August 17, 2015 - Israel, the Iran deal and Diaspora Jewry

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This week, Alpher discusses the mixed messages we seem to be getting from Israel regarding the Iran deal with Netanyahu and even Herzog and Livni vociferously opposing it, and many in the security and academic establishments either equivocating or supporting it; the views of the Israeli majority on the Iran deal; why Israeli political opposition leaders Herzog and Livni seemingly support Netanyahu’s campaign in Congress; and how to explain Netanyahu’s appointment last week of a prominent right-wing Italian Jewess as Israel’s ambassador to that country.

Q. Can you explain the mixed messages we seem to be getting from Israel regarding the Iran deal? On the one hand, Netanyahu and even Herzog and Livni vociferously oppose it. On the other, many in the security and academic establishments either equivocate or support it.

A. It is important to recognize that there is a broad spectrum of views on this issue in Israel, and that even among those who oppose the deal there are many who do not support Netanyahu’s effort to persuade Congress to override a presidential veto and scuttle it.

At one end of the spectrum are Netanyahu, his entourage and their allies in Congress, in AIPAC and on the American political right. They oppose the Iran nuclear deal and insist that Israel would be better off if President Obama were prevented from ratifying it, even if the rest of the world continues to remove sanctions and Iran feels free to proceed unfettered with its nuclear program. To this end, they continue to promote the apocryphal idea of a “better deal” as well as the option of a military attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Two weeks ago, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon even threatened that Israel--which has never acknowledged that it played any role whatsoever in the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists and security officials--would renew these operations.

In parallel, and unlike Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE that are also unhappy with the agreement, Netanyahu has instructed his security establishment not to discuss with Washington any proposals whatsoever for security aid and related arrangements that are designed to compensate for the strategic boost the deal gives Iran.

Nor does Netanyahu show any sensitivity regarding the divisiveness that the issue represents for the American Jewish community. In this regard, he is proceeding with the strategy he inaugurated last March when he spoke before Congress: attempting to reconfigure the institutionalized American Jewish establishment so as to favor hawks over liberals on issues ranging from the Iran deal to the Palestinian issue.

At the other end of the spectrum are some former security officials, academic specialists and political factions such as Meretz and particularly the predominantly Arab Joint List, who believe Obama and Secretary of State Kerry got a good deal and that Israel benefits from it by virtue of the fact that Iranian military nuclear ambitions have been mothballed for up to 15 years.

In between is the Israeli majority.

 

Q. What are its views?

A. The majority appears to hold, to varying degrees and with a variety of emphases, to the following assessments.

First, the Iran deal is good for Israel because it radically sidelines Iran’s military nuclear ambitions, thereby weakening the Iranian strategic threat to Israel and its Sunni Arab neighbors and at least delaying a Middle East nuclear arms race. Note, by way of example, that IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot’s recently published presentation of Israel’s military strategy very pointedly does not mention Iran as a strategic threat in the near future but rather as a supporter of Hezbollah and Hamas.

Second, the Iran deal is bad for Israel because it enriches Iran’s coffers, thereby fueling Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions, particularly in the nearby Levant. Thus, on Sunday this week the IDF leaked--again quite transparently--its concern over the buildup of an Iran-backed terrorist threat on Israel’s northern borders.

Third, at this point in time Israeli success in torpedoing the deal would be counterproductive. It would produce the worst of all possible outcomes: an Iran largely free of the economic fetters of sanctions and free to pursue both its nuclear and its regional hegemonic ambitions.

Fourth, the Israeli campaign to create a congressional super-majority to override a presidential veto is bad for Israel-Diaspora relations in the United States. It is causing a dangerous divide in the Jewish community and highly counterproductive talk of dual loyalty, and is seemingly turning AIPAC into an arm of the Republican party.

Underlying a large portion of this mainstream Israeli response is what we might call the elephant in the room of the current US-Israeli controversy over Iran: unease regarding what many see as administration indifference to the sensitivities of a US ally, Israel, as it confronts the specter of Washington seemingly cozying up to a mortal enemy, Iran. To be sure, from President Obama on down the administration has sought to reassure Jerusalem that Washington remains fully aware of the strategic dangers to the region posed by Iran. But with Netanyahu and some Republicans warning of a new Holocaust, Iranian leader Khamenei and other senior Iranians renewing their calls for Israel to disappear, and al-Quds force leader Qasem Soleimani reportedly welcomed in Moscow despite the ban on his travel abroad and meek US protests, the dominant perception is of an administration in Washington having concluded that the Sunni Arab world is hopelessly fragmented, dysfunctional and extreme while the regime in Tehran is a potential partner for Middle East stability. As moderate columnist Nachum Barnea wrote last Friday in Yediot Acharonot, “the half-hearted acquiescence by Obama and Kerry with [extremist Iranian] declarations is strengthening the [Israeli] sense of betrayal.”

