Iran Again – CONTINUED: Part 3: The Zionist Union Position
I will begin with the position of Isaac Herzog (Buji) and the Zionist Block, both because it picks up on the query on whether Buji is also a hawk and agrees with Netanyahu (Bibi) on Iran and because the discussion is a great segue into an analysis of the effects of the dispute over the Iran nuclear deal on Israeli-U.S. relations. To set up the discussion, I begin with an analysis of Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin’s essay posted on the Institute for National Security website. Yadlin, its director, is a former head of Israeli intelligence (2006-2010) who was slated to become Defense Minister if the Zionist Block won. He had served the IDF for decades and had been a deputy commander of the Israeli Air Force and had commanded two flight squadrons and two air bases. Two weeks after the framework agreement between the P5+1 and Iran was announced, Yadlin posted his essay.
There is nothing radically new in the essay. It reiterates themes he has stressed for years. Before even the Plan of Action in dealing with Iran was announced, Yadlin had emphasized in speech after speech the fundamental foundation of Israeli security – a strong alliance with the U.S. For Yadlin, that foundation is built on the strategic analysis that the U.S. and Israel share common security interests and that the U.S. can rely on Israel as an ally as an important strategic asset. The foundation is based on key common interests, interests which have grown with the rise of radical Islam and the recent turmoil throughout the Middle East.
There is a major difference however. While both allies share the strategic goal of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, the two countries have different timelines with Israel wanting and needing Iran to remain non-nuclear for a much longer period. Further, for the U.S., it is acceptable if the nuclear and the weaponization programs are dealt with as separate baskets. But for Israelis, the two issues are inseparable. In the build-up towards the Israeli elections this past winter, Yadlin’s own vision of the foundation for Israeli security came into stark relief. Yadlin did not hold back in attacking Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.
First, Yadlin echoes the criticism that Bibi was not only interfering in Obama’s relations with Congress, but was doing so to make domestic capital in the IsraeIi elections, a charge I have refrained from making. For Yadlin, interfering between the President and Congress is equivalent to original sin. Israel has always relied on a major power for military and strategic purposes. In recent decades, the U.S. has been Israel’s sole protector. Therefore, when initiating any foreign policy action, Israel must act in tandem with the U.S., though not always with American endorsement. Hence the mantra: it is forbidden that Israel become an issue of contention between the U.S. and Israel.
Though I focus on the nuclear issue and foreign policy towards Iran, this premise applies to Israeli relations with the Palestinians and Israeli actions on the Golan, for both will necessarily be affected by a fallout between the American president and Israel. This will be especially true as the Palestinian Authority seeks to go the international route both through the court in The Hague and through the Palestinians requesting a new motion in the Security Council. As Yadlin repeatedly stated, a speech in Congress would do nothing to forge better relations with the Executive branch of the American government, whereas utilizing discrete channels with America’s National Security Council, the Pentagon, and Secretary of State may. As he reiterated, “The Iranian nuclear program will be stopped by using wisdom, along with operational and political measures. The cooperation with the United States is critical for this.” Yadlin accused Netanyahu of causing enormous damage to the need for collaboration between Israel and its allies.
In that line, Yadlin wrote about how to bridge the gap between Israel and Washington. Netanyahu had himself backpedalled to the same position, moving from an insistence that Iran’s total nuclear capacity be dismantled to acceptance that it would and could not be. But the shift was barely noticed in the rhetoric denouncing the deal. The Zionist Union and Likud are on the same page on some issues that differentiate both Israeli groups from Washington. They are: 1) threat perception and the difference between an existential and simply a military threat; 2) the weight of history Israelis as Jews carry versus American fears of getting bogged down in another unwinnable war; 3) given these as well as the enormous huge gap between American and Israeli capabilities, Israel wants a much longer period to a breakout than one year; 4) given all of that, Israel needs a firmer and less flexible redline than the U.S.; and 5) the greater unwillingness of the U.S. to contemplate the alternative of war and the recognition by the U.S. of the fluidity of the sanctions regime then considered to be operating at its peak whereas military action remains on the front burner in Israeli strategic planning.
On all of these issues, the Zionist Block shares a common outlook with Bibi. They differ on whether these differences demand confrontation or greater coordination. But instead of cooperating in the negotiations, Bibi opted for confrontation. Instead of ironing out the difference between insisting on a maximum of 3,000 versus 6,500 operating centrifuges, America negotiated hard but only managed to whittle the number down to 5,000, but did win a concession that they would all be old-style slow centrifuges. America did come close to the Israeli target of getting the enriched uranium stockpile down from 9,000 kg. to 300. Israel wanted the deal to be enforced for twenty years. The U.S. settled for a mixture of 10 years on some issues and 15 on others. Further, the accountability and inspection system was made mandatory. As Israel wanted, both Fordow and Arak are to be made inoperable for producing nuclear weapons. The big difference which unites the U.S. and Israel against Iran to this day is whether relief from sanctions will be gradual upon proof of compliance or whether relief will be total upon signing the agreement.
In effect, when the deal was announced the terms demonstrated that the U.S. was much closer to the Israeli fallback position than most observers expected. What Yadlin then called for was developing a joint U.S.-Israeli plan for dealing with failures in compliance. But instead of cooperation and coordination, Bibi chose confrontation. In Amos Yadlin’s interpretation, analysis and recommendations concerning the Framework Agreement, entitled, “The Lausanne Statement on the Iranian Nuclear Program: Insights and Recommendations” (6 April 2015), Yadlin focused on what was needed to strengthen the deal, not on Israeli differences with the White House over the deal. Hence the Zionist Block position calling for intensive talks with the U.S. administration as the negotiations for a final agreement proceed to ensure clarification on some murky areas and that appear to Israeli strategic thinkers as “problematic.” Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni both echoed this message. Further, they emphasized the point of coming to an agreement over an alternative plan if Iran does violate the agreement.
I have gone into such detail because this is very far from a hawkish position. Just because the Zionist Block agreed with the fallback position of Netanyahu, to repeat, often totally obscured by his own rhetoric, they radically disagreed on the severity of the differences between the U.S. and Israel and on how to deal with those differences. As the Zionist Union policy document stated: “Instead of a policy that leaves Israel without a meaningful influence on the world powers’ decision-making process, Israel must immediately hold a comprehensive, intimate and deep strategic discussion with the U.S. about all of the relevant issues and to complete the discussion before the completion of the final agreement.” As a last resort, the Zionist Union wanted to get a U.S. agreement that if Iran breaches its commitments, the option of a military strike will be on the table, or, at the very least, Israel will be permitted to exercise that option.
Thus, when one gets into the nitty gritty, especially when comparing Netanyahu’s fallback position with that of the Zionist Block, the disagreements between the Zionist Union and Netanyahu are no more substantive than the differences between Israel and the U.S. As Herzog said, “We are committed to a determined, all-out fight to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and continue to give full support to this cause…In this matter, there is no division between the coalition and the opposition.”
However, the tactics of handling those differences are radically at odds. Netanyahu’s tactics deeply undermined U.S.-Israeli relations. Further, Netanyahu continued to insist on shutting down far more facilities in Iran than the P5+1 agreed to. As well, he insisted that sanctions only be lifted, not only when Iran was in full compliance with the terms of the deal, but when Iran ends its “aggression in the region, its worldwide terrorism, and its threats to annihilate Israel.” The add-ons as well as the radical difference in tactics, but not in goals, whether sincerely or politically motivated, would in every expert’s estimation sink the deal.
What really dramatically differentiates Buji from Bibi in the management of the Iran-U.S. file is that Buji refuses to follow Bibi’s lead in openly challenging Israel’s chief benefactor and protector, diplomatic defender and military supplier. Buji trusts Obama to get the best deal possible. Bibi distrusts Obama and characterizes any deal in apocalyptic terms as the worst possible. Buji characterizes Bibi’s approach as one which “led us to a situation of total lack of trust—total lack of trust between the administrations or their leaders. Now it’s essential—it’s essential to have trust between the leaders, not only the professionals, not only the government level, but the leaders. It’s a fact. It’s a fact that there is no trust at all between the president and the prime minister.”
Buji did not ape Bibi’s position on Iran. Instead he emphasized both the fundamental commonality as well as the radical differences. They reveal clearly that Isaac Herzog is not a hawk. Further, the suggestion that when the Zionist Union position paper on the Lausanne Framework agreement came out and said that the agreement was “an issue on which there is no coalition or opposition,” that Herzog was making an underhanded bid for a grand coalition in which he would be made Foreign Minister, has no foundation. Read the text. The differences are made perfectly clear. So are the agreements about Iran as a threat. But the two sides differ radically on how to deal with the negotiations in general and the relations with the United States in particular. The paper does not present the framework agreement as a negative development, but, on the contrary, as a positive agreement that could be improved. Further, the proposals for improvement are not “similar, or even identical, to a list of changes” proposed by Netanyahu. There are some overlaps, but the two leaders are traveling in opposite directions though, in Buji’s statement, towards the same goal.
Tomorrow: Iran Again – CONTINUED: Part 4: The U.S.-Israeli Relations