Why do Israelis care less about the Iran nuclear threat?

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: If the security establishment cannot agree on whether reentering the deal would be good or bad for Israel in the long term, what should the public think?

 IRANIAN PRESIDENT Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a press conference in Tehran, on August 29. Today, Raisi said that reviving a 2015 deal with world powers is meaningless unless the UN nuclear watchdog puts an end to the probe on undeclared sites in the country. (photo credit: STR/AFP via Getty Images)
IRANIAN PRESIDENT Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a press conference in Tehran, on August 29. Today, Raisi said that reviving a 2015 deal with world powers is meaningless unless the UN nuclear watchdog puts an end to the probe on undeclared sites in the country.
(photo credit: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

There is something strikingly similar between what it feels like watching the progress of the Iranian nuclear deal negotiations and what it feels like monitoring Israeli coalition negotiations after an election.

In both cases, there are so many twists and turns, so much spin, and so many false peaks and fabricated valleys that the casual observer could be forgiven for just throwing up his hands and saying, “Wake me up when it’s all over.”

Take the last three weeks in the Iranian nuclear saga as an example. Following comments by Iranian negotiating team adviser Mohammad Marandi on August 15 that “we’re closer than we’ve been before” to securing a deal, headlines around the world trumpeted that, after 16 months of negotiations, the sides were on the cusp of signing an agreement. Then they weren’t.

This week, the headlines about the Iran deal were not heralding an imminent signing of an accord, but hinting that the deal may be off, at least until the midterm US elections on November 8, if not far beyond that.

That is the same type of pattern that repeats itself over and over in Israel coalition negotiations. One week the parties are on the verge of an agreement, and the next week the deal is off.

 An Iranian missile is displayed during a rally marking the annual Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Tehran, Iran April 29, 2022. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS) An Iranian missile is displayed during a rally marking the annual Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Tehran, Iran April 29, 2022. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

IN BOTH cases, what all the twists and turns do is breed a degree of disinterest in the public. Why pay close attention to all the details, when everything changes so significantly, so rapidly, and when no one seems to know what is truly going on behind closed doors?

As a result, despite what some may argue are nothing less than existential consequences for Israel of a renewed Iranian nuclear deal, it is difficult not to detect a ho-hum attitude among the public to the entire affair.

For instance, an August 31 poll released by the Israel Democracy Institute found that a political party’s platform on foreign policy and security issues, including, it is assumed, Iran, is the most important factor in deciding which party to support for only 12% of the respondents, behind economic issues (31%), the identity of the party leader (17.5%), and religion and states issues (15%).

Why do Israelis no longer care about Iran's nuclear threat?

The public’s relative apathy toward this issue is the product of multiple factors. The first is that there is simply Iran-nuclear fatigue. The issue has been around for so long – as far back as 1992, when then upstart MK Benjamin Netanyahu warned that within five or six years Iran would get a nuclear bomb – that the nation has become inured to the matter. The Iranian nuclear issue is background elevator music in this country, not the trumpet fanfare that some, such as Netanyahu, believe it should be.

Another factor explaining the relative apathy is that people do not see the agreement itself as an existential issue. If people genuinely believed that the mere signing of a new agreement, as opposed to Iran actually going ahead and assembling a bomb and putting a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile, was a threat to their existence, there would be much more public agitation over the matter.

That there is not a high level of agitation, an agitation that could be channeled into compelling the government to act, indicates that the public is not convinced that the agreement itself, though a bad agreement, is an existential danger.

The public, when agitated, knows how to make its sentiments felt.

For instance, at the height of the Second Intifada in 2002, when suicide bombings and runaway terrorism were making the public afraid to go downtown or ride the buses, the public clamored for the government to take more action to protect its citizens. The public demanded a security barrier be built, something that then prime minister Ariel Sharon opposed, fearful that the barrier would eventually be a final border. In the end, he relented because of the public sentiment.

That same type of sentiment, a sentiment that can move policy-makers, is not in the air today regarding the Iran issue. In 2002, building the security barrier was for many individuals truly an existential issue. That same sense has not filtered down regarding Iran.

Is a new Iran nuclear deal a good or bad thing for Israel?

