Tel Aviv Diary: Israelis Divided on Iran Deal

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and his sons ride camels as they vacation in Israel. Handout via Reuters

It's a holiday week in Israel. On Wednesday, the temperature in Tel Aviv was 84 degrees F and the beaches were packed. Last night the bars here were hopping, as the people of Tel Aviv enjoyed their Passover vacation week.

The fun and relaxation continued, despite the fact that the radio waves and television news shows were full of warnings—primarily, but not only—from the government that a terrible deal (or at least the framework for a deal) had been announced in Lausanne last week between Iran and the United States with the rest of the P+5. According to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the deal with Iran endangers the very future of the State of Israel.

The prime minister's words did fall on receptive ears in Israel. President Barack Obama has never been one of the most popular American presidents here, going back to the start of his presidency when he visited Cairo, after visiting Riyadh, and seemingly ignored Israel. The Israeli people warmed to President Obama after his visit to Israel in 2013. However, many still see his views on the Middle East as naive and as a result are skeptical he obtained the best possible deal from the Iranians.

According to reports, Israel was prepared to attack Iran three years ago, in hopes of setting back their nuclear program. At that time, President Obama allegedly deterred Israel from taking military action, with promises of enhanced sanctions to be followed by negotiations that would eliminate the threat.

To many Israelis (including Netanyahu), based on the current framework, the president did not keep his promise. They believe the current agreement is a sellout to Iran, and that the current framework legitimizes what has always been illegitimate; even if it delays the actual day that Iran might have nuclear weapons.

Critics maintain further, the fact that Iran is being allowed to keep many of its centrifuges in operation and will not be required to destroy them, nor will it be forced to close its plutonium reactor, nor its underground nuclear site, are clear concessions. Furthermore, the very fact that parts of the final agreement remain fuzzy makes it easy to see the many holes the deal contains in areas such as inspection and military research.

While Israeli politicians are unanimous in their criticism, as no one wants to be accused later of being soft on Iran, or undermining the prime minister at this critical time, in many cases academics and former security officials have taken positions that contradict the stance of the government. Both Meir Dagan and and Ephraim Levy, former heads of the Mossad, and Amos Yadlin, former head of Israel's Military Intelligence, have said that while they might prefer a better agreement, the deal is not so bad and Israel can live with it.

Yadlin, who is currently the head of the Institute for National Security Studies wrote:

This is neither a "very bad agreement," nor an "achievement of historic significance." Rather, this is a compromise that contains important achievements for the major powers in terms of setting back the Iranian nuclear program and imposing key restrictions on future development of the Iranian nuclear program, as well as unprecedented supervision. Conversely, the "agreement" provides Iran with legitimacy as a nuclear threshold state, allows it some leeway in making progress on research and development, and provides it with significant resources to continue its support for subversion and terrorism.

Yadlin's statement succinctly summarizes the views of most of the academics and members of the former ministry community.

Spokesmen for both sides of the argument have reached out to the Israeli public in an unprecedented appeal. Ben Rhodes, the president's Deputy National Security Advisor, has appeared on all the major Israeli news shows to defend the agreement with Iran; and The New York Times's Thomas Friedman's interview with President Obama has received extensive coverage and analysis here. At the same time, members of the Israeli interim government have appeared repeatedly on radio and TV denouncing the agreement.

So what do average Israelis think? Reactions to the Iranian agreement can largely be divided into three groups:

In the first group are those who are not paying attention. I speak to people all the time who say, "I never watch the news." This is the polar opposite of Israelis I first got to know over 40 year ago for whom, when the news was on the radio, silence would fall over a busload of people all straining to hear the latest development—every hour, on the hour.

Today there is no immediacy to potential threats as there once was. It is ironic that I can write these lines when eight months ago we all ran for the bomb shelters daily, as missiles fell on Tel Aviv. But in many ways that attitude and the ability to compartmentalize captures the psyche of Israelis better than anything else.

Those paying attention are split. A second group agrees with Netanyahu and believes we must do everything in our power (including working directly with the U.S. Congress) to stop the agreement.

A third group is concerned about our long-term relations with the United States and believes we can rely on our technical prowess to defend ourselves against any potential threats.

When all is said and done, the understanding reached in Lausanne after the longest marathon negotiations in U.S. history (since the Versailles Agreement at the end of World War I) was just a framework that describes a future agreement. The interpretation of this agreement seems very much in dispute.

Just today, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated that Iran will not sign any agreement unless all sanctions are lifted. Over the next two months, the airwaves—both in Israel and in the U.S.—will be filled with supporters and opponents of the deal. In the end, whether the sides will actually sign an agreement by the close of June remains an open question.

Historian Marc Schulman is the editor of An archive of his reports from Tel-Aviv can be found here.