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The Real Story Behind Obama’s Kerfuffle With the Israeli Defense Ministry

The one-year anniversary of the Iran nuclear deal came and went in Israel, with barely a mention in the local media—that is, until Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman decided to respond to President Barack Obama’s assertion during a press conference in early August that the Israeli “military and security community” fully supports the deal, and in fact views it as a “game changer.” Liberman’s reaction was quick and harsh: not only does the defense establishment not support the deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA), but the JCPOA is in fact comparable to the 1938 Munich Agreement. That certainly got the attention of the Israeli media, but their interest focused almost exclusively on the internal politics of Liberman’s message and the dynamic that led to his apology three days later. A substantive evaluation of the deal itself did not make it onto the agenda.

Still, this mini-episode—from Obama’s remarks and Liberman’s response, through Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s almost immediate intervention in an attempt to calm the situation by stressing the importance of U.S.-Israel relations, and up to Liberman’s apology—encapsulates some important themes and messages that deserve further scrutiny.

First, it is worth noting that while Obama mentioned Israel’s defense establishment in his statement—which he did in order to reinforce his message that Iran deal critics should issue a collective mea culpa—his target audience was not really Israel. Rather, the president was using supposed Israeli support of the deal to bolster his case against domestic critics who in recent months have been pressing him in the wake of a string of previously undisclosed arrangements with Iran that have now been exposed by the media. This trend culminated with suspicions that the $400 million transferred to Iran in January was actually ransom paid for the release of unjustly detained and imprisoned Americans.

Similarly, Liberman’s response to Obama was not in the main intended for the president, Haaretz reported; he was more interested in getting a message across to IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot—to clarify “who’s the boss” when articulating Israel’s position. He backed down and apologized only when he realized that he could be held responsible for torpedoing the ongoing military aid negotiations with the U.S. So ironically, while the messages issued by Obama and Lieberman pointed a finger at the other state, in both cases the target audience was in reality a domestic one. But the fact that things escalated to near boiling point so quickly underscores the fragility of bilateral U.S.-Israel relations when it comes to the JCPOA.

This mini-crisis inadvertently shines a light on two important themes: first, how the deal is in fact perceived in Israel, and how statements of Israeli security figures have been (mis)represented in the internal U.S. debate; and second, the nature of U.S.-Israel relations and their importance to Israel, especially compared to attempts to intervene to prevent a nuclear Iran.

In a piece written a year ago, I argued that the relevant credentials for making an authoritative evaluation of the nuclear deal is expertise and intricate knowledge of the deal—not necessarily the fact that one served in the Israeli military or security establishment. It’s questionable whether all those who came out in support of the deal last year had the relevant credentials to make that call, which includes understanding the weaknesses and loopholes in the deal as well as Iran’s tendency to exploit ambiguity in order to advance its nuclear program.

The grounds for lending a vote of support is also significant. If, for example, their rationale is that a deal that delays Iran for 10 years is better than Israeli military action that might have delayed Iran for two or three, then it would not be a relevant argument in the broader international debate—since Israeli military action was never seen as a legitimate option, and the stated goal of negotiations was to bring Iran back to the fold of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, not just to delay its nuclear plans.

And yet, Israeli voices in support of the deal were immediately incorporated into the internal U.S. debate, as if to say to American deal critics: how can you question the nuclear deal when these top security people in Israel say they are fine with it? There have been very few statements issued in the intervening year, so it is hard to know on what basis Obama now asserts that everyone supports the deal. One highly authoritative military voice that was heard was Eisenkot who spoke at the Institute for National Security Studies’ annual conference in Tel Aviv this past January. But in his remarks, Eisenkot set out two timelines—five years and fifteen years—and while he noted that there were strategic opportunities in the first five years of breathing space that the deal granted, the longer-term prospects are still dangerous because Iran’s basic hegemonic interests remain unchanged. Moreover, he explained how dangerous Iran is due to its malign activities in the region. Nevertheless, ever since delivering the speech, Eisenkot’s words have been either mistranslated or misconstrued, and brought into the domestic U.S. debate as if he was a staunch supporter of the deal.

What the Obama/Liberman episode also underscores, however, is Israel’s order of priorities when weighing the relative importance of stopping Iran against the importance of U.S.-Israel strategic relations. Indeed, if there is one insight that seems to have been clarified over the past year, it is that the order of priorities for Israel places U.S.-Israel relations at the top. And this seems to be behind Netanyahu’s notable lack of public advocacy against the deal since last autumn, after having stretched things to the limit in the first half of 2015. In his October 2015 speech to the UN General Assembly, Netanyahu maintained that he would work together with the Obama administration to keep Iran in check. So while the military aid package was likely the immediate context for Netanyahu’s attempt to lower the flames following Liberman’s statement, a clarification of Israel’s priorities seems to be a more profound lesson of the past year.

At the end of the day, what is still wrong with the picture that emerged from this episode is Israel’s prominence in debates over the deal, although this is perhaps not surprising after Netanyahu directed attention to Israel and its concerns for the past seven years. His predecessors Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert preferred to maintain a relatively low and behind-the-scenes profile on the Iranian nuclear crisis, so as not to make it about Israel. Indeed, assessing the JCPOA one year into the deal, the focus should be on Iran and the P5+1 states; most importantly, whether and how these international powers will ensure that Iran is prevented from attaining nuclear weapons.

Emily B. Landau is Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Arms Control Program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). She lectures on nuclear strategy, arms control and negotiations at Tel Aviv University, University of Haifa, and IDC Herzliya.

[Photo: Miriam Alster / Flash90]