Israel Security Leaders Split on Netanyahu Approach to Iran Deal

(Bloomberg) -- Benjamin Netanyahu’s message to President Donald Trump has been consistent and clear: If Iran won’t agree to fix the nuclear deal, walk away from it. Some of his advisers aren’t sure that’s the best course of action.

There’s a consensus among Israel’s security leaders that the nuclear deal needs repair, but some question the wisdom of pulling away without a better alternative, three government officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity to comment on a confidential debate that has divided even the fiercest opponents of the Iranian regime.

Israel Security Leaders Split on Netanyahu Approach to Iran Deal

Leaders of Israeli security agencies such as the Mossad and the military typically refrain from commenting on diplomatic issues, but retired officials have been more vocal on what they think Trump -- who will announce his decision Tuesday -- should do. Major-General Amos Gilad, a recently retired senior Defense Ministry official, said if the U.S. bolts, it should be part of a wider effort to end Iran’s nuclear program.

“It’s a must to find alternatives,” Gilad said in an interview. “There’s no debate that Iran is leading a vicious policy in the Middle East; the issue is whether it will be better or worse if the U.S. cancels the agreement without coordinating with its major partners. The U.S. needs to make a decision that fits within a broader strategy.”

Netanyahu’s opposition to the accord midwifed by the Obama administration has become a defining element of his premiership. He sees Iran and its nuclear program as his country’s top threat, compounded by Tehran’s military entrenchment in neighboring Syria in the course of that country’s civil war.

The reservations over a possible U.S. pullout center on the same debate that surrounded the accord before it was signed: Is it better to have a deal that curbs Iran’s nuclear program temporarily and imperfectly than none at all? The debate is complicated by uncertainty over how Iran would respond to a U.S. withdrawal, and whether Trump has a clear plan.

Deal Compliance

The Israeli army chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Gadi Eisenkot, recently told the Haaretz newspaper that no Iranian violations of the agreement have been detected. The deal, “with all its faults, is working and is putting off realization of the Iranian nuclear vision by 10 to 15 years,” he said. Spokesmen for the military and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman declined to comment.

Like Trump, Netanyahu says Iran is biding its time until the expiry of key limits on uranium enrichment, a major component of bombmaking. Israel also faults the agreement for not guaranteeing inspector access to military bases and for things it doesn’t address: Iran’s ballistic missile program -- the potential delivery device for a nuclear weapon -- and its support for militant groups, including some that have warred with Israel. One of the Israeli government officials wondered if Netanyahu truly wants to kill the deal or is using that prospect to push Iran to negotiate a stricter agreement.

After Netanyahu went on Israeli television last week to unveil what he said was a secret nuclear weapons archive that Israeli spies smuggled out of Iran, Trump hinted he planned to quit the accord. On Monday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani signaled his country may stay in even if the U.S. withdraws, if “what Iran wants from the nuclear deal will be met.”

Threat Level

The debate over whether the U.S. should pull out of the deal highlights a question Israeli military strategists have grappled with for decades: Just how severe a threat does Iran pose? Top Iranian officials have spoken repeatedly of Israel’s annihilation, leading some Israelis to argue that negotiating with Iran is similar to European powers’ agreement ceding parts of Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler in 1938.

“The Europeans want to push this off for a few years with the idea that it’ll be fine. It won’t be fine,” said Housing Minister Yoav Gallant, a security cabinet member and retired general who is considered close to Netanyahu.

Others don’t see the Islamic Republic as the apocalyptic threat Netanyahu does.

“Iran is not an existential threat for Israel. It has the potential to become one in the very long term, but it’s not something immediate,” said former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. His recently published book, “My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace,” details why Israel didn’t carry out a planned strike on Iran’s nuclear program in 2012, when he was defense minister.

Iran’s Choices

Netanyahu’s recently retired national security adviser, Yaakov Nagel, downplayed the debate among Israeli security officials, saying “there’s no argument among the security establishment regarding fixing or nixing the deal.”

“There are different views regarding the level of the problem, in terms of what kind of fix would make it better than the alternatives,” he said.

Instead of rushing to pull out of the deal, the U.S. should take more time to try to redress its flaws, said Uzi Arad, who served as Netanyahu’s national security adviser from 2009 to 2011.

“We don’t know what Iran might do if the U.S. walks way from the deal,” and the U.S. hasn’t clarified its ultimate goals, Arad said. “Is it interested in a confrontation with Iran in which it could inflict a death blow to the existing facilities, or does it not want to come to this point?”

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