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Israel’s place in a new and improved Mideast

Instead of fighting the done nuclear deal with Iran, Israel needs to leverage the new opportunities it created

Last week’s agreement between Iran and the world powers, with its elimination of the Iranian nuclear threat in the foreseeable future and the lifting of sanctions on its fundamentalist regime, sets the stage for a very different — and as yet undefined — Middle East.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s outright rejection of the accord — echoed by most Israeli politicians and by the majority of its public — does precious little to prepare the country for this new reality. Instead of fighting the outcome of a global effort to prevent Iranian nuclearization (very much a result of the urging of successive Israeli leaders), it behooves those who care about Israel and its future to carefully study its diverse ramifications and adjust accordingly.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in Vienna on July 14th is arguably the most notable achievement of global diplomacy in recent years. The extensive document ironed out by the representatives of the P5+1 world leaders lays out in tedious technical detail both the terms for the closure of Iran’s nuclear weapons program (for at least the next decade) and for the lifting of the economic sanctions which have seriously affected its economy and growth. It is undoubtedly far from perfect; it is also unquestionably the successful culmination of a concerted international effort to prevent the imminent nuclearization of Iran and all that this would entail.

From an Israeli perspective, official rhetoric notwithstanding, the deal generates both substantial relief and considerable anxiety. The threat of a nuclear Iran — consistently viewed as the key existential danger confronting Israel — has been defrayed. At the same time, Iran has regained a modicum of international legitimacy — along with the economic tools to increase its deleterious influence throughout the region. The accord, therefore, presents a differentiated set of challenges not only for Israel, but also for other states in the Middle East and beyond.

The way the Netanyahu government (and much of the opposition) has decided to deal with the quite predictable opportunities and threats inherent in the agreement has, to date, been nothing less than short-sighted. The Prime Minister has launched an all-out assault on the accord and its drafters — both collectively and individually. His eagerness to dismiss the agreement out of hand is being used, domestically, to rally Israeli public opinion around yet another purported threat against Israel’s very being and, externally, to initiate a concerted campaign to thwart its implementation. On both counts, Mr. Netanyahu’s approach is mistaken and counterproductive.

During the past week, the present Israeli government has shown its determination to take on the collective consensus of the international community by focusing specifically on the current American administration and its leader. Netanyahu has directed his sights on Congress in the hope of garnering sufficient votes not only to defeat the deal on Capitol Hill, but also to override a subsequent presidential veto. In the process he has openly sparred with President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, deepened Israel’s partisan involvement with the Republican leadership, brazenly sought to divide the Democratic Party, and unconscionably further split the American Jewish community (AIPAC has rallied around the Prime Minister; J Street supports the administration).

These efforts will likely fail. They should not, in all probability, have been initiated in the first place. Even in the highly doubtful eventuality that they will bear fruit and that Congress overwhelmingly votes against the agreement twice, this alone will not halt the deal. It cannot stop processes already set in motion in Europe and the UN; it may wreak further havoc in what is already an explosive situation in the region.

For Israel, the damage wrought by government’s ill-considered tactics may be even greater. In the first place, knowingly positioning Israel against virtually the entire world — and especially its traditional allies — cannot but contribute to that isolation which it has been trying so hard to avert in recent years (while simultaneously raising more unwanted questions about its legitimacy).

Second, by openly confronting the United States, the Netanyahu government is playing directly into the hands of Iran, whose leaders are already rubbing their hands with glee at the rift between their two arch-enemies.

Third, the Prime Minister’s curious unwillingness to discuss American offers for the transfer of sophisticated weapons in the aftermath of the Vienna agreement may yet cost Israel dearly (although the visit of Secretary of Defense Carter intimates that the Israeli military establishment is open to such overtures).

Finally, and most importantly, by avoiding coming to terms with the complexities of what is, for all intents and purposes, a done deal, Netanyahu and his supporters may very well be compromising Israel’s most fundamental long-term interests.

This is why the Prime Minister’s initial success in mobilizing Israeli public opinion — along with the backing of key elites across the political spectrum — is at best a pyrrhic victory. In the first days after the signing of the agreement, it was not difficult for the coalition to prey on already highly-developed Iran-related fears. It was easy to lash out against what is officially depicted as nothing short of a naïve global capitulation to the machinations of the ayatollahs in Teheran, though it was done at the expense of accentuating a deep-seated paranoia that is skillfully nurtured by those who persist in asserting that the entire world is against Israel. They claim that only an unwavering display of national unity can guarantee Israel’s survival in these circumstances.

The government has, ironically, been aided by leading opposition figures. They have used rallying against the agreement in the name of an ambiguous notion of national security as a means of highlighting Netanyahu’s failure to prevent its realization (Yair Lapid) and as a handy rationale for at least momentarily facilitating the possibility of entering the coalition (Itzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni). With few exceptions — most notably some voices in the defense establishment and a handful of politicians on the left — the domestic consensus forged last week has reinforced the government-driven conviction that it is still possible to quash the Iranian deal.

This is an irresponsible delusion that hardly serves Israel strategically. While it may help Netanyahu politically by stabilizing his paper-thin coalition, at best it delays the necessity of confronting Israel’s new situation by a few months. At worst, it further constrains Israel’s options. Now, more than ever before, is the time to stop looking backwards and to start looking ahead in a nuanced manner. Those who lay claim to the mantle of historic leadership must engage in a serious reassessment of Israel’s alternatives in light of the impending shifts in the regional balance of power and devote themselves to a careful redesign of its policies.

Such an undertaking should not — as some in power have hinted — begin with jingoistic rhetoric that proffers military scenarios which t only further undermine Israel’s long-term viability. Rather, a much closer look should be taken at prospects for reaching an understanding with some of Israel’s neighbors.

In a new Middle East, where Iran-backed Shiite power is being bolstered to counter the ascendance of radical Sunni expansion in the form of ISIS, Israel must explore the possibility of striking a pact with moderate Arab states in what would be an updated version of the Arab Peace Initiative. The key to such an alliance remains, not surprisingly, the achievement of a lasting settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Some steps in this direction are currently under way. These, however, can gain traction only if Israel joins hands with the signatories of the Vienna accord by jettisoning its sweeping rebuff of its provisions, recognizing that it is safer today than it was scarcely a week ago, and beginning to repair its ties with the signatory powers — especially the United States.

The logic behind the accord with Iran rests on a clear preference for constructive diplomacy. Israel would do well to internalize this diplomatic spirit while carefully analyzing the post-agreement realities and strategically adjusting its policies to better serve its needs and aspirations in the years ahead.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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