recent election felt it necessary to present their positions on the matter to American Jews and, indeed, to all American voters.
So where did the issue go in Israel’s election?
Is the danger less severe now? I find that difficult to believe. Of course, only a very few people really know how serious the threat is, but to think that it has substantially diminished runs contrary to everything that we have been hearing from Israel’s government for a very long time.
Is the answer that there exists a broad, right-to-left consensus on Iran, both on the danger that exists and what needs to be done, and therefore there is no need for an election debate? Or perhaps all parties recognize that the intricacies of Iran policy – the status of the reactor, the date of an attack, the possible cooperation with America – simply cannot be dealt with in a heated election campaign.
But I am also troubled by the fact that Israeli government policy in the last month does not seem to be consistent with the premise that the Iranian nuclear reactor remains a serious concern.
Following the foolish decision of the Palestinian Authority to seek observer status at the United Nations, Israel decided on punitive actions against the PA, including building settlements in the E1 area—a step that infuriated both the United States and the European Union. Let’s put aside the usual arguments for and against settlement construction, and let’s focus instead on a single point: This construction is clearly harmful to Israel’s efforts to deal effectively with the problem of Iran.
In the first place, economic sanctions against Iran have had an impact because of strong cooperation from the countries of the European Union, which have been major trading partners of Iran. As European anger over E1 construction continues to escalate, Israel’s leverage with Europe diminishes, and the hope of tougher sanctions diminishes as well.
In the second place, the United States believes that it needs quiet support from the Sunni states in the region – Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates – for an American military attack against Iran. An important reason why America opposed punitive action by Israel against the PA is that it saw such action as undermining the possibility of forging such a coalition.
In the third place, Israel’s military leaders agree that all scenarios for destroying the Iranian reactor involve a significant role for America. If Israel expects the United States to carry out an airstrike on Iran, it will need a relationship of trust with its American ally. Given that Presidents Bush and Obama have long opposed E1 settlement construction, proceeding with such construction can only damage the Israeli-American relationship, which recently has been much improved.
If the Iranian nuclear reactor is less important than it was, that is a blessing, and punitive actions against the PA should be judged on a different basis. But if the Iranian threat remains an existential issue for the Jewish State, then Israel must give this threat the priority it deserves.