Tel Aviv — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reaction to the deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions announced on Tuesday in Vienna was swift and unambiguous.
The deal, he said, will prove to be an “historic mistake for the world.” He accused Western negotiators of accepting a deal “at any price,” and said that Israel doesn’t consider itself bound to the agreement.
The response seemed further confirmation that the prime minister is gearing up to wage a fresh diplomatic offensive against the ratification of the agreement by Western countries, known as the P5+1 group. One of the main questions in the next few months, say analysts, will be how intensively Israel will lobby the U.S. Congress against the deal; Congress has 60 days to debate the deal, and President Obama has promised a veto if Congress votes it down.
The deal, which seeks to prevent Iran from producing a nuclear weapon for at least a decade and, in return, end economic and oil sanctions against Tehran, is already generating controversy. It will sharply reduce Iran’s uranium enrichment program and, the U.S. says, increase the breakout time for Iran to produce a bomb from about two or three months now to about a year. Nuclear facilities will be inspected but visits must be arranged first.
After U.S.-Israel ties were aggravated following Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress criticizing the deal, the prime minister needs to decide whether he wants to immerse Israel again in what is likely to shape up as a partisan battle, analysts say.
“Israel has to consider how to react on the Hill,” said Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to the European Union. “Right now the Israeli prime minister and the government will have to weigh the pros and cons between mounting an open campaign to block approval, and the benefits of starting a dialogue with the U.S. on how to deal with a possible violation of the agreement.”
Eran said a decision to jump into the congressional debate on blocking the president at this point would carry much higher stakes for U.S.-Israeli relations than Netanyahu’s criticism of the negotiations earlier this year.
“It’s one thing to raise objections and criticize elements of the agreement before it is reached, it’s a different issue to come out campaigning before Congress debates it and votes on it,” Eran said. “We already sustained damage following the address to Congress. I’m not sure Israel wants to be perceived as the one causing the failure of the agreement in the U.S., especially when there’s an option of conducting a dialogue.”
The former ambassador suggested Israel draft its own analysis of the agreement but refrain from actively lobbying House and Senate members. In an interview with the Times of Israel, Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold said that Israeli officials would give their opinion if approached by U.S. legislators, but that they would seek to “respect” the positions of the administration.
However, in an initial reaction to the agreement, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzippi Hotovely signaled that the Israeli government is likely to take an aggressive approach, saying it will “employ all diplomatic means to prevent the confirmation of the agreement.’’
Tzachi Hanegbi, a Likud Knesset member, also signaled in an interview with Israel Radio that the Netanyahu government believes that it can make a difference in Congress. While he acknowledged that it would be a struggle to get a vote overriding a presidential veto, he said there were several Democrats who were unhappy with the deal. (At least 13 Democrats would need to break with their party to override a presidential veto.) Hanegbi said that Israel “will review day to day, and hour to hour what is going on in Iran. … It always has the right to defend itself.”
In New York, a coalition of Israel backers is already gearing up to wage a public campaign against the Iran deal in Times Square on Wednesday. Under the slogan, “Stop Iran,” the organizers are hoping that thousands will show up to hear opponents of the deal such as Alan Dershowitz and former CIA Director James Woolsey weigh in. In a warning, rally organizers said in a press release, “if the deal is not stopped, New Yorkers will know who to blame,” a reference to Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, widely seen as a key figure in the debate because he is a strong supporter of Israel and of Obama.
Opposition to the deal crosses Israel’s familiar left-right political divide, with opposition leader Isaac Herzog of the dovish Zionist Union party called it “dangerous” for Israel. “This is a bad deal for Israeli security in the future and dangerous tomorrow morning,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
Herzog’s former candidate for defense minister, former military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, told reporters that the agreement is “full of holes,” with the most problematic being an inspection procedure that would limit when and where inspectors could visit certain nuclear sites.
Despite his concerns, Yadlin said, “I am not in a position [to say] that this is a new Holocaust. Israel is strong and Israel will know how to deal with the risks that come with the agreement. The main change should be to leave Israel’s concerns with the allies, and to reach a side agreement.”
Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York, also believes that the prime minister will continue with a full-court press against the deal. “He is going to use the next 60 days using everything he can,” a move Pinkas opposes because he believes Netanyahu is unlikely to persuade 13 Democratic senators and 44 Democrats in the House to oppose the president, and that Congress doesn’t have the power to nullify a multilateral agreement.
Pinkas said Israel should instead huddle with the U.S. discretely and discuss a package of security aid that will enhance Israel’s defensive posture to face the possibility of a nuclear Iran.
“This is the first time that Israel has ever dismissed and denounced a major U.S. foreign policy agreement championed by the president,” he said. “We are now totally isolated.”
An aggressive push against the agreement risks isolating the prime minister domestically as well. Even though opposition politicians agree with the prime minister that the nuclear agreement is a bad one, Herzog and other opposition leaders have taken the prime minister to task over the rift with the U.S. Yair Lapid, the former finance minister and leader of the centrist Yesh Atid, called for Netanyahu’s resignation, saying the prime minister’s friction with the White House is hampering Israel’s relationship with the U.S.
Herzog also faulted the prime minister for the rift with Obama. “One of the most grave issues in the current situation is that the agreement that has the most impact on the existence of Israel in the last generation was signed without [Israel] being in the picture,” he said. “Israel’s interests were abandoned.”