Isaac Herzog told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in December that “I trust the Obama administration to get a good deal” with Iran. That statement must have warmed the hearts of the White House, as Herzog’s Zionist Union competed against Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud for control of Israel, and Herzod (or Tzipi Livni) would have replaced Netanyahu in the increasingly strained relationship between the US and Israel. Those hopes were crushed in the shockingly broad win for Likud and Netanyahu, whose skepticism about Barack Obama’s negotiations with Iran ran almost completely opposite to Herzog’s implicit trust that Obama had Israel’s back.
Goldberg reached out to Herzog, who is likely to become the next foreign minister if Netanyahu gets his way, to see just how much Herzog trusts Obama now. The answer is …. not much:
In a telephone call with me late last night, Herzog’s message was very different. The deal just finalized in Vienna, he said, “will unleash a lion from the cage, it will have a direct influence over the balance of power in our region, it’s going to affect our borders, and it will affect the safety of my children.”
Iran, he said, is an “empire of evil and hate that spreads terror across the region,” adding that, under the terms of the deal, Iran “will become a nuclear-threshold state in a decade or so.” Iran will take its post-sanctions windfall, he said, and use the funds to supply more rockets to Hezbollah in Lebanon, more ammunition to Hamas in Gaza, and “generally increase the worst type of activities that they’ve been doing.”
Herzog, who lost a race for the prime ministership in March to the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, had mainly kind words for his archrival, and he even invoked an expression popularized by Netanyahu’s ideological guide, the founding father of right-wing Zionist revisionism, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, to describe what he sees as Israel’s next, necessary step: “We have to build an iron wall to protect Israel. There are clear risks to Israel’s security in this deal.”
The Iran deal represents one of those rare issues that has unified Israelis of most political parties. Herzog and Netanyahu agree on very little—not on a whole basket of social and economic issues, and certainly not on the need for territorial compromise to advance the cause of a two-state solution with the Palestinians. But Iran, Herzog told me, has Israelis—of the “left, center, and right,” he said—frightened.
Herzog tells Goldberg that he plans to come to Washington to speak out against the deal, which Goldberg notes will put the Obama administration in a very difficult position. The White House had considered Herzog “a respected friend,” and “John Kerry’s dream of an Israeli peace-process partner,” which will end up destroying their campaign to marginalize Netanyahu as an extremist on this issue. The March elections did that as well, although the Obama administration attempted to ignore that as much as possible (and respond with only minimal grace to Netanyahu’s re-election).
Herzog’s opposition to the deal makes it clear that Netanyahu speaks for the entire Israeli nation on the deal, and on the poor job that Obama and Kerry did on their spotlight foreign-policy objective. That could have some Democrats in Congress wondering just how far they can go to back Obama’s play on this deal, perhaps especially Chuck Schumer.
That may also have implications for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, too. Until now, the White House has painted Netanyahu as an obstruction to a realistic settlement with the Palestinians, and perhaps many Israelis agreed with that assessment until the elections. After seeing what kind of a deal Obama and Kerry just cut with the mullahs in Tehran, those same Israelis may be thinking twice about trusting the US as an ally in dealing with the Palestinians. Even Herzog may have second thoughts about that, especially with the US as a supposed guarantor of security.
Goldberg conducted a forum on the deal with Peter Beinart and David Frum, the latter of which expertly lays out what Iran gets from the deal, and asks the question of what the West got:
What did the Western world give?
1) It has rescued Iran from the extreme economic crisis into which it was pushed by the sanctions imposed in January 2012—sanctions opposed at the time by the Obama administration, lest anyone has forgotten.
2) It has relaxed the arms embargo on Iran. Iran will be able to buy conventional arms soon, ballistic-missile components later.
3) It has exempted Iranian groups and individuals from terrorist designations, freeing them to travel and do business around the world.
4) It has promised to protect the Iranian nuclear program from sabotage by outside parties—meaning, pretty obviously, Israel.
5) It has ended the regime’s isolation, conceding to the Iranian theocracy the legitimacy that the Iranian revolution has forfeited since 1979 by its consistent and repeated violations of the most elementary international norms—including, by the way, its current detention of four America hostages.
And later, Frum skewers the schizophrenic defenses of the deal with a classic SNL reference:
Critic: “This deal leaves four Americans in Iranian detention … delivers tens of billions of dollars to Iran for aggression and terrorism … and generally empowers Iran to make mischief in the region and around the world.”
Defender: “This deal is not intended to solve all our problems with Iran. We accept that Iran is dangerous and hostile. The agreement is narrowly focused on solving one problem: the Iranian nuclear bomb. That’s our top priority.”
Critic: “OK, but as an arms-control measure … this deal is very weak. Iran will retain a big nuclear-weapons capacity. It will continue to spin centrifuges. The inspection regime is weak. Reimposing sanctions if Iran cheats will be difficult.”
Defender: “Don’t be so narrowly focused on the deal’s technicalities! What we have here is a once-in-a-generation chance to reshape the Middle East, to recruit Iran as a security partner. This is a Nixon-goes-to-China strategic realignment!”
The deal is being sold, in other words, as both a breath mint and a floor wax. Unsurprisingly, it succeeds at neither.
In the first-season SNL skit, it was a floor wax and a dessert topping, but the point remains. And the Israelis, who have to live with the consequences much more than the US will (at least in the short run), almost unanimously fell they got sold out. That’s what happens when one trusts Barack Obama to get the best deal when he’s out legacy-hunting instead.