Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world, said George Bernard Shaw, while unreasonable ones try to adapt the world to themselves. With a Congressional block of the Iran nuclear deal now dead on arrival, Israel’s government desperately needs a new approach towards the United States vis-a-vis Iran.
The failure of the present course must sink in. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unprecedented interference into the American political system over the last six months was an unforgivable gamble, and has been a disaster. Treasure troves of political capital were spent, yet nothing was achieved. Israel was left out in the cold during the final negotiations in Lausanne and Vienna. Democrats, alienated by Netanyahu’s arrogance and brazenness, proved unwilling to go against President Barack Obama.
Rebounding from this fallout means accepting the deal as fait accompli and focusing on what can still be done. Arguments about whether a better deal could have been achieved miss the point. Fantasies about “tearing up” the deal or further driving Israel as a partisan wedge should be cast aside. National security strategy must be based on cold, dispassionate calculation, not electioneering or impulse.
There are positive aspects of the deal. It does a better job of blunting Iran’s nuclear ambitions than an Israeli military strike. Iran will be blocked from getting the bomb in the short run –10 to 15 years – and its breakout (“sprint”) to the bomb in the out-years will be extended from 2-3 months to at least one year. The Arak heavy water installation will have its reactor core destroyed. Arak was designed to produce plutonium; since plutonium is generally easier to produce and more powerful than uranium, it is probably the most dangerous element of Iran’s nuclear program. Arak is also virtually immune from airstrikes. Thus this move has rightly been called the “unsung concession” of the deal.
But Israel’s fears are entirely legitimate. The restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program disappear suddenly after 15 years; some after only 10. Inspections are far weaker than the “anytime, anywhere” provisions the US originally sought, and will now be largely dependent on how aggressive the IAEA decides to be. The deal does nothing to restrict Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal – the largest in the Middle East – and completely ignores its blatant support for terrorist and insurgent groups across the region. Does Secretary of State John Kerry really expect Israel to believe that Iran will not use any of the $150 Billion to support Hezbollah, simply because there is a UN resolution forbidding it?
Obama must go farther in acknowledging Israel’s concerns and take meaningful action to bolster Israeli deterrence against Iran. After all, it was his Administration that made rapprochement with Iran the top foreign policy objective, and it is Israel – not the United States – that Iran speaks openly of annihilating.
Practically, this means surpassing what is currently being discussed in terms of military aid – closer intelligence ties, increased missile defense funding, more advanced Joint Strike Fighter aircraft. These measures are certainly necessary components of improving Israel’s military edge in the region. But they are not enough. They build on existing capabilities, rather than add anything new. And they are what Iran is expecting, what it can –at least to some degree – counter.
The real game-changer in this situation would be transforming the US-Israel “relationship” into a formal alliance through a bilateral defense treaty. Mirroring the pact among NATO members, such an agreement would state unequivocally that a nuclear or conventional military attack on Israel will be considered an attack on the United States, and will bring about an American reprisal.
Establishing a bilateral defense pact with Israel is the strongest measure the US could take to deter Iran and prevent a regional war. This was the basis for the American security umbrella to Western Europe during the Cold War, which prevented nuclear conflict and Soviet aggression beyond the Iron curtain, and which today is extended to American allies like Japan and South Korea in order to contain China.
Such a step would have numerous benefits and few risks for the United States. It is defensive, rather than offensive in nature. It would demonstrate the Administration’s inviolate faith in the deal and commitment to its enforcement. It can be achieved without any new concessions to Iran. It would signal American reengagement in a region from which the US has been steadily pulling back since the Arab Spring. And it would reassure a security-conscious Israeli public that justifiably feels isolated and abandoned on the world stage.
If countering Iran is Netanyahu’s chief objective, than a military alliance with the United States is clearly Israel’s best option. Israel has, in fact, sought such a partnership almost since its inception; former Prime Ministers Shimon Peres (1996) and Ehud Barak (2000) came close to achieving it with the Clinton White House. In an age of ballistic and nuclear threats, being under the American aegis seems a necessity for Israel, rather than a choice. Could any Israeli prime minister, charged first and foremost with providing for the country’s security, really turn down such a deal?
Let bygones be bygones. In spite of the tarnished relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, the window is open for exactly the kind of dramatic agreement that will give the Islamic Republic pause before once again calling for Israel’s destruction. Netanyahu must therefore walk back from the ledge, and Obama must show, beyond the shadow of doubt in his final act, that he truly does have Israel’s back.