Eric Leskly

Now is the Time

President Obama presented a false choice in announcing the framework for the Iran deal.  If Israel wants a peaceful resolution to Iran’s nuclear threat, he told us, this is it.  The other options are only accepting Iran’s progress to the bomb, or war.  But this is wrong.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s feckless Congressional address eroded any remaining influence Israel might have had over the negotiations in Lausanne, and divided Republicans and Democrats, as well as American Jews, over the Iran issue.  It was an unforgivable political stunt and the opposite of leadership.  But the one thing Netanyahu got right is that the alternative to a bad deal is not war: it is a much better deal.  And the United States, the far more powerful side in this negotiation, should have gotten one.

Cooler heads, like Ehud Barak, and Charles Duelfer, the former head of the United Nations weapons inspection program (UNSCOM), have pointed out the three fatal flaws of the deal: it relies heavily on Iranian compliance with inspectors, it assumes the current coalition against Iran will be willing to reinstate sanctions if Iran is found cheating, and it leaves Iran’s core nuclear infrastructure in place – closing not a single reactor or facility – thus shortening a “sprint to the bomb.”

The frustration in Israel and amongst many parts of the Jewish community is understandable.  And yet the Neville Chamberlain and Munich parallels being drawn completely miss the mark.  Iran is a deplorable and oppressive Islamic theocracy, but it is nothing close to Nazi Germany, either in capability or intent.  The deal, while soft, will slow Iran’s progress to nuclear weaponization in the short term.  Obama’s urgency for an agreement has misplayed what was a strong hand, but he and John Kerry are not the only ones who determine US foreign policy.  The next US President, who will inherit this issue, will likely take a harder line against Iran.

And most importantly, the Jewish people are not helpless victims anymore.

Israel is a regional military power and a nuclear armed state, not Czechoslovakia caught in Hitler’s crosshairs.  Israel has successfully destroyed two adversaries’ nuclear programs – albeit ones less sophisticated than Iran’s – with and without US consent.  American Jews wield enormous political influence, especially if they can forge a meaningful consensus on this issue.  The focus should therefore be on organizing that, and on what else can still be done.

The US Congress is the most pro-Israel legislative body in the world.  Yes, even more than the Knesset, a fifth of whose members are either non or anti-Zionist.  And unlike the Knesset, Congress almost always speaks with once voice on Israel.

The main task for American Jews and supporters of Israel – many of whom, after all, are not Jewish – is to shrink divisions between the Republicans and Democrats on Iran, particularly in the Senate.

Most obvious is to get enough Senate Democrats lined up to vote against a weak Iran deal or override a Presidential veto of new Congressional action against Iran.  Netanyahu’s speech did Israel no favors in this regard, but many Congressional Democrats still have a track record of being much more hawkish on foreign policy than the Obama Administration.

Moreover, the Senate has a history of rejecting international treaties and agreements brought by weak or exiting Presidents, including the League of Nations (1919) and the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (1979).  A bipartisan effort in Congress was also the driving force for sanctioning Iran in the 1990s, when the Islamic Republic restarted the Shah’s nuclear program, before the Clinton Administration took any notice.

If the White House bypasses Congressional ratification of an Iran deal, Congress could still enact new sanctions on Iran for its support of global terrorism and human rights violations.  It would be difficult for any President to veto sanctions for these offenses.  And it would be even harder for the next President, who still has to look to his or her political future.

Congress could authorize the automatic use of force (i.e. air strikes) against Iran’s nuclear facilities in the event that Iran was found cheating on the deal.  This does not violate the current deal’s framework, and would not require Democrats to go against the President.  But it restores teeth to the American use of force, which Obama has now all but taken off the table.

Finally, Congress could push for a formal security guarantee with Israel.  Despite the so-called “special relationship,” Washington and Jerusalem have no bilateral defense agreements.  This might give Iran pause before calling for Israel’s destruction.  In exchange, Israel could sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a small price to pay for coming under America’s aegis.  This would be a game changer in the Middle East.  If Obama is truly serious about having Israel’s back, then let him now step into the ring.

