While previous Israeli governments strongly and publicly opposed the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, the Bennett-Lapid government seems to be shying away from open opposition to U.S. return to the deal. In his speech last week to the United Nations General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett did not mention the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at all.
According to media reports, Bennett has pledged to U.S. President Joe Biden not to conduct a public campaign against a U.S. return to JCPOA. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz has gone further, telling Foreign Policy magazine (Sept. 14, 2021) that “Israel can live with a new nuclear agreement.” At the same time, the government has rescinded former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s directive to refrain from discussing with the Biden administration the details of negotiations to reinstate the JCPOA.
Apparently, the current Israeli government wants to avoid tensions with the Biden administration. Perhaps it views the nuclear agreement as less dangerous, and/or it considers coordination with the United States regarding Iran’s nuclear program more important. Perhaps it thinks that negotiations for renewal of the JCPOA will fail in any case.
Whichever is the case, Israel is making a serious mistake. Cessation of Israeli opposition to a U.S. return to the JCPOA carries significant risks, and could undermine Israel’s struggle against the Iranian nuclear project.
A return to the original, weak agreement would allow Iran to come close to assembling a nuclear bomb. The agreement does not prohibit research and development on centrifuges intended for uranium enrichment, and the inspection regimes are hardly effective. Above all, many of the agreement’s restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program will sunset (expire) in 2025. Moreover, the very negotiations over a framework for return to the agreement is dangerous. The Iranians are just bidding for time, while their centrifuges spin away.
Second, by implicitly agreeing to a U.S. return to the deal, Israel largely loses the ability to demand realization of the American promise to negotiate a separate, “better and longer” agreement, which would supposedly fix the flaws in the 2015 deal. With this Israeli concession, such a “better and longer” deal seems even further unlikely, and this includes placing limits Iran’s ballistic missile program (the delivery means for nuclear weapons) and curbing Iranian aggression (funding and supporting terrorism) across the Middle East.
Third, Israel’s past, open opposition to the agreement lent legitimacy to the possibility of unilateral military action against Iran’s nuclear program. It is more difficult to justify Israeli military activity when Israel intimates that it can live with the agreement.
Opposing the agreement also carries strategic significance, by signaling to the world Israel’s willingness to act without coordination with the United States, if necessary. This is an important element of Israel’s national security doctrine; that Israel defends itself, by itself.
The significance of the Israeli government’s promise to the Biden administration of “zero surprises” is not entirely clear, but it would appear to contradict the above pillar of Israel’s national security doctrine. Israel’s apparent willingness to align with the United States on such an existential issue suggests Israeli strategic weakness.
Fourth, the change in Israel’s position jeopardizes Israel’s diplomatic achievements in the region. Israel’s vociferous opposition to the nuclear accord (including Netanyahu’s landmark speech to the U.S. Congress in 2015) earned Israel great support in Arab capitals. The Abraham Accords normalization agreements are largely a result of Israel’s stubborn stance against the Obama administration on this matter.
Fifth, the apparent Israeli policy change fosters the fantasy that if Iran produces a nuclear bomb, a stable nuclear balance of terror can be reached in the Middle East. This is a dangerous illusion.
Mutual nuclear deterrence would not be obtained between Israel and Iran, for many reasons: the short distance between the two countries reduces warning time; the difficulties in establishing second-strike capabilities; the lack of communication between the two sides; and Iran’s willingness to bear great losses in striking at Israel.
Sixth, the change in Israel’s position encourages nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, which is a strategic nightmare for Israel. Several states in the Middle East counted on Israel’s opposition to slow proliferation.
Seventh, Washington probably was ready to compensate Israel for not publicly opposing a U.S. return to the agreement. Jerusalem missed the opportunity to negotiate significant strategic compensation by bowing so swiftly to American wishes.
Finally, by renouncing Israeli opposition to the nuclear agreement, Iran’s position in the region is strengthened. This will encourage radical Islamist forces, especially against the background of America’s humiliating flight from Afghanistan.
The bottom line is that by forgoing Israeli opposition to a U.S. return to the nuclear agreement—even if only as a matter of appearance, recognizing that Israel cannot truly influence U.S. decision-making on this issue—is detrimental to Israel’s security.
But it is not too late to return to a policy that defiantly objects to a U.S. return to the nuclear deal.
Professor Efraim Inbar is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
Omer Dostri is a specialist in strategy and Israeli national security. He has interned at the Center for Middle East Studies at Ariel University, the Institute for National Security Studies and the Yuval Ne’eman Workshop for Science, Technology and Security at Tel Aviv University. He is a Ph.D. candidate at Bar-Ilan University.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
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