Israel's Politicians Are Divided—But Not on Iran | Opinion

On Wednesday night, President Joe Biden called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The call came a month into Biden's Presidency, and its delay triggered a great deal of speculation in Israel. Was Biden seeking a little revenge against Netanyahu for his close support for Republicans, or for Netanyahu's failure to reach out to Biden when he visited America last year? Or perhaps the hold-up was this just the low priority Biden currently attributes to the Middle East, as he focuses on domestic affairs, and rebuilds American ties to Europe and Asia?

Whatever the reason, one item discussed on the call has become urgent: what to do about Iran's nuclear program, and whether or not the U.S. should rejoin the current agreement. The imperativeness of the conversation between the two leaders is underscored by Iran's announcement that as of February 23rd it would stop the voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol that allowed for snap inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities.

A few weeks earlier, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi addressed this year's virtual INNS (Institute for National Security Studies) Conference. As part of his speech, Kochavi stated that a return to the Iran nuclear deal, even with some improvements, would be a disaster. Kochavi's remarks, made only days after Biden pledged to find a way to return to the deal, set off a round of criticism in Israel. Even the head of the Mossad disparaged him for making the statement.

Questions about Kochavi's declaration divided into two parts: 1) whether or not it is appropriate for the Army Chief of Staff to take a stand on policy that hasn't even been determined yet; and 2) whether making a definitive public statement so early in the Biden Administration is a smart move. Others in Israel's security world have voiced the view that while the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) was far from perfect, it is in Israel's interest to maintain the deal.

Kochavi's declaration and the controversy that ensued brought the fate of the JCPOA during the Biden era to public consciousness in Israel, more recently far more preoccupied with the pandemic and the economy. The Iranian nuclear program has been Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's signature issue throughout his premiership. Netanyahu's relentless efforts to bring the dangers of any Iranian nuclear program to the world's attention are, without a doubt, a primary reason the United States and the world powers made efforts in 2015 to reach an agreement to freeze the program; a program that has been repeatedly delayed through covert actions by Israel and other powers.

However, once the agreement was reached, instead of embracing the deal as a good even if imperfect first step, Netanyahu came out publicly against the JCPOA—going so far as to collude with Congressional Republicans, behind President Barak Obama's back. Netanyahu's opposition to the JCPOA resulted in Israel losing a seat at the table during discussions on program details. The Iran deal was approved, despite Netanyahu's opposition. Many Obama supporters will long remember what they consider as deep disrespect shown to Obama by Netanyahu.

With the election of Donald Trump as President, Netanyahu found a willing ear. Trump, whose only clear policy position was to undo anything Obama had done, was more than ready to exit the JCPOA agreement unilaterally. The reason Trump was willing to leave the deal is clear, but why Netanyahu (who knew Trump) believed that a unilateral U.S. exit from the agreement was a good idea, is a harder question to answer.

The failure of the pressure doctrine

The Trump administration thought it could exert enough economic pressure on Iran to force it to come crawling back, and allow negotiation of a new, better agreement. Unfortunately, there was never any real chance of that happening. Netanyahu should have known that. As part of the terms of the first agreement, Iran received the money held in escrow for many years on its behalf. Furthermore, thanks to the Trump Administration's unilateral policies regarding numerous matters of importance to other countries in the West (including, but not limited to the Paris Climate Accord), the European nations saw no reason to go along with America's independent actions.

Moreover, Russia and China, who had been signatories to the original JCPOA agreement, were now interested in deepening their relations with Iran. Neither had any enthusiasm for the Trump Administration's new, tougher sanctions. The only chance the Trump Administration's actions might have worked was if Iranians believed the United States might take military action against them. But after the U.S. did not respond to a direct Iranian attack on Saudi oil fields, it was clear that no realistic military option existed.

The Iranians responded to the American departure from the accord by violating the agreement to refrain from enriching Uranium. Iran now possesses Uranium enriched to 20 percent, which puts them just a short sprint from creating enough fissionable material necessary to produce a bomb. In short, Trump's actions on Iran, inspired by Netanyahu, have been a total failure.

