The prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, responded to the Iran deal as expected: It is bad, endangers Israel, he argued; we are against it and will be the only American ally not only to oppose it, but to go down gloriously, fighting a battle in Congress that we are destined to lose.
Mr. Netanyahu often warns that Iran is like Nazi Germany in 1938, fooling naïve appeasers even as it plans a cataclysm for Jews. But only those who never see merit in any proposal and never initiate their own could respond as the Israeli leader has.
Not that the agreement is without faults. President Obama negotiated from a position of weakness and conveyed a message that failure to obtain a deal was not an option. He misguidedly took the military option off the table long ago and made it clear that a return to sanctions would be a poor outcome.
Indeed, Iran will be allowed to retain its nuclear infrastructure instead of dismantling it, and most parts of the agreement are limited to 10 to 15 years, instead of being permanent. It remains to be seen what inspections Iran will actually allow, and the dispute resolution mechanism is cumbersome.
The agreement also does not address Iran’s destructive regional role, including its support for terrorism. In fact, the added revenue it will receive as a result of the relaxation of sanctions may enable more aggressive action.
So, yes, we could have gotten a better deal. Israel wanted something different (as did the United States), but this is the agreement that was reached — and despite its faults, it is not a bad one. Crucially, it will contribute to Israel’s security.
For at least the next decade, Israel will not have to live under the threat of a nuclear Iran and will not face the danger of annihilation. For Israel, that is a major achievement. It will enable Israel to divert precious resources to more immediate threats, like Hezbollah’s more than 130,000 rockets, Hamas and the Islamic State, and no less important, to pressing domestic needs.
No agreement is ironclad, but the inspections provisions provide a high degree of confidence that Iran will not be able to renew the nuclear program without its being detected. A regime that has staked so much on this agreement will be reluctant to incur the costs.
It was Israel that decided years ago to give priority to the nuclear issue, as an existential threat, over all other Iranian transgressions, and concluded that if we can just resolve the nuclear threat, that would be good enough. Malign as Iran’s other actions are — its regional role, support for terrorism and more — they can be dealt with at a later date; the overriding priority is the nuclear threat.
By portraying the issue in absolute terms, Mr. Netanyahu obfuscated the fact that the agreement is not the end of the story, merely another stage in a decadeslong struggle to prevent Iran from going nuclear. Both Israel and the United States wanted a knockout blow; what we got was a punt.
The nuclear issue has not been resolved, but postponed for at least 10 years. When the agreement expires, or in the event of a violation, the international community may have to resume its efforts. Iran has not given up its long-term nuclear aspirations.
The agreement’s detractors have been long on invective, short on suggestions. A collapse of the talks would have freed Iran to go forward and left America struggling to maintain a sanctions regime weakened by international disunity. Israel would have remained isolated, left only with the military option. These are hardly desirable outcomes.
Israel may, at some point, still have to go the military route, but it is abundantly clear that no one in Jerusalem has been avid to do so. Had Mr. Netanyahu wanted to launch an attack, he had many chances. But for very good reasons, not the least of which was American opposition, he did not.
An attack probably could not have achieved more than a few years’ postponement of Iran’s program, whereas the agreement will do so for at least 10 to 15 years. After the deal expires, it’s conceivable that Iran will prefer to avoid becoming an international pariah again.
Over decades, Israel has built a unique alliance with the United States. This partnership has provided Israel with extensive aid, turned the Israel Defense Forces into one of the world’s most advanced militaries and safeguarded Israel’s interests in hostile international forums. Without America, the I.D.F. would be an empty shell, and Israel would be isolated and sanctioned.
Part of being a junior ally is knowing when to say, “Enough, we have made our case, time to be a team player.” Nothing is more important for Israel’s security than the vitality of its relationship with the United States — which Israel will still need in order to deal with Iran in the future.
Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center and the author of Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy.