Israel Pulse

Israel's center-left fears opposing Netanyahu on Iran

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Article Summary
The center-left's flaccid leadership on security and diplomatic issues is once again on display, with pronouncements in line with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's agenda.

The hawkish essay by Yesh Atid Chair Yair Lapid published Oct. 11 in the respected American monthly The Atlantic, in response to an Oct. 9 article in the same publication by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, was translated into Hebrew and the two versions posted on Lapid's Facebook page and Twitter. Lapid has good connections at the magazine, and this was not his first appearance in it as an author or an interview subject. This time, Lapid wrote, the magazine’s editors approached him to respond to Zarif’s essay. Beyond the personal prestige afforded the party chairman in the international arena by this type of publication, Lapid understands its importance in terms of the Israeli public, which he is trying to convince of his ability to handle the responsibilities of diplomacy and security as prime minister.

Lapid claims in his article that Zarif’s article is “full of lies, distortions, and half-truths” meant “to turn Iran into a regional nuclear power. The method is to make the West believe it isn’t happening.” Lapid further wrote, “Sadly, the deal signed with Iran in the summer of 2015 only strengthened that conviction. Since the deal was signed, they have significantly expanded their ballistic missile program, started building a permanent military presence in Syria … and are constantly testing the boundaries with [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspectors to continue to develop their nuclear program. They’re doing all that in a far more comfortable environment than before.”

Lapid emphasizes later in the article that he does not agree with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on nearly anything, “but his description of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ is right on the money.” Lapid’s stance and arguments are legitimate, of course, but it is hard to ignore that they are incredibly similar to the current prime minister’s rhetoric.

On Oct. 13, two days after Lapid's article appeared, US President Donald Trump delivered his belligerent speech against Iran, which was received by Israeli political leaders, including Lapid, to much acclaim. Trump's pronouncements, which seemed to be taken from Netanyahu’s playbook, sounded to the Israeli ear, with good reason, like a warm and friendly embrace. Even though Trump did not detail what measures would be taken against Iran, and did not announce the cancellation of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the six world powers, his declarations had an intoxicating effect on Israelis. 

For instance, Netanyahu recorded a video in advance, in English, and posted it to Facebook after the speech. In it, he called Trump’s decision “brave” and said that he had “created an opportunity to fix this bad deal, to weaken Iran’s aggression and to fight its support of terrorism.” Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, in an interview on Channel 2, also called the speech “brave,” while Zionist Camp Chair Avi Gabbay welcomed Trump’s decision, remarking, “I hope he doesn’t make do only with speeches.” Netanyahu, as the spearhead of the fight against the Iranian nuclear program and the nuclear deal, could not have hoped for a stronger tailwind from his political rivals Gabbay and Lapid, who see themselves as his successor.

Most of the Israeli public does not understand the significance of the nuclear deal or the ramifications of its rejection on stopping Iran's nuclear program and its alternatives. Iran is the demon, and the Iranian nuclear program is seen as an immediate existential threat by Israeli citizens, to a great extent thanks to Netanyahu’s rhetoric. But are there no other shades to this story? How are Lapid and Gabbay’s diplomatic positions different from Netanyahu’s? If they fail to demonstrate independent thought, isn't the original thinker preferable to Israelis, especially since senior officials in both the US and Israeli security establishments do not support ending the nuclear deal?

As in the past, the alternative position, which challenges Netanyahu’s worldview and rhetoric, was presented by figures outside the political establishment, led by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Although Barak was Netanyahu’s close partner in efforts to stop the Iranian nuclear program from 2009 to 2012 as defense minister in his government, since that time he has expressed different views. One can argue with him, or claim that he does not speak to the point, but at least he challenges Netanyahu and Trump’s position, which is significant coming from someone considered an authority on national security.

In an Oct. 11 interview with the New York Times, Barak warned, “Decertifying the deal would cause Iran to get to a bomb much faster. … Iran is far from being an existential threat to Israel, but it has the potential to be such a threat in the future. If the United States pulls out of the nuclear deal its strategy with North Korea could be damaged.”

Amos Yadlin, a general in the reserves and the Zionist Camp’s candidate for defense minister in the 2015 election, served as head of Military Intelligence and dealt firsthand with the Iranian threat from 2006 to 2010. He, too, has presented a different line of thinking.

In a series of tweets, Yadlin focused on several facts that neither Netanyahu nor Lapid has acknowledged. He noted that it is important to listen to the security and diplomatic establishments, which are not convinced that pulling out of the deal is a preferred strategy. He also made clear, “Fixing the deal is fantasy — It is not an agreement between the US and Israel. It is between Iran and 6 powers. … Leaving the deal is only the preferred strategy if the US has an alternative strategy to keep Iran from the bomb. Even if the US leaves the deal, the deal is not automatically annulled. The other powers may keep it.”

In conclusion Yadlin emphasized, “In order to succeed, one must plan ahead. We should ask ourselves if it is in the Israeli and American interest that the Iranians, after they have been distanced from the bomb … will make another break for nuclear weapons.”

In recent years, at strategically important junctures like this, time and again, the center-left’s flaccid leadership on security and diplomatic issues has stood out. Its leaders are not able to present an ideological alternative that demonstrates public courage on key issues, at the top of which are Iran and the conflict with the Palestinians. It seems that on all these issues, they prefer to wink to the center-right public, while toeing the line with Netanyahu’s agenda

Found in: Iran deal

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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