Bearing this in mind, it is remarkable that so many Israelis who oppose the agreement nevertheless oppose Netanyahu’s misbegotten effort to derail it. They clearly do not share Netanyahu’s assessment as to how far he can and should push both the US-Israel strategic relationship and Israeli-American Jewish ties.

 

Q. Why do Israeli political opposition leaders Herzog and Livni seemingly support Netanyahu’s campaign in Congress rather than speaking out for what you describe as a kind of silent majority?

A. Herzog and Livni spoke against the agreement just last week in meetings with a congressional democratic delegation. The main difference between them and Netanyahu is that they take their distance from his efforts to recruit active American Jewish opposition. Their calculation in adopting this position appears to be that the political price they pay both in Israel and in the US is small--they cannot point to a specific threat from Washington to “punish” Israel to justify openly opposing Netanyahu--and that in opposing the deal they are keeping their options open for joining Netanyahu’s coalition at some point in the fall. Obviously, this has the effect of neutralizing the Iran deal as a major issue of controversy in everyday Israeli politics.

 

Q. Speaking of splitting Diaspora Jewry over this issue, is this how you explain Netanyahu’s appointment last week of a prominent right-wing Italian Jewess as Israel’s ambassador to that country?

A. Here we must recall that Netanyahu remains Israel’s acting foreign minister (he appears to be holding the post for either Avigdor Lieberman, if he decides to rejoin the coalition, or for Herzog), hence is actively involved in major diplomatic appointments. Whenever Netanyahu has been in this position, these appointments have taken on three characteristics: alleviating political difficulties at home; sending extreme right-wingers to represent Israel; and co-opting Diaspora Jews to represent Israel before their communities-of-origin regardless of possible collateral damage in terms of Diaspora Jewish well-being and Israel-Diaspora relations.

The appointment of Fiamma Nirenstein last week as Israel’s next ambassador to Rome certainly satisfies the second and third characteristics. Senior members of the Italian Jewish community responded by expressing fears of being accused of dual loyalty--a far more sensitive issue in Italy than among, say, American Jews confronted with appointments of former American Jews to sensitive Israeli diplomatic positions in the US. Nirenstein is a former senior member of Italy’s parliament, and even has a son serving in Italian Intelligence. While Netanyahu’s assiduous attention to ensuring hawkish diplomatic representation at any price in Washington is at least logical in view of his political approach to the Obama administration (though not convincing; see below), his reasons for risking the standing of the Italian Jewish community are not logical, even if, presumably, he “cleared” the appointment with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi during the latter’s Jerusalem visit last month.

Last week, too, Netanyahu used a diplomatic appointment to alleviate political difficulties at home. Danny Danon, who only recently was appointed minister of science, technology and space, was “launched” by Netanyahu to the post of Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. Danon is an extreme and outspoken right winger with clout in the Likud, hence a nuisance from Netanyahu’s standpoint. Never mind that the UN post will inflict Danon’s views (e.g., immediate annexation of the entire West Bank) on both the international community and the American Jewish community. In the short term, Netanyahu’s political life at home has been rendered easier.

Why send Dore Gold to the UN post in the late 1990s and, more recently, Michael Oren and Ron Dermer to Washington? All were US-born American citizens. Netanyahu, with his own youthful American background, appears to believe that they, like him, know the US and its Jewish community best. Currently, in view of Netanyahu’s confrontation with Obama and the liberal American Jewish majority, this is a highly doubtful notion.

The American Jewish community and America in general seem relatively comfortable with these appointments of its “sons” (full disclosure: in July 2000 I, born and bred in Washington, D.C., was sent by PM Barak to explain his Camp David peace program to American Jewish leaders). This appears to have encouraged Netanyahu regarding the Nirenstein appointment to Rome. But Italy is a country where, as in most of Europe, the Jewish community’s status and the challenges it faces are vastly different from those in the US.

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