So, now what? Secretary of State Anthony Blinken warned that if a new agreement is not reached quickly, Iran could build a bomb. However, the Intelligence Division of the IDF believes that would take Iran about two years.

The Biden Administration has made clear its goal is to return to the JCPOA and force Iran to do so, as well. However, many in Israel fear Biden is willing to return to the old deal. After listening to Netanyahu speak about it for the past half-decade or so, most Israelis think the JCPOA was an awful agreement.

Netanyahu sets the tone

To complicate the situation, Israel is in the midst of its fourth election campaign in less than two years, and last week the next stage of the Prime Minister's trial for corruption began.

I asked a number of candidates running to replace Netanyahu what they would do regarding Iran. Gideon Saar, head of the "New Hope" party (right-of-center, but anti-Netanyahu) said:

Israel and the U.S. share the goal of preventing Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon. There is a consensus about this in Israel — and indeed in the region. To this end, I believe that returning to the JCPOA as it was would be a grave error. I welcome Secretary of State Blinken's comments that he would consult Israel about the path forward. Certainly, as Prime Minister, I will be well placed and able to advance a full and efficient dialogue with the new Administration to protect Israel's national interests.

Yair Lapid, head of the opposition and the Yesh Atid party, indirectly criticized the IDF Chief of Staff, by asserting this is not the time to get into an argument with the Biden Administration. Lapid went on to tell me there are three most likely possible paths forward—the best would be establishment of an enhanced agreement that would include limits on missile development and a stop to support of terror; the second-best would be a continuation of the sanctions against Iran; and the third option is preservation of a bad agreement. Lapid said that if there is a chance to reach a good agreement, we have to make sure that Israel is at the table.

It should be noted that when I interviewed Lapid right after the initial JCPOA was signed, he said: "I think this is a bad day for the Jewish people and the Jewish State. The P5 +1 has moved from a policy of preventing a nuclear Iran, to a policy of containment without telling anyone."

I also asked Nitzan Horowitz, head of the left-wing Meretz Party, what he thought. "Netanyahu should not try to put obstacles on Biden's intentions to negotiate a new deal with Iran," he told me. "An agreement is good for Israel, since that is the best way to deter Iran from achieving nuclear weapons. Netanyahu's position is deeply wrong. Trump's withdrawal from the agreement allowed Iran to accelerate its nuclear program. So Israel should be part of the coordination with the U.S. administration regarding the new deal with Iran. It should also include restrictions and limitations on missiles and supporting terrorism."

With less than two months before the elections, only Horowitz was willing to criticize Netanyahu directly. One of Netanyahu's election campaign slogans will undoubtedly profess that only he can be trusted to confront the Iranians. Yet, none of his political opponents I spoke to were willing to say what is clear— Netanyahu's policy relating to JCOPA has been a disaster. It has failed, and the collateral damage from that failure is a lessening of support for Israel among young American Democrats, whose vision of Netanyahu revolves around his close friendship with Trump.

So, where does that leave Israel now?

One of the JCPOA agreement's major flaws was the sunset clause that allowed certain aspects of the accord that begin to end after ten years, i.e., in another four and half years. While the limits that expire at year ten are not fatal to the agreement, they begin the slow removal of limitations on Iran's nuclear program, that become extremely significant by year fifteen. The Biden Administration has made clear that extending the deal is one of its key goals as is putting a limit on Iranian missile development. However, unfortunately, as the Obama Administration learned, one does not always achieve all they wish for in negotiations.

Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif demanded the U.S. return to the JCPOA accord in full, because, according to him, Iran never left the agreement. And moreover, that absolutely no additions to the accord would be made. In contrast, in a CBS News interview, President Biden conveyed that the U.S. would not lift sanctions until Iran returned to compliance.

As President Carter experienced over 40 years ago, engaging the theocratic Iranian regime is an almost impossible task. Before Trump exited the agreement, Iran was at least two years away from possessing the capability to make a bomb. Now, Iran is much closer to achieving that goal. This clock must be turned back. Biden, who prides himself on his ability to develop international coalitions, hopes he can build back an international consensus to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Israel will do best to get aboard that train, and help try to get the best deal possible—and most importantly, remember not to let the perfect get in the way of the good.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.