And in this, the public is taking its cues from the security establishment, which itself is at odds over whether reentering the Iranian nuclear deal is a good or bad thing.

Military Intelligence reportedly believes that, at this point, reentering the agreement would actually be beneficial because it could keep Iran from enriching any more uranium to 60%, from which it is just a small technical jump to the 90% level needed for a bomb. Furthermore, it believes that under a deal, much of what has already been enriched would be removed from the country.

Others, primarily the Mossad, are reportedly arguing that the deal would be a disaster because it does not prevent Iran from developing the missiles to carry a nuclear warhead, as well as the capability to launch those missiles. In this view, once the deal expires in 2030, Iran would have both the technical capacity to assemble a bomb and the means to deliver it.

But if the security establishment cannot agree on whether reentering the deal would be good or bad for Israel in the long term, then what should the public think? This confusion helps explain the general public apathy over the matter. It’s tough to get the public worked up over an issue that is not black-or-white.

Most Israeli political parties agree about Iran

ANOTHER REASON this issue has not become a high-priority matter for voters when choosing for whom to vote is that there is little real difference between the major parties in their public positions toward the deal.

Netanyahu’s Likud, as well as Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s National Unity Party, have all come out against the deal, warning of its dangers.

Netanyahu, who has made keeping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons a lifetime mission, came out of a meeting two weeks ago with Lapid saying that he was more concerned about Iran after the meeting than before, and that Gantz and Lapid “fell asleep on the job.” He said that “the incompetence of Lapid and Gantz will be remembered in history as the Iranian nuclear failure.”

But then again, in the midst of an election campaign, what was he going to say? That his two political rivals have done a crackerjack job so far, convincing the US not to reenter the deal, or if it does, only under certain conditions?

Netanyahu’s words have not pushed the needle in the polls – his numbers did not rise a few weeks back when it looked like a deal was imminent.

The power of his comments accusing the current government of being asleep on the job has also been diluted in the eyes of the public, as it saw Gantz flying off to Washington late last month, National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata fly there last week, and Mossad head David Barnea do the same this week. In addition, Lapid held a conversation with US President Joe Biden on the matter in recent days. None of that is a sign of being asleep at the wheel.

While there are no indications that the public is overly worked up over the deal or that it is going to be a determining factor in the elections, there are indications that the politicians feel that if they do not do or say the right things, this might turn into an issue.

And this goes a long way toward explaining Lapid’s visit to the Nevatim Air Force Base on Tuesday, where, standing beside an F-35 fighter jet, he said, “It is still too early to know if we have indeed succeeded in stopping the nuclear agreement, but Israel is prepared for every threat and every scenario.

“If Iran continues to test us, it will discover Israel’s long arm and capabilities. We will continue to act on all fronts against terrorism and against those who seek to harm us,” he said. “As President Biden and I agreed, Israel has full freedom to act as we see fit to prevent the possibility of Iran becoming a nuclear threat.”

It is not the ayatollahs sitting in Tehran whom Lapid had in mind when making that comment, using the F-35 as a prop; rather, it is the undecided voters in Rishon Lezion and Rehovot.

Lapid was signaling several things in that short comment. First, that Israel is actively engaged with the Americans in trying to scuttle their reentrance into the deal, and may indeed have stopped them from doing so – something that should be credited to this government, not to Netanyahu.

Second, using the same type of language Netanyahu was accustomed to using when he was prime minister about Israel’s long arm, Lapid was signaling that he is as tough-minded about security as Netanyahu.

And by mentioning his conversation with Biden, Lapid was showing that in contrast with what might be the case were Netanyahu prime minister, he works well with Biden, and, unlike what Netanyahu has claimed in the past, Israel has not forfeited its freedom of action against Iran to the Americans.

As much as Lapid’s comments articulated his attitude toward the Iran deal, it also reflected his handlers’ reading of the mood of the Israeli public – that it wants to see Israeli determination and a state willing to act against Iran, if necessary, alongside a readiness to work with, not against, the US on this issue.

More than warning Iran, which has heard this type of rhetoric innumerable times in the past from Israeli leaders, including leaders in the current government, Lapid was giving the Israeli public what he thought it wanted to hear. Because, remember, the election is now only two months away.•