And if Israel perceives Iran to be an existential threat, then now is the time for it to get the rest of its house in order.

Israel’s long-term interests require a political solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.  But more than 20 years after Oslo, this seems farther away than ever.  The persistence of the conflict weakens Israel’s standing in the world – and I am not talking about hasbara (public relations)The occupation makes it harder for other liberal democracies to support Israel, and gives endless fodder to its enemies.  In particular, the pervasiveness of the conflict prevents Israel from furthering normalization with the moderate Sunni Arab countries, its chief allies against Iran.

Iran is the most important benefactor of Israel’s two mortal but far weaker enemies, Hezbollah and Hamas, against whom it has fought four inconclusive wars in less than a decade.  Even if “they only understand force,” this alone should be sufficient to demonstrate that force alone cannot solve this problem.

With Iran growing stronger, breaking the impasse with the Palestinians should become a concerted priority, instead of an indefinite option.  This means not pretending that saying “there is no partner” will solve anything.  Not to keep adding land to settlements that Israel will never retain in a future agreement, or imagine that doing so does not directly influence Palestinian perceptions about Israel’s seriousness for peace.  And not fantasizing, as the Israeli far-right currently does, that a one-state solution will not mean the end of a democratic and Jewish Israel.

A solution with the Palestinians requires the involvement of the moderate Arab countries in the region, especially Egypt and Jordan, but also Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.  It is painfully obvious that Israel and the Palestinians cannot solve the problem on their own, even with Kerry’s “messianic” efforts, and as the US (at least temporarily) pulls back from the region, the importance of these other players increases dramatically.

Israel rejected the Saudi Peace Proposal in 2002, but the reality is that Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer put forth virtually identical terms, including a Palestinian capital in part of East Jerusalem.  If Israel wants a secular, moderate Palestinian governing partner, working to achieve this in conjunction with the moderate Sunni forces in the region is the best and only realistic path forward.

That will necessitate meaningful proactive steps by Jerusalem.  The most obvious is to refrain from settlement expansion anywhere not along the Green Line or Jerusalem corridor.  A more dramatic next step would be to evacuate some of the most extreme settlements, such as Kiryat Arba, which requires an enormous security burden for the IDF, provides the Israeli public with nothing, and needlessly antagonizes the Palestinian civilian population.  Not a single Israeli soldier should be put at risk for this anymore.

I am not advocating a unilateral withdrawal.  Israel would maintain security control until an agreement with and transition to the Palestinian leadership was reached.  But it signals to the Palestinians and the moderate forces in the region that Israel is holding these territories for security reasons alone.  Not expansionism, not affordable housing, and not the Greater Land of Israel.

The perennial problem, of course, is the Palestinian leadership.  The Palestinian Authority (like the Israeli peace camp) is in desperate need of an overhaul.  The weak and unpopular Mahmoud Abbas, now 80 years old, never emerged to be the leader that Israel and the West hoped he could become and has grown only more sclerotic over time.

A better choice would be Marwan Barghouti, the former leader of Tanzim, imprisoned in Israel since 2002.  Barghouti is charismatic, credible, secular, relatively young and fluent in Hebrew.  He is organic Palestinian, not part of the corrupt Tunisian old guard.  He would be an instant rival to Hamas.  True, he has “blood on his hands,” but far less than Yasser Arafat or the hundreds of terrorists that Netanyahu has already released.  Someone like him might just provide Israel and a future Palestine with a third and better way.

Merely the start of resumed progress with the Palestinians would bring Israel closer into the Egypt-Saudi camp, and would make Jordan’s life vis-a-vis Israel much easier.  Positive momentum would also help entering into a formal military treaty with the United States.  And it would at least partially deprive Iran of its most prized proxy war and weaken the Shia Crescent emanating from Tehran.

The danger posed by an ascendant Iran is very real, and now is the time to act.  The task is not ours to finish, but neither should we tarry from it.  Not in a year from now.  Not starting on June 30.  Not next week or even tomorrow.  Today.

About the Author
Eric Leskly is a serial entrepreneur and has worked in Israel's high-tech sector.