The future of the Iran nuclear program is the most important strategic issue facing both the US and Israel. It is also a world issue, because if it is not handled correctly, the implications for nuclear weapons proliferation are dire. A Middle East nuclear arms race — the likely scenario of a perceived bad nuclear deal — would be a disaster. Given the instability in what can only be described as a failed region, the last thing that is needed in the Middle East is for this crucial issue to become a political football.
While nearly all the most important actors fear a bad nuclear deal, the politics of the Israeli elections have worked to create a deep sense of disunity over the Republican Party’s invitation for Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak on the Iran issue before Congress. This is regrettable. Netanyahu and the Republicans were unwise to keep President Obama out of the loop. And they were also unwise to attempt to politically grandstand an issue of such grave importance. But a bad nuclear deal or another extension of the current interim deal is something that both Likud and Labor, Republicans and Democrats, simply cannot allow to happen. The timing of the current sanctions legislation can easily be delayed right up to July 1st or even after. This is not the most important issue, and Prime Minister Netanyahu and Speaker of the House Boehner would be unwise to make it so. What needs to be done is for all Israeli political parties, and a bilateral consensus of Republican and Democratic legislators, to unite behind the strategic position of firmly supporting only a good nuclear deal.
Even though this is election season in Israel, it is not the time to kick the political football around. However, the Labor Party would be unwise to characterize the Netanyahu invitation as merely an election ploy. The invitation expresses a deep concern within both American political parties that the president of the US is more concerned with a deal (any deal) than with a good strong deal. In fact, on November 26th of 2014, potential Labor Party Minister of Defense Amos Yadlin wrote an incredibly incisive essay entitled “Kicking the Can Down the Road: Another Extension of the P5+1”. In this important essay for the Institute for National Security Studies (which Mr. Yadlin heads), the new Labor Party security leader emphatically insisted that the current interim deal cannot be allowed to become a “de facto final deal”. On this vital conclusion, nearly everyone in the US and Israel agree. Only the current administration in Washington is suggesting that a further extension might become necessary. And why would there need to be an extension after July 1st?
Perhaps the reason is that the White House knows that, after two previous extensions, a good deal with Iran is probably impossible, and President Obama doesn’t want to face up to the consequences. The American president talks about “all options being on the table” but this Obama red line is as wavering as many others. All of Israel — Labor Party, Likud, and everyone else — simply does not have the time for such indecision. As Mr. Yadlin points out in his INSS Insight No. 634: “The goal is to roll Iran back from the threshold, where it is at the present, and block any possible route to a bomb”. Nothing in Mr. Yadlin’s essay suggests that the dangerous Obama administration game of “managed irresolution” is (in any way, shape or form) acceptable. On the issue of a good nuclear deal with Iran, one can only assume that Team Netanyahu-Ya’alon and Team Herzog-Yadlin are almost on the same page.
If Prime Minister Netanyahu were a truly wise national leader, he would invite Isaac Herzog and Amos Yadlin to accompany him to Washington in a dramatic show of unity. Netanyahu would rigorously avoid any mention of proposed American sanctions legislation (until at least July 1st) and adhere to the criteria set out in the Yadlin essay. It is far too late in the game for Iran to totally remove all its enrichment capacity (not without a completely new paradigm, a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East). But a good strong deal is in both Labor’s and Likud’s interest. Ironically it is Yadlin, not Netanyahu, who has put forth the structure of such a compromise deal. Netanyahu would be wise to read the Yadlin essay and formulate his Washington speech accordingly. With Herzog and Yadlin in the Congressional Gallery, and perhaps the secular centrist candidates as well, President Obama would be sent a powerful pre-election Israeli message: On the issue of the Iran nuclear program — all of Israel is united!
The Netanyahu game plan, to attempt to isolate the American president through the unwise use of the Republican Party, has backfired. All it has done is to alienate a wide spectrum of the Democratic Party. This is not in Israel’s interest. Only a dramatic investment in national unity can save Netanyahu from permanently damaging the US-Israel relationship through the misuse of electioneering and base politics. The prime minister of Israel needs to rise to the occasion. He could use the Yadlin essay as a lever toward an historic national unity speech (within two weeks of an Israeli election) to demonstrate non-partisan solidarity on the Iran file. This speech could also include Iran’s support of terrorism and hegemony within the region. But old-fashioned politics, even during an election, must now take a back seat to statesmanship. To heal the rift with the US Democratic Party will require a level of unity of purpose rarely seen in Israel, or anywhere else for that matter. But in Israel there is a fundamental agreement on Iran, and that agreement needs to be clearly shown. Everyone opposes a bad nuclear deal, and “kickin’ the can down the road” is no answer. In fact, as Yadlin says: “The establishment of the interim agreement as a de facto final agreement will maintain Iran as a threshold country only a few months away from a bomb if it decides on a nuclear breakout.”
Maybe after such a dramatic Congressional demonstration of pre-election Israeli unity, a follow-up White House meeting would certainly be in order. With the Labor Party’s two leaders in attendance (along with a chastened Prime Minister Netanyahu), the US Democratic Party and its potential 2016 presidential candidates would be astonished by the symbolism. So would President Obama. Not to mention, of course, the powerful message it would send to Tehran, Europe and the world. The ball is in the court of Likud. It is up to the prime minister to reach out to his Labor Party colleagues. Mr. Netanyahu has fumbled the American football. And in America’s version of the game, when you fumble, it is your job to dive into the dangerous pile in order to save the day.
But there are risks for Labor as well, especially if they refuse to compromise with the prime minister on the Iran nuclear file. Labor’s reputation on national security is not sufficiently strong with Israeli public. For Labor to play politics on top of politics would only diminish that reputation further. Unity of purpose would place this election in a very different place than nearly all other Israeli elections. But the threat of an Iranian nuclear breakout capacity requires just such a unity of purpose. The Amos Yadlin essay should be read by all Israelis and Americans. Then the idea of national unity on Iran between Labor and Likud, Republican and Democrat, would not seem far-fetched at all.
Yes, the Netanyahu Congressional speech idea has turned into a nasty political football. But with courage, imagination and plain old surprise, national unity on the issue of Iran could turn what was a fumble into an Israeli touchdown!