The moment that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hoped he could avoid is fast approaching: high-level negotiations between the United States and Iran that could lead to a deal that ends the decade-long standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program. As Obama has welcomed the new approach of Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, and taken concrete steps to test Tehran’s sincerity, Netanyahu has been quick to dismiss Rouhani and call for more sanctions. It is increasingly clear that Netanyahu ultimately fears the success of diplomacy, not its failure. But Israel, and its national security establishment, should not see a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear standoff as a threat.
Contrary to Israel’s public line, Netanyahu’s worry is not that the Iranians would cheat on any agreement, or that Rouhani would prove to be a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Rather, Netanyahu and much of Israel’s security establishment view the status quo — ever-increasing sanctions that cripple Iran’s economy, combined with the ever-present threat of war — as preferable to any realistic diplomatic deal.
As Israelis well know, a compromise would probably allow for limited enrichment on Iranian soil under strict verification, and the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions. Although Iran would technically remain a non–nuclear weapons state, it would be considered a virtual nuclear power. And that, Netanyahu calculates, is sufficient to shift the balance of power in the region to Israel’s detriment, reducing the Jewish state’s maneuverability and the usefulness of its own deterrent. There is reason to believe, then, that Israel’s insistence on zero enrichment is aimed to ensure that no deal is struck at all.
Israel also understands that a resolution to the nuclear standoff would significantly reduce U.S.-Iranian tensions and open up opportunities for collaboration between the two former allies. Since U.S.-Iranian fellow feeling will not be accompanied by a proportionate reduction in Iranian-Israeli hostilities, Israel will be left in a relatively worse position. This is what Israelis refer to as the fear of abandonment — that, once the nuclear issue is resolved or contained, Washington will shift its focus to other matters while Israel will be stuck in the region facing a hostile Iran, without the United States by its side.
These fears have been the basis of Israel’s uncompromising position for the past several years. But Netanyahu has been particularly inflexible, breaking even past precedents of nimbleness. Israel generally opposes and seeks to prevent U.S.-Iranian talks whenever possible, but swiftly shifts to a neutral position once talks are deemed unstoppable. That way, it can still influence the agenda.
For instance, in 1999, the Clinton administration was intrigued — according to some Israelis, “infatuated” — with the election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who spoke of his desire to break the “wall of mistrust” with the United States. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak wanted neither to be locked out of a potential dialogue nor to come across as beating the war drum when the Clinton administration seemed intent on dialogue. To signal his government’s shift, Barak altered the status of Iran from enemy to threat, indicating, as Israeli diplomats argued, that the current Israeli position holds that Israel does not have a conflict with the Iranian people, the state of Iran, or with Islam. Moreover, Israel unofficially condemned a terrorist attack targeting a member of Khatami’s government.
Barak enjoyed this flexibility because he had consistently rejected the idea — and continues to do so today — that Iran constitutes an existential threat to Israel. Netanyahu, on the other hand, has come to personify the argument that he made in a 2006 address to delegates at the United Jewish Communities General Assembly: “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany.” Netanyahu has painted himself — and Israel — into a corner. And rather than trying to get out, he has, at every turn, doubled down on the strategy of intransigence.
Israel needs to show nimbleness now more that ever. With Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Syria all in various states of chaos, Iran appears to be the most resolvable challenge that the United States faces in the Middle East, and Obama seems to know it. By personally taking ownership of reaching out to Iran by seeking a meeting with Rouhani and later calling him, he has demonstrated the political will to move things forward. And Rouhani seems ready to meet the challenge. By contrast, Netanyahu’s knee-jerk rejection feeds the perception that Israel — not Iran — is the chief stumbling block. Ultimately, even short of a nuclear agreement, that impression can help Iran break out of its isolation and delegitimize the sanctions regime suffocating its economy.
Beyond the perception of it, Israel has much to gain from shifting its stance on negotiations. In private conversations last year after the successful round of talks in Istanbul, Israeli strategists revealed that Israel’s central concern was not enrichment but, rather, that any U.S. deal with Iran entail a “sweeping attitude change” in Tehran vis-à-vis Israel. In short, Israel did not want Washington to resolve its issues with Iran unless Iran was forced to address Israel’s concerns as well — first and foremost, an Iranian de facto acceptance of Israel’s right to exist.
This is precisely why diplomacy serves Israel better than Netanyahu’s naysaying: Iran’s position on Israel is far more likely to change in the direction Israel desires if U.S.-Iranian relations improve and the first tangible steps are taken to rehabilitate Iran into the region’s political and economic structures.
Since its inception, the Iranian theocracy has adopted harsh and venomous rhetoric about Israel to boost Tehran’s credibility on the Arab street and to bridge the region’s Arab-Persian and Sunni-Shia divide. But Tehran’s ideological impulses have not always driven policy. When ideology and geostrategic goals don’t match up, Iran favors the latter. During the Iraq-Iran War, Iran and Israel quietly collaborated behind the scenes for this very reason.
Over the last two decades, Tehran’s ideological and strategic imperatives have been in harmony. Strategically, Iran opposes Israel’s efforts to permanently isolate it. Ideologically, the anti-Israeli card has often been helpful to create common cause with the Arab masses and to help overcome Iran’s own tensions with its Sunni and Arab neighbors. When sectarian strife rises in the region, so does the utility of the anti-Israeli card for Tehran.
Improved U.S.-Iranian relations, with tangible steps to end Iran’s isolation on the condition that it shifts its behavior, could divorce Iran’s ideological and strategic impulses. If that happens, Iran would have compelling incentives to disentangle itself from anti-Israeli hostilities.
The Rouhani government — and its team of foreign policy practitioners, including Javad Zarif, the foreign minister — have long been inclined toward negotiations. It was this same team that in 2003 prepared the so-called grand bargain proposal, which the Bush administration chose to ignore. As part of that grand bargain, Iran said that it was willing to significantly restrain Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, and even sign on to the 2002 Saudi peace plan, which offered the recognition of Israel by every country in the Muslim world in return for an Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state. That would indeed have been a “sweeping attitude change” for Iran.
Similarly, Rouhani is believed to support the concept of adopting a “Malaysian profile,” which gained support during the Khatami era. The idea was that Tehran would, in return for an end to Israeli and American efforts to isolate Iran, assume a position on Israel similar to that of Malaysia: Iran would not recognize Israel but would limit its criticism of Israel to the plight of the Palestinian population, and would avoid getting itself entangled in activities against the Jewish state. The two rivals would also recognize each other’s respective spheres and disengage from further hostilities. This would have an immediate impact on Israel’s tensions with Hezbollah.
That plan is not perfect — nor is it Israel’s ideal relationship with Iran. But neutralizing Iran’s interest in fanning anti-Israeli sentiment would be no small gain and would significantly enhance Israel’s security and political position. Recognizing that, Israel should moderate its rhetoric and stop encouraging Congress to undermine diplomacy through additional sanctions. By doing so, Israel can both help diplomacy and ensure that the final outcome of the talks addresses key Israeli security concerns.
Although there is no guarantee that diplomacy will succeed, all other options suffer from the same uncertainty, particularly a military option. If anything, the risks facing Israel, especially the risk of its being “abandoned” by the United States, only increase the more Netanyahu portrays himself as unappeasable.
(This article originally appeared in Foreign Affairs)