Editor's Notes: What if there’s a new nuclear deal?

August 22, 2019 22:12
US PRESIDENT Donald Trump shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they pose in the Rose Garden at the White House this week. (photo credit: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS)

Last Thursday, Israel decided to bar two US congresswomen from entering the country. The decision was made per the request of US President Donald Trump. Four days later, as he was boarding a flight to Kiev on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke his silence and explained his decision, citing a 2017 bill that requires the government to “evaluate the entry of people who support BDS.”

Four days.

On Tuesday, Trump again invoked Israel in his continued smear campaign against the Democratic Party, claiming that “Jewish people that vote for a Democrat – I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” By the time of this writing – three days later – Netanyahu is still silent.

First things first. Let us not be mistaken: Trump is not attacking Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib because he wants to protect or defend the State of Israel. He is doing so because he wants to show that they are the face of the Democratic Party – as he repeatedly claims on Twitter – and hopefully steal away some votes in the November 2020 election.

Is this good for Israel or Jewish Americans? For Trump, that is beside the point. What is important is getting reelected.

This situation though puts Netanyahu in a difficult position. On the one hand, he likes to think of himself not just as the prime minister of Israel, but also as the leader of the Jewish people. If that is the case, he needs to speak up and against one of the oldest antisemitic tropes in history: the questioning of Jewish loyalty to the country they live in.

On the other hand, the last thing Netanyahu needs ahead of the September 17 election in Israel is a dirty fight with a US president, the one from whom Netanyahu claims only he can succeed in deriving strategic benefits. What good would he gain from confronting Trump on what some in Likud are trying to downplay as “political disagreements in the United States” and not at all a crisis that includes Israel or the Jewish people?

Eventually, Netanyahu will likely say something, and what he says will probably not be that different than what President Reuven Rivlin already told Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday: Israel appreciates US support, values the alliance between the countries, and needs to ensure that the bond remains above partisan politics.

Nevertheless, the nature of the Netanyahu-Trump relationship raises some interesting questions. Take the current standoff with Iran as an example. The current US strategy seems to be to keep up the economic pressure on Tehran, and ensure that Europe stays in line with Washington’s sanctions.

Based on conversations with US officials though, there are no illusions about a new nuclear deal coming anytime soon. Iran, like the Palestinians, is playing a waiting game – somehow hold out and sustain the economic pressure to see who wins in 2020, and then make a decision. If a Democrat like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren wins, then the ayatollahs will renegotiate a return to the 2015 deal. If Trump gets reelected, then it will have no choice – because of the economic pressure - but to return to the table and negotiate a new deal. What this means is that a deal won’t happen before November 2020, and even then it is questionable.

If there is a deal though, what will be in it? What happens if, for example, all Trump is able to get is a few more years on the sunset clause – 20 instead of 10 – and different quantities on the amount of enriched uranium, as well as some limitation on the range of Iran’s ballistic missiles?
What happens then if Trump calls Netanyahu and asks him to repeat what he did in 2015 – with a small change? “Come to Washington,” Trump could say, “speak before Congress, but instead of attacking the Iran deal like you did when Barack Obama was president, this time you need to praise it.”

What does Netanyahu do? On the one hand, the deal will be slightly better than the one Obama reached with Iran in 2015. It will have a longer sunset clause, and will put some limits on the ballistic missile development. Does he comply with Trump’s request and defend the deal, or does he refuse the request and risk sparking a crisis with the man who quotes pundits on Twitter calling him the “King of Israel.”

It will be a tough dilemma. On the one hand, barring Omar and Tlaib and fighting against a bad nuclear deal with Iran are not the same. Netanyahu’s hope is that the fallout from barring the congresswomen will blow over soon.

A bad deal that will ultimately enable Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon – even if it is in 20 years – is something else, and goes against everything Netanyahu genuinely believes, including that he became Israel’s prime minister to stop the ayatollahs from obtaining weapons that could one day pose an existential threat to the world’s only Jewish state.

We do not know if and when that day will come. First, Netanyahu will need to get reelected in September, and will need to succeed in holding onto his seat after an indictment comes down at the end of the year. Next, Trump will need to get reelected in 2020, and at the same time succeed in keeping the world united in the economic sanctions against Iran. Then, he will need to get the Iranians to come back to the negotiating table and agree to make concessions in a new deal.

That is a lot of ifs. But based on the events of the past week, anything is possible. Israel needs to be ready.


Fifty years ago, two events changed the world. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped out of his lunar lander and declared: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The second event was a month later. On August 15, 400,000 people gathered at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in the northern New York town of Bethel for the Woodstock music festival.

These two events changed the course of history. With the landing on the moon, America beat the Soviets in their quest for space dominance, and the achievement brought an unparalleled technological superiority to the US.

Woodstock’s influence on American culture carries on today. Just this past week, on a vacation that took me up to the Catskills, I passed through Bethel and saw the original site where rock & roll is said to have been changed forever.

Tomorrow, Israel will also mark the anniversary of a memorable event, albeit one that sadly does not have anything positive. On August 24, 1929, an Arab mob attacked the small Jewish community of Hebron, murdering 67 Jews and injuring dozens more. The massacre was the worst that hit the modern Jewish community in Palestine, made headlines  the world, and effectively ended the longstanding Jewish presence in the city that was only renewed after Israel liberated the city in 1967.

HERE IS what is important to remember: the Hebron massacre happened 19 years before there was a state of Israel, and almost 40 years before Israel’s so-called “occupation” of the Palestinian people began following the Six Day War.

What this day reminds us is that hatred for Jews and Israelis has existed for millennia. It was before the Jews had a state, and it continues today even though the Jews have their own state. It manifests itself in rocket attacks and terror infiltrations from the Gaza Strip, in stabbing and ramming attacks like the recent ones in Gush Etzion, as well as threats against Jewish institutions in the US like the one in Youngstown, Ohio, this past week.

There are some in Israeli politics who would want us to believe that this is Israel’s story and will be forever. “I’m asked if we will forever live by the sword — yes,” Netanyahu told a Knesset committee a few years ago.

On the other side of the political spectrum, there are people who push policies that often seem like a modern version of appeasement: just be nice to your enemies and they will be nice to you, the thinking goes.

Reality is always more complicated. Israel remains threatened and will remain threatened for years to come. But Israel is also stronger today than it has ever been. In 2019, there is no one in the Middle East who is as strong as Israel or poses a direct threat to the continued existence of the Jewish state. There is also no military in the region with the ability to conquer Israeli territory.

Does that mean Israel should be reckless or negligent by making concessions which undermine its own security? Of course not.

Ninety years since the Hebron massacre, Israel is far from the stage when it can lay down its weapons – the calls for Israel’s destruction will not go away anytime soon. Led by Iran but promoted by white supremacists and radical anti-Zionists, they all seek the same objective: an end to the State of Israel and a weakening of the Jewish people.

The Jewish people though are no longer at the whim of an Arab mob like they were in 1929. Today, Israel can leverage its strength and power to improve its reality and change the course of its conflicts. Zionism is about self-determination, and the powerful nation that Israel has become is capable of making the decisions that are needed to move forward in today’s complicated world.

In the summer of 1969 America seized opportunities – on the moon and in the fields of Bethel. In 2019, Israel has the ability to do the same.

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