The danger of Israeli panic over Iran - analysis

Israel’s main argument against the deal was that once it expired, its so-called “sunset provisions” would grant Iran unlimited freedom and legitimacy to enrich uranium to military-grade level. 

 FOREIGN MINISTER Yair Lapid and Britain’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss shake hands after holding a news conference in London last week. (photo credit: HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS)
FOREIGN MINISTER Yair Lapid and Britain’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss shake hands after holding a news conference in London last week.
(photo credit: HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS)

The renewed talks on a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers also saw renewed Israeli hysteria as reflected in the warnings by the “government of change” against the dangers of such an agreement. 

Most of those familiar with the issue, barring a few remaining Netanyahu mouthpieces, agree that the hysterical reaction of the former prime minister over the 2015 agreement, and the pressure he exerted on the Trump administration to abandon the JCPOA, was an egregious mistake that brought Iran dramatically closer to nuclear capacity. The US pullout from the deal dismantled the international coalition built at great pains by the Obama administration, sidelined the more moderate elements in the Iranian regime and weakened the US standing considerably in the current negotiations. 

We saw the results of the Iranian elections, the deal China signed with Tehran and, of course, the pace of uranium enrichment to a worrying level. Even at the time of the 2018 pullout, and certainly with the perspective of time, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategically flawed judgment in pushing the US to withdraw from the deal was clearly a mistake for Israel with severe repercussions that cannot be overstated.

Israel’s main argument against the deal was that once it expired, its so-called “sunset provisions” would grant Iran unlimited freedom and legitimacy to enrich uranium to military-grade level. 

That claim was false. The expiration date of the agreement did not signal only the end of restrictions on Iran but also on its partners, enabling them to renew crippling, widespread sanctions or to take any other action to block Tehran’s nuclear program in the future. What is more, Iran is also bound by terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of which it is a signatory. 

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister and alternate-prime minister Yair Lapid at the cabinet meeting, December 25, 2021. (credit: EMIL SALMAN/HAARETZ) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister and alternate-prime minister Yair Lapid at the cabinet meeting, December 25, 2021. (credit: EMIL SALMAN/HAARETZ)

It was the US withdrawal, with Israeli encouragement, that provided Iran with legitimization to enrich uranium without supervision, and not the expiration of the agreement. The other argument against the deal, its alleged failure to limit Iran’s long-range missile development and its regional subversion, was also unfounded.

Reaching agreement on all these issues could obviously not have been possible in one deal, and the decision to focus on the nuclear aspect addressed the threat most pertinent to the global proliferation regimes and to Israel in terms of its ability to confront it.

The new government has learned significant lessons from the Netanyahu governments’ failure. For example, the Bennett government was wise to restore ties with the Biden administration and renew the intimate intelligence and operational discourse on Iran with its top officials. 

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was also right in holding talks on the issue in London and Paris because he realized that the other agreement partners are more important than they were in the past, especially given that the US withdrawal means they cannot be present at the negotiating table in Vienna.

It is important to speak with the other members of the P5+1 group because US president Donald Trump already imposed all the unilateral sanctions on Iran that the US can impose alone; if the idea is to tighten sanctions in order to exert pressure, the way to do so is to take advantage of the deal’s “snapback” provisions allowing the Europeans, Russians and Chinese to restore sanctions on Iran in view of its violations of the terms of the agreement.

However, the new Israeli government has recently started sounding very much like the preceding ones, prompting concern that it is leaning toward the hysterical patterns that resulted in the mistakes of the past. 

The military option being sold to the Israeli public, and for which Israel is placing a lien on its economic achievements, is an illusion. The Iranian nuclear project is complex, widely dispersed and more fortified than those we attacked in Iraq and Syria (according to foreign news reports). What is more, Iran has accumulated scientific and technological knowhow that cannot be undone. That means Israel could probably delay the Iranian nuclear program at possibly terrible cost to our heartland, but not destroy it. 

The US is the only country that can take effective action against Iran, but neither the American administration nor public want to return to the quagmire of the Middle East after being sucked into it for many years in Afghanistan and Iraq, investing resources and human lives without seeing any return. The Americans understand that the Iranian program cannot be taken out in a surgical aerial strike, and Israel must be careful to avoid the perception of trying to drag the US into a war it does not want. 

Although far less can be achieved these days due to the US weakness for which we are partly to blame, we must realize that the diplomatic channel, backed by other international capabilities, is still the preferred path to preventing Iran’s military nuclear breakout. It is unclear whether an agreement is feasible, but experience shows that Israel would do well to cooperate with the US and with the other P5+1 states rather than briefing against them and accusing them of naiveté.

Even if an agreement is not reached, the very attempt to renew the diplomatic channel provides legitimacy for coordinated international action by other means in the future if necessary.

It is unclear whether placing the Iranian threat at the top of the agenda once again and sidelining other issues reflect an authentic sense of emergency on the part of the government, or whether this is a return to the Netanyahu strategy of manipulating Israeli anxieties over external threats in order to divert attention from the Palestinian issue. We heard Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addressing the UN General Assembly about Iran and failing to mention the Palestinian issue, and that was also the case in a recent speech he gave at the Herzliya security conference.

Iran clearly poses a significant threat, and determined action must be undertaken to address it to the extent possible. But Iran is not Israel’s greatest threat. When and if Iran obtains military nuclear capacity, Israel reportedly has significant strategic capabilities to deal with the threat and deter Iran. 

On the other hand, the Palestinian issue, which the Bennett government has avoided dealing with, is the most significant threat to Israel’s existence. Absent a leadership that will undertake to separate us from the Palestinians, we will lose either our Jewish majority or our democratic character, with both options signaling the demise of the Zionist dream.

The writer is a board member of the Mitvim Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, the Israel director of J Street – the political home of pro-Israel and pro-peace American Jews, an adviser on international affairs to the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, a former diplomat in Washington and Boston and past adviser to the president.