Israel's real Iran deal fear: US disengagement from Middle East - opinion

What makes this situation of great concern is what it says about American involvement in the world.

 US PRESIDENT Joe Biden delivers remarks on Afghanistan during a speech at the White House in August.  (photo credit: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA)
US PRESIDENT Joe Biden delivers remarks on Afghanistan during a speech at the White House in August.
(photo credit: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA)

In October 2019, Donald Trump stunned Israel and pretty much every other American ally when announcing his decision to withdraw troops from Syria. The move was made as a gesture to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan whose hostility for the Kurdish forces the US was supporting was no secret.

The Israeli shock was hard to hide. Concerned how it would grapple alone with the growing presence of Iranian and Russian forces in Syria, all Israelis – from across the political spectrum – cried out in protest. While the US never went ahead with the full withdrawal – it did downscale numbers – Trump’s move should not have surprised a soul in Jerusalem.

The reason is because ever since the presidency of Barack Obama, the US has been on a clear trajectory of scaling back its presence in the Middle East, partly a reactionary move to the two terms of George W. Bush, which saw wars started in Afghanistan and Iraq, and partly due to an understanding that after years of not seeing success it was time to bring the troops home.

This is important to keep in mind because the tension right now being felt between Jerusalem and Washington DC is not just about the possibility that the Biden administration will lead the P5+1 into a bad deal with Iran. It is about something far broader – the future of American involvement in the Middle East.

The signs are worrisome. Already during the campaign, Joe Biden – like Trump – vowed to end the so-called “forever wars,” first and foremost the one in Afghanistan. When he abruptly pulled out last summer, though, Americans and the rest of the world were aghast; not because Biden kept his word but because of the consequences and the Taliban’s immediate takeover of the country.

 TALIBAN FORCES patrol in front of  Hamid Karzai International Airport  in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 2 (credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS) TALIBAN FORCES patrol in front of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 2 (credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS)

For Biden, however, it seemed that the consequences were less important. What was important was getting out. What happened next mattered less.

And this is what Israel’s fear is when it looks at the Iran talks that took place last week in Vienna and which were renewed on Thursday. Deep down, Israel has understood for a while that not much can be expected from the talks, but the opposition to a possible deal needs to be looked at not just because of what it means for Iran, but also because of what it means for America.

The question is whether Biden really cares, and that is something about which Israel is not yet certain. On the one hand, there is the Biden promise that Iran will “never” be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon. On the other hand, his refusal to take more aggressive steps, to up US threats against Iran beyond the boilerplate “all options are on the table” creates concern in Jerusalem that the president wants to do with Iran what he did with Afghanistan – make a deal, get out and forget about the consequences.

Biden should not be envied. The hand he received when entering office was not good. When Trump pulled out of the Iran deal in 2018, nothing came in its place, and when Iran went ahead and violated the deal – upping enrichment of uranium and more – there was no real price to pay. Trump officials figured that if they had won the 2020 election, Iran would not have had a choice but to surrender to a tougher deal. That of course never happened.

From the beginning, it was obvious that Biden was going to try to return to the deal. He made that clear during the campaign. Israel’s goal was to try to get him to fight for a tougher deal, one that would ensure Iran stays further away from a bomb than before.

ONE OF the problems in the way Israel and the US view the Iranian nuclear program is that the countries are often looking at different cutoff lines. Israel does not want Iran to become even a nuclear threshold country, one that has amassed enough enriched uranium, has mastered all of the processes to build a bomb and is now just waiting for the decision to do so.

The US looks at things differently. It, like Biden has said, does not want Iran to get a bomb. Stopping it at the threshold, therefore, is not as important when just preventing a bomb is the goal.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett knows this, just like he knows that all the threats coming out of Jerusalem are not being taken seriously by the US, Iran or any of the other parties to the nuclear negotiations. The reason is because, for the moment, Israel does not have a viable military option available. That might change but it will take some time.

However, even once there is a military option on the table, the proponents of using it need to keep in mind that attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities is not like the attack against Syria’s reactor in 2007 or Iraq’s reactor in 1981. Then, both countries had one main facility above ground that once it was destroyed, pretty much meant the end of the nuclear program. In addition, the scientific know-how was foreign. In Syria, the reactor was being built by North Korea and in Iraq by the French.

In Iran, the technical know-how is domestic. Iranians are building the facilities and the centrifuges. Iranians are operating them and Iranians are enriching the uranium. This is a huge difference, since even if Israel were to attack and severely damage some of the facilities, the knowledge would still be there. That cannot be attacked in the same way.

Does that mean all is lost? No. Israel is a powerful country, and while it would face an unprecedented threat from a nuclear Iran, that would not mean the end of the Zionist dream. Israel would still have means to defend itself as needed. 

What makes this situation of great concern is what it says about American involvement in the world. Israelis like to say that, if needed, they will know how to protect themselves by themselves, but there is no underestimating the importance of the alliance with the US. 

An America uninterested in the Middle East means an America that will no longer feel compelled to supply Israel with the most advanced weapons platforms, an America that would not feel a need to veto anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations Security Council, and an America that would not care if Israel normalizes ties with additional Arab states.

Ironically, it was exactly this policy in the Middle East under Barack Obama that helped bring Israel and the Gulf states together. When the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain saw the US make a bad deal with Iran, they knew they needed a new strategic partner, and there was no one better at the time than Israel.

While that is positive, it is not yet a replacement for the United States and the value of the strategic alliance with Israel. However, it doesn’t mean that Israel does not need to start considering what will happen if this policy of disengagement continues. And that, ultimately, is what has people in Jerusalem concerned.

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OVER THE last two years, we’ve become used to arbitrary decisions being made by the government pertaining to the battle against the spread of the coronavirus. During lockdowns, for example, there were different distances you could travel from your home. First it was one kilometer and then 500 meters. Why the difference? Who really knows?

Another example was the decision by the government in October not to accept American recovery certificates since they are not digitized like in the European Union. What this meant – back when Israel was open to foreigners in November – was that someone from Estonia who recovered from COVID-19 and had no ties with the Jewish state could be allowed in, but someone who runs a Jewish organization with deep ties in Israel and had recovered as well, could not.

There were plenty of cases like this. Heads of organizations, trustees of massive foundations that gave money to Israeli hospitals and more, were not allowed into Israel last month because they had recovered and only had one or two shots, not the three mandated by Israel. 

Does this make sense? Not at all. The same absurdity was evident this week when Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked decided – after a smart campaign by advocacy groups – to allow parents of expectant mothers into Israel to help with the births and child care. These are all women and men who are fully vaccinated but because of the ban on foreigners were not being allowed in. 

The reason? Who knows anymore? 

After two years into this pandemic, it is time for Israel and other countries to realize that shutdowns and closures are no longer effective tools. Life has to be able to go on. People need to vaccinate and once they are, the restrictions need to be limited. 

Instead, the government in Jerusalem prefers panic over reasoning. Pfizer says that someone vaccinated with three shots is protected against Omicron? So what, says the Health Ministry, which wants to keep the ban on foreigners and the extended quarantine upon arrival in the country in place. 

Why? It’s unclear. The government led by Bennett needs to articulate a clear policy and not be led by civil servants whose job is to scare the public and arbitrarily exempt one country and ban another. That would be called leadership.