Tel Aviv Diary: Israelis Anxious About Straining Links With the U.S.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on August 5. Over the past few weeks, the author writes, Israelis have begun to look nervously at events taking place in Washington regarding the Iran nuclear deal, and some are calling on Netanyahu to stop waging a rearguard action that harms Israel’s interests. Dan Balilty/Pool/Reuters

Updated | When the nuclear agreement with Iran was reached, I wrote a piece on Israel's response to the deal.

Before I actually started talking to people, I was sure my article would say something to this effect: "While until now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had the support of almost all Israeli politicians, as well as the public, now that the agreement has been finalized, if he continues to protest against it he might find himself alone in that fight."

After interviewing and speaking with a wide range of Israelis, I ended up writing a very different article: reporting that the majority of Israelis truly stand with Netanyahu.

Over the past few weeks, most Israelis across the political spectrum began to look nervously at the events taking place in Washington as Netanyahu, supported by a large segment of the organized Jewish community, staked out positions on one side and President Barack Obama and his supporters (including the remainder of the Jewish community) held their ground on the other side.

Both sides have chosen to engage in scorched-earth tactics in their fight over the fate of the agreement in Congress. Concerns about how Congress will vote on the deal reached a strident pitch after twin speeches—first one by Netanyahu to the Jewish community via video conference, followed by Obama's response at American University to what Netanyahu said. In each, both leaders "protested too much" that the current disagreement will not affect future relations.

In Netanyahu's speech, he said, "It wasn't long, certainly not that long ago, that the Jewish people were either incapable or unwilling to speak out in the face of mortal threats, and this had devastating consequences." The prime minister called on American Jewry to not remain silent in the face of this threat.

Obama's speech contained a long defense of the agreement. In response to Netanyahu's remarks, he said, "I recognize that Prime Minister Netanyahu disagrees, disagrees strongly. I do not doubt his sincerity. But I believe he is wrong. I believe the facts support this deal. I believe they are in America's interest and Israel's interest. And as president of the United States, it would be an abrogation of my constitutional duty to act against my best judgment simply because it causes temporary friction with a dear friend and ally. I do not believe that would be the right thing to do for the United States. I do not believe it would be the right thing to do for Israel."

Israeli politicians and others remained reluctant to voice their disapproval of Netanyahu's strategy, until the above exchange and until President Reuven Rivlin gave an interview in which he strongly criticized Netanyahu, saying:

The most important strategic asset Israel has is its relationship with the United States; the second most important strategic asset Israel has is its relationship with the United States; and the third most important strategic asset Israel has is its relationship with the United States.

Rivlin's words opened a floodgate of criticism against Netanyahu. Knesset member Omer Bar-Lev of the Zionist Camp, a former commander of the elite forces unit Sayeret Matkal, wrote a long Facebook post asserting that the agreement with Iran is not bad. Moshe Kaplinsky, a former commander of the Central Command and a military adviser to Ariel Sharon, appeared on Channel 10's nightly news and said what is going on in Washington is a disaster and will weaken Israel. "We must accept the fact that this is a done deal, and that the Americans do not have to ask us before they enter into an agreement," he added.

Speaking August 9 to a group of congressional members brought to Israel by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog said the agreement with Iran is not a good deal and went on to criticize two of its main points. First, he expressed deep concern that the effects of releasing money to Iran "might destabilize the region between moderate and extreme nations." Further, he is disturbed that the agreement recognizes Iran will be a nuclear threshold state in 10 to 15 years, unlike its status now. Herzog continued:

However, there is a big "but" between Netanyahu and me in the following—I have no intention of intervening in American politics. I have no intention of telling you what to vote for, and I have no intention of directly challenging...the White House and the President of the United States. I think the relationship between our countries is key to Israel's national security.... I think arguments between us and the United States are arguments between the family. We must set rules on how we argue and we may not cross some lines.

Zahava Gal-on, head of the Meretz opposition party, has supported the agreement all along while recognizing some of its weaknesses. He said that "what the government of Israel needs to do now is put an end to the unnecessary icy relationship with the White House and dissociate from any field attempts to carry out a coup against the president in the U.S. Congress."

Even opposition leader Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, whom I interviewed the day the agreement was announced, spoke about his intention to join the fight against it in Congress. He said on July 9:

For 67 years Israel took care to not be aligned with any party.... Today, Israel is [seen as being] on the side of the Republican Party. We have no way of maintaining the allegiance [with the U.S.] if we don't repair this damage. The damage has Netanyahu's name on it, so he is the one who must repair it.

In Netanyahu's speech, he lamented, "Here in Israel, Isaac Herzog, the leader of the Labor opposition, the man who ran against me in this year's election and who works every day in the Knesset to bring down my government, Herzog has said that there is no daylight between us when it comes to the deal with Iran." That is no longer the case.

It is likely that if a poll were held in Israel today, Netanyahu would still have the support of the majority of Israelis. However, the extent to which this fight has led to a souring of relations between the U.S. and Israel has given many Israeli pause. As a result, a significant number of Israelis are calling on the government to accept reality and stop fighting a rearguard action that harms Israel's interests.

Marc Schulman is the editor of historycentral.com.

Correction: This article previously incorrectly attributed a quote on the impact of Washington's decisions on Israel to Yossi Kuperwasser. The quote was made by Moshe Kaplinsky.