November 20, 2019

Israelis aren’t unified on Iran deal

One of the strongest arguments the Jewish opponents of the Iran nuclear deal have wielded is that Israelis are unified in their opposition to it.

If the famously fractious Israelis all agree that the Iran deal is bad, they argue, it must really be awful. This line of reasoning can be especially persuasive to American Jews and Israel-sympathizing representatives in Congress. Who are we to disagree when the people who face the greatest threat from a nuclear Iran categorically oppose this deal?

Except for one thing: It’s not true.

If you look at the polling results, you’ll see that the numbers tell a far more nuanced story. So do the actual statements by many of Israel’s political opponents to the deal, which have evolved from outright rejection to more of a regretful embrace. And perhaps most strikingly, dozens of Israeli security experts have publicly weighed in, all in favor of the deal.

The first breach in the Israeli Unified Agreement Theory came shortly after the deal’s announcement, as Israeli officials were trumpeting the fact that the Iran nuclear deal was a rare case of “6 million Jews, one opinion,” against it.

That’s when Ami Ayalon, the former head of Israel’s navy and its internal security services, Shin Bet, told the Jewish Daily Forward’s J.J. Goldberg that the imperfect deal actually made Israel safer.

“Reaching the agreement wasn’t a mistake,” Ayalon said. “It is the best of the available options, even though it strengthens Iran as a troublemaker. We in Israel need to differentiate between, on one hand, the problems in the Middle East and the understanding that we will have to continue fighting terrorism for the next 30 to 40 years, and on the other hand, the need to prevent the entry of nuclear weapons. I’m sorry to say this, but this is the price we need to pay to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.”

Ayalon’s analysis was the first tear in a very flimsy façade of Israeli unanimity. By early August, dozens of former senior members of Israel’s defense establishment published an open letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging him to accept the nuclear accord with Iran. They joined with numerous senior military and intelligence officials who had already come out in favor of the deal. These included Efraim Levy, former head of the Mossad; Eli Levite, deputy director general of Israel’s atomic energy commission; Shlomo Brom, a brigadier general, former director of the Israel Defense Forces strategic planning division and former deputy national security adviser; and Uzi Arad, national security adviser.

When I saw Arad’s name on the list, I thought: Wow. In 2009, Arad was appointed Israel’s national security adviser and head of the Israeli National Security Council — by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Why? Because he had established himself as a strong voice against Iran’s nuclear program.

“We shouldn’t see this as a bad deal,” Arad said recently. “For the security of Israel, the responsible and cautious way ahead is to understand that the agreement is what it is, and that’s it.”

Nothing makes the continued and, it looks like, pointless opposition to the Iran deal from many mainstream Jewish organizations look as ill-considered as these experts’ statements. Not one of these generals or intelligence officials needs to be reminded of the perfidy of the Iranian regime by a Jewish-American leader who knows more about Gulfstreams than about F-16s. Arad doesn’t need an education in Iranian terrorism, nor does a single one of his co-signers. And yet Arad and a long line of Israeli security experts have decided the deal is the best way, at least for the foreseeable future, to keep nukes out of the mullahs’ hands.

The Israeli public may not agree with that opinion, but that doesn’t mean opinion in Israel is unanimous behind Bibi’s approach to the deal. In the most commonly quoted poll, 69 percent of Israelis oppose the deal. But the same poll showed only a slight majority — like, 51 percent — thought Bibi should openly oppose the deal. The same poll showed a plurality of Israelis (37 percent) actually opposed the way Netanyahu handled the campaign against the deal, while only 34 percent believe he’s done a good job.

These sentiments were echoed in statements by opposition leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, who initially joined Netanyahu in condemning the deal, but then split with him in how to go about lobbying against it. Opponents would have done far better working with President Barack Obama and deal supporters to strengthen the deal’s provisions and win extra security guarantees for Israel.

“The Iran deal will pass,” Herzog posted this week on his Facebook page, “the world is running to Iran to do business and open embassies, and no one is listening to Israel.”

Some of the security experts think it’s a pretty good deal; some don’t. Most Israelis, to be sure, don’t like it. But what has become increasingly clear is that, although Israelis may not support the deal, they support supporting the deal.

Meanwhile, American-Jewish organizations, who have continued to oppose the deal, are about to lose a war that didn’t need to be fought. Instead of fighting the president of the United States and other Jews, they could have taken a page from those pragmatic Israelis, and focused on fighting Iran.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.