Few states face the kind of complex, sustained security challenges that Israel does.
Israel has not enjoyed one day of peace with its neighbors since its independence in 1948. Many Arab and Muslim states have maintained an economic and political boycott against Israel for decades.
There is an automatic majority against Israel in the United Nations, leading often to perverse outcomes in which Israel’s human rights record is condemned by states whose violations of human rights are far worse. Terror groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas target Israel with rockets and suicide bombers. And today, Iran seeks nuclear weapons capability even as some of its leaders call openly for Israel’s destruction and deny the genocide of the Holocaust.
It’s true that Israel maintains a formidable military and security capability, among the best in the world, and this sometimes leads to an assumption that Israeli complaints about threats to its security are overstated.
In most cases, though, nothing is farther from the truth. As Israelis are fond of saying, if someone says they want to kill you, believe them. It is often said that Israelis go to sleep with the Holocaust and wake up to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Caution is a critical component of security.
I take Israeli security concerns extremely seriously.
After eight years stationed in Israel, including four years as the United States ambassador, I have seen — and felt — the very real risks directed against Israel. I wore a gas mask in a sealed room in 1991 while on a diplomatic mission in the run-up to the first Gulf War.
I attended 42 funerals or shiva calls for Americans killed during the second Intifada when I was the ambassador. Three members of my embassy staff were killed in a roadside bombing in Gaza in 2003. My cousin was killed on a bus in Jerusalem by a suicide bomber in 2003.
I get it.
But for exactly those reasons, I have been confused — dumbfounded, in fact — by Israel’s posture toward the Iran nuclear agreement.
Israel should have been the first to welcome this agreement, working with the P5+1 on mechanisms and assurances to ensure the effectiveness of inspections and verification systems. Instead, Israel has launched an all-out assault on the agreement, gambling with its status as a bipartisan consensus issue within our politics and creating rifts among its supporters, especially in the American Jewish community.
Israel decided that it opposed this agreement before the agreement was even reached. In November 2013, when Iran and the P5+1 negotiators reached their interim agreement in Geneva, Israel was the first out of the blocks to condemn that agreement and to warn that it would fail. And yet that interim agreement worked well.
Senior Israeli security officials told me so directly in 2014 when I visited Israel at the suggestion of the National Security Council, along with two other former U.S. officials, to assess Israeli views. At that time and subsequently, senior Israeli officials also told me consistently that the dialogue on the nuclear issues between U.S. and Israeli intelligence was proceeding far better than ever before, in parallel with security assistance from the United States that was larger and more significant than ever before.
Against this backdrop, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress earlier this year was not only politically reckless, but it made no sense substantively. He brought no new ideas but instead said only that it was important to negotiate a “better deal” — as though U.S. negotiators were intent upon negotiating a bad deal. And he pointed out Iran’s terrible behavior outside of the nuclear arena, a cause of mutual U.S.-Israeli concern but not part of the nuclear equation.
What has emerged from the P5+1-led effort, first in the Lausanne Declaration and then in the final agreement, is a sound arms control agreement — surely not perfect, but a set of intrusive and extensive measures that will hamstring any Iranian effort to break out for at least a decade, even longer.
By all yardsticks, this is a very strong accomplishment.
Today, the Iranian program is operating at full speed with almost none of the inspection measures that are built into the Vienna agreement. The nuclear accord stands to stop the Iranian pathways to a nuclear weapon in their tracks, where rhetoric, sanctions and the threat of force have not.
This agreement actually allows the international community to monitor the diminution of the Iranian program and Iranian capabilities, while retaining the power to take strong measures — reinstated sanctions and beyond — if Iran does not comply.
To be sure, nothing in this agreement commits Iran to change its aggressive behavior in the region or its support for terrorism. But likewise, nothing in the agreement commits the United States and its partners to tolerate that behavior and that support.
President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry must make clear to Iran that they will receive no free passes. Not with respect to their aggression, not with respect to terror and not with respect to any infractions of this accord, however small.
With respect to the agreement, we must make clear that we will hold them to the highest standard of performance of their obligations, and are ready and willing to act, unilaterally if necessary, to prevent Iran from cheating; outside of the agreement, we will be equally firm with respect to keeping Iran’s bad behavior in check.
It is not too late for cooler heads in Israel and in Congress to prevail, cooler heads that would seek to engage intensely with the administration to enhance intelligence and other capabilities designed to safeguard Israel’s security during the implementation period. For a country like Israel, with its unique security challenges and one true friend in the world, it seems to me wise to work with us to make this agreement succeed.
Daniel Kurtzer is the S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He served as the U.S. ambassador to both Israel and Egypt. The views expressed are his own.