After Iran: Letter From Israel
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After Iran: Letter From Israel

Now, Netanyahu’s strategy demands a pivot from being right, to being smart.

Contributing Editor, The NY Jewish Week

Israeli Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu. Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu. Getty Images

Who said that Israel’s concerns wouldn’t be addressed once the West signed a nuclear deal with Iran? While the ink on the agreement was still wet, Germany had already sprung into action, talking tough in Tehran on the subject of Israel. 

That’s right. Germany’s Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel arrived in Iran on Sunday, and he was immediately addressing the subject of Israel, telling local businesspeople that when Iran questions Israel’s right to exist, this “is something that we Germans cannot accept.” 

And this wasn’t just a plea for change — it was a leveraging of Iran’s ambitions following the nuclear deal. The deal gives Iran a chance to revive its trade with the West, and Gabriel said: “You can’t have a good economic relationship with Germany in the long term if we don’t discuss such issues too and try to move them along.”

As the first visit by a Western leader following the deal, Gabriel’s was important, and these comments sound reassuring. Or rather, they would if it weren’t for the fact that the West has embraced Iranian doublespeak.

The West allowed Iran to sign a deal while upholding the lie that it hasn’t been working towards nuclear military capability. It allowed Tehran to the process of negotiations without ending the pretense that all of its nuclear exploits have been peaceful, without any requirement for Iran to come clean. It allowed the process to conclude with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif declaring jointly with the European Union’s Federica Mogherini that “we delivered on what the world was hoping for: a shared commitment to peace and to join hands in order to make our world safer.” 

In this atmosphere, Iran is unfazed by a call to change its relationship with Israel. It will consider the call to be aimed at generating news headlines, and likely to pass. In its worst-case scenario that Germany is serious, it will throw scraps by softening the anti-Israel rhetoric from top officials around the time of important trade deals. There will be no need to interfere with the domestic machine that ferments hatred towards Israel in the Persian language — the West has already shown its tolerance for doublespeak.

The brief comments by Gabriel in Tehran underscore the sorry situation for Israel following the nuclear agreement. Even its good friend Germany, with which it is currently celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations, has nothing to say that genuinely softens the blow of this nuclear deal. Israel’s allies can just repeat the mantra that this deal will stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, and sidestep the subject of the extra money that Tehran will have at its disposal to fund the terrorists who maraud on the country’s borders. 

Yet the time has come for Israel to give them something to say — to direct the conversation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should now be refocusing from a general fight against the deal to the need for extremely clear understandings on what will happen if the agreement passes and Iran violates it. 

Netanyahu put up a strong fight against the deal. He also emboldened opposition in Congress. And on Sunday, he made his utter disdain for the deal clear on American television networks. Now, he needs prioritize being smart over being right. He would be well advised to leave the final fight to derail the deal in Congress as an American affair, argued on American terms. The key figures can always quote him and cite Israel’s security if and when they see fit, without his active involvement.

He knows that the chances of Congress derailing the deal are limited, and needs to make the most of the weeks leading to the vote. And also with this prognosis in mind, he needs to make supreme efforts to rebuild relationships with the White House. This, too, is in Israel’s strategic interest. 

The Iran deal prompted new rumors here suggesting that, in response, a unity government is imminent. Despite the denial of opposition leader Isaac Herzog, the rumors refuse to die — and many Israelis think that a unity government is some kind of magic pill that will make the country stronger in the face of the Iranian threat. It isn’t and it won’t. Herzog and his Zionist Union party are supportive of Netanyahu’s positions on Iran from outside of the government. The world knows this, and a unity government will not strengthen Israel in the face of the Iranian threat — except for in one respect.

This respect is that it would provide a foreign minister who could rebuild ties with the White House, in the form of the center-left Herzog. Israel currently has no full-time Foreign Minister, with Netanyahu filling the role and the hard-right Tzipi Hotoveli serving as deputy foreign minister. 

A bridge-building foreign minister can be drafted without the need for a unity government. And Netanyahu can take his pick of conciliatory Israelis with strong U.S. ties, as anyone can be appointed government minister, not only members of Knesset. In fact, the practical step of appointing a dedicated foreign minister, if the right pick is made, may not only help with the challenge of Israel’s America relationship, but also capitalize on one opportunity that the Iran deal presents — namely bolstering Israel’s position in its own region. Other local players, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, are also concerned by the deal and by Iran’s next moves, and the coincidence of interests could be leveraged to improve Israel’s relations with such states. 

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.

 

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