Danny Citrinowicz, former chief of Israeli military intelligence’s Iran branch, calls withdrawal from the JCPOA a “catastrophe.” The former head of the civilian intelligence agency Mossad, Tamir Pardo, calls the withdrawal a “tragedy” and terms the Israeli government’s push for a US withdrawal a “strategic mistake.” Numerous other Israelis who also formerly shouldered major security responsibilities have spoken in the same vein. Writes Paul Pillar
An important statement about where the interests of the State of Israel and its citizens lie has come in the form of expert judgments by former senior Israeli security officials about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear program.
Those making the judgments are people who have dedicated their professional lives to Israeli security. It behooves anyone concerned about the security of Israel to listen to them. Their judgment about the JCPOA is that Donald Trump’s reneging on the agreement in 2018 was a big mistake. They assess that, whatever reservations they may have had about the JCPOA, it was better than the alternative, which is what exists now—an unrestricted and growing Iranian program of enriching uranium.
Major General Isaac Ben Israel, chairman of the Israeli Space Agency and former chief of Israeli air force intelligence, says that the efforts of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “to persuade the Trump administration to quit the nuclear agreement have turned out to be the worst strategic mistake in Israel’s history.” Former chief of Israeli military intelligence Amos Yadlin says, “what postponed Iranian progress toward achieving nuclear weapons was the nuclear agreement, not military action” and the fact that Iran is now much closer to such weapons is “because of the very wrong policy taken by the State of Israel.”
Danny Citrinowicz, former chief of Israeli military intelligence’s Iran branch, calls withdrawal from the JCPOA a “catastrophe.” The former head of the civilian intelligence agency Mossad, Tamir Pardo, calls the withdrawal a “tragedy” and terms the Israeli government’s push for a U.S. withdrawal a “strategic mistake.” Numerous other Israelis who also formerly shouldered major security responsibilities have spoken in the same vein.
Such judgments from such Israeli professionals are not new. Many of them were saying similar things back when the JCPOA first came into force in 2015. Former Mossad head Efraim Halevy, for example, asked rhetorically about Netanyahu’s efforts to torpedo the accord, “what is the point of canceling an agreement that distances Iran from the bomb?” The former head of the internal security service Shin Bet, Ami Ayalon, said at about the same time that regarding Iran’s nuclear capability, the JCPOA was “the best option.”
None of these judgments should be surprising. Even a moment’s reflection leads to the conclusion that, to the extent that Iran’s nuclear activities might affect Israel’s security, it is far better to have those activities tightly controlled as they were under the JCPOA than to have the alternative of no such restrictions and no limits on Iran’s production of fissile material.
If the concerned security professionals in Israel have been speaking out about this subject even more now than before, it probably is because the experience of the past six years has made the large difference in the results of two starkly different policies ever more obvious. Iran fully observed the JCPOA’s tight restrictions on its nuclear activities during the three years the agreement was in effect, thereby keeping closed any possible path to a nuclear weapon. In contrast, the past three more years have shown Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy to have failed completely, with Iran’s stockpile of low enriched uranium now a dozen times larger than it was under the JCPOA, with enrichment to higher levels than before, and with the estimated “breakout time” if Iran were to race to build a bomb now reduced to a fraction of what it was under the agreement.
Roots of Israeli Policy
The Israeli government’s policy doesn’t reflect any of these assessments and these lessons from recent history. The government of Naftali Bennett remains opposed to nuclear negotiations—or any negotiations, for that matter—with Iran. In this, Bennett is continuing the policy of his predecessor Netanyahu, who spared no effort in trying to sabotage the JCPOA and the negotiations that led to it, even denouncing U.S. policy before the U.S. Congress.
The United States is no stranger to political leaders disregarding judgments of their own security services, and the same pattern can arise in any other country. But the discrepancy in Israel on such a salient matter requires further explanation. The policies of Bennett and Netanyahu partly reflect what has become a visceral Israeli hatred of all things Iranian, repeatedly amplified and encouraged by the statements of Israeli political leaders themselves. Such animosity can combine with the tendency—which arises all too often in the United States—to think of negotiating or even talking with a foreign adversary as a reward for that adversary.
Nurtured by such emotions and tendencies, firm opposition to any dealings with Iran has become a national habit in Israel. The political space for any leader to chart an alternative course is small to nonexistent, given the certainty that a political opponent would exploit the slightest hint of being “soft” on Iran.
There also is a more strategic objective, which has nothing to do with nuclear proliferation, behind Israeli policy. Keeping Iran as a loathed, sanctioned, and isolated bête noire that no one deals with serves several purposes for the Israeli government. It weakens a potential rival for regional influence. It blocks any rapprochement between the United States and Iran and thus helps sustain the notion of Israel as the only significant U.S. friend and partner in the region. Most important, it provides an all-purpose target of blame for anything untoward in the region and a subject to which any discussion can be diverted whenever it starts to get into things Israeli leaders would rather not talk about, especially the occupation of Palestinian territory.
All this has implications for how to think about commentators, lobbyists, and American politicians who present themselves as “pro-Israel.” Surely anyone in the United States who wants to wear that label should be promoting Israeli security at least as much as other Israeli objectives. For one thing, the basic security of Israel and its citizens can legitimately be considered a U.S. interest as well—in contrast to certain other salient Israeli policies and practices that are not in U.S. interests, including clinging to conquered territory and using it for the benefit of the dominant population while suppressing other people of a different ethnicity or religion.
Moreover, even for someone who thinks narrowly about Israeli interests rather than U.S. interests, security should come first. It is the primary responsibility of any state and the fundamental state function on which everything else rests. But those in this country who, as part of their supposed “pro-Israel” stance, have opposed something like the JCPOA and applauded Trump’s reneging on the agreement have actually been acting—in the assessment of those retired Israeli security officials and as demonstrated by events of the past few years—contrary to Israel’s security.
The same can be said about the way many of the same supposed “pro-Israel” advocates excuse, turn a blind eye toward, or attempt to silence peaceful criticism of Israeli policies regarding the occupation of territory and subjugation of Palestinians. Far from being a contributor to Israeli security (exactly which external power is going to attack Israel through the West Bank?), the occupation detracts from it. The extra monetary expense alone of an absence of peace with the Palestinians is a substantial cost to Israel.
Moreover, the Israeli settlement project in the West Bank detracts from Israel’s security in multiple ways. As the independent Israeli think tank Molad aptly puts it,
Having Israeli civilians living throughout the West Bank does not help defend
the country; instead, it encumbers the security forces, is a drain on the national defense budget, and complicates the military’s