Israel’s Post-American Strategic Challenge
A report last week about the discussions Israel and the United States are now holding regarding the Iranian nuclear program was nothing short of an earthquake.
On Tuesday, Israel Hayom ran a red headline on its front page: “Iran is cozying up to moderate states, and Israel is worried.” The story, by military correspondent Yoav Limor, told us two deeply alarming things about the state of American-Israeli coordination on Iran’s nuclear program.
First, the Americans are not working with Israel to block Iran from becoming a nuclear power. They are working against Israel.
The Americans and Israelis agree that Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear breakout state, which can assemble nuclear weapons at will. But whereas they agree on the status of Iran’s quest for military nuclear capability, they disagree about what the response to the current state of Iran’s nuclear program should be.
Israel’s position is that the United States should take diplomatic and economic action, and at a minimum threaten military action if Iran refuses to reinstate the limitations on its nuclear activities set out in the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. The 2015 nuclear deal permitted Iran to enrich limited quantities of uranium to the level of 3.67 percent. Iran is currently enriching massive quantities of uranium to 60 percent—just a step away from weapons-grade.
U.S. President Joe Biden and his advisers are unwilling to consider placing additional economic sanctions on Iran. Indeed, the administration is turning a blind eye to Iran’s export of massive quantities of oil and gas to China and other states, in breach of the sanctions. The Americans say they may be willing to consider taking diplomatic action of some form or another, but in exchange, they demand Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.
In short, Limor’s article reported that the United States has made clear to Israel that it will take no effective action to block Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
The second stunning bit of information in Limor’s article is that the Lapid-Bennett government has no idea what to do in the face of America’s position. Instead of accepting reality and moving to face Iran without the United States, Israel’s government is opting to cling ever tighter to Washington.
Limor wrote, “The Israeli effort to reach maximal cooperation with the U.S. is under way, among other reasons, because of the fact that Israel has very few options left.”
To maintain coordination with the administration, which does not share Israel’s goals, the Lapid-Bennett government has changed Israel’s goals. It now supports the Biden administration’s efforts to return the United States to the JCPOA. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump abandoned the deal because Iran negotiated it in bad faith and was systematically breaching the JCPOA’s limitations on its nuclear operations.
During his premiership, Benjamin Netanyahu opposed all aspects of the JCPOA, because he recognized that it facilitates and provides U.N. legitimacy for Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The Lapid-Bennett government justifies its radical break with the past by arguing that an Iranian return to the JCPOA’s limitations on its nuclear activities will slow its advance to the bomb, and buy Israel time which it “can use to wage a diplomatic campaign and to speed up its military preparations to keep Iran from a nuclear bomb in the future.”
In other words, to buy time in its effort to block Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Israel is legitimizing the JCPOA which legitimizes and guarantees the success of Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear arsenal. The government argues that after legitimizing Iran’s nuclear program (by supporting the JCPOA), it will have the time to wage a diplomatic campaign to delegitimize Iran’s nuclear program, and to develop a military capacity to attack Iran’s nuclear installations which the JCPOA legitimizes.
Israel’s operational and strategic incoherence stems from the government’s inability to reconcile itself to the fact of U.S. betrayal. By abandoning the United States’ longstanding opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, the Biden administration hasn’t simply dashed Israel’s hope of coordinating its efforts with Washington. It has obliterated the guiding wisdom at the foundation of Israel’s 50-year security partnership with America. That wisdom has it that America’s security partnership with Israel is the most important guarantee of Israel’s national security.
The notion that the United States—rather than Israel’s power and willingness to bring that power to bear—is Israel’s most important strategic asset was born in the aftermath of the 1968-1970 War of Attrition. It became the foundation for Israeli strategic planning in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. During that period, in exchange for U.S. weapons, Israel agreed to abide by the U.S. demand that Israel stand down and not defeat its enemies. In response to U.S. pressure, Israel did not destroy the Egyptian Third Army when IDF forces encircled it at the end of the Yom Kippur War.
The United States saved the PLO and Yasser Arafat in Beirut in 1982.
It saved Arafat and the PLO again in Ramallah in 2002.
Washington saved Hezbollah in 2006.
It saved Hamas in multiple battles since 2008.
The United States torpedoed Israel’s anti-Iran collaboration with Georgia in 2007-8. It subverted Israel’s strategic cooperation with Azerbaijan against Iran in subsequent years.
In each episode, Israel’s security establishment accepted Washington’s stand-down orders because the generals valued U.S. arms more than decisive victory.
In the case of Iran and its nuclear program, this approach is the reason Israel lacks the military capacity to significantly downgrade Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Despite overwhelming evidence that Iran’s nuclear program is directed against Israel first and foremost, and that the United States has never intended to take military action to block Iran’s path to the bomb, Israel’s generals have long insisted that Iran’s nuclear program is an “international problem.” Israel, they have consistently argued, must allow the United States to lead international efforts to block Iran’s race to the bomb.
This position was most vividly and fatefully followed in 2010 when then-Mossad director Meir Dagan and then-IDF Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi refused an order by then-Prime Minister Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak to prepare the army and the Mossad to attack Iran’s nuclear installations. Not only did the top commanders refuse the order, but in an interview shortly before his death, Dagan revealed that he had informed his CIA counterpart, Leon Panetta, about the order he and Ashkenazi rejected.
Throughout Barack Obama’s years in the White House, Israel’s security establishment refused to face the obvious implications of his nuclear diplomacy. Instead, Dagan and his successor Tamir Pardo, along with Ashkenazi and his successor Benny Gantz, all insisted that Israel had to toe Obama’s line. The generals opposed Netanyahu’s diplomatic efforts against the JCPOA.
Today, the security establishment blames Netanyahu for Iran’s sprint to the nuclear finish line. The generals say Netanyahu was wrong to convince Trump to leave the nuclear deal. To be sure, Iran is now enriching more uranium to higher levels of enrichment than it did when it agreed to the JCPOA in 2015. But according to those involved in the proceedings, in 2015 Iran lacked the ability to enrich uranium to 60 percent.
During the course of the JCPOA, Iran developed advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium to bomb-grade or near bomb-grade levels. The idea that the ayatollahs wouldn’t be doing what they are doing now if the United States hadn’t left the deal strains credulity. And with the United States out of the deal, the chances of blocking Iran’s path to the bomb were far greater than they had been beforehand.
The truth is that Netanyahu wouldn’t have been as dependent on Trump, and Israel’s prospects for blocking Iran’s nuclear advances would not be in disarray today, were it not for the security establishment’s refusal to develop strategic options for blocking the Iranian regime’s path to a nuclear arsenal independent of Washington. Israel would not be where it is today if Dagan and Ashkenazi had followed Netanyahu and Barak’s order in 2010.
Last year, the security brass erupted after Trump announced the United States would sell F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates. Defense Minister Benny Gantz and his colleagues argued the sale would erode Israel’s qualitative military edge over its neighbors. Netanyahu, for his part, countered that the UAE doesn’t threaten Israel and that the strategic advantage Israel gains from peace with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf far outweighs the dangers emanating from the F-35 sale to the UAE.
In the wake of this dispute, Washington-based Middle East expert and former senior Bush and Trump administrations official David Wurmser published a cost-benefit analysis of U.S. military support for Israel. Titled, “Reflections on the US Guarantee of a Qualitative Military Edge to Israel,” Wurmser’s article provoked a classified discussion in the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last year.
Wursmer argued that the price Israel has paid for U.S. weapons transfers has been exorbitant. Israel, he wrote, “bartered its strategic freedom of maneuver and initiative in exchange for a qualitative military edge in weaponry.”
Israel’s dependence on U.S. weapons created a vicious cycle. With each passing year, “Israel depended ever more on cutting-edge American arms, relied ever more on U.S. aid to pay for it, which demanded ever more of Israel to subordinate its strategic initiative, maneuver and planning to American regional policies.”
This progression, Wurmser explained, would leave Israel’s will questioned, deterrence weakened and compromised—”all of which invited a greater threat which demanded yet more weaponry.”
Invariably, Wurmser noted, “those policies entailed further Israeli restraint and acquiescence to America’s attempts to downplay its closeness to Israel in order to court key Arab nations, and ultimately to pursue peace processes which exacted concessions from Israel in an attempt to reconcile the two sides of this ‘balancing’ act. The strategic dependence of Israel on the U.S. always guaranteed that Israel’s security establishment would support such restraint and conciliation.”
If the F-35 sale to the UAE caused Israel’s security establishment to worry about the future of Israel’s qualitative edge, the Biden administration’s betrayal of Israel in relation to Iran utterly devastates the basic conceptual framework at the heart of the security establishment’s strategic thinking. Israel’s military relationship with the United States is now demonstrably not preferable to strategic independence and freedom.
It is hard to know what will happen with the JCPOA. Maybe Iran will agree to abide by it in exchange for sanctions relief. Maybe it won’t. Maybe it will slow down its uranium enrichment. Maybe it won’t. But the notion that a deal that paves Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal is the proper means to stem Iran’s nuclear advance is absurd.
It is also far from clear what the impact of “U.S. diplomatic pressure,” (if it is ever employed), will have on Iran. Between its catastrophic defeat in Afghanistan and its weak defense of Taiwan in the face of Chinese threats, America’s threats carry far less weight than they once did.
What is absolutely apparent, however, is that Israel’s security establishment needs to wake up from its American delusion. America does not have Israel’s back. Only Israel has Israel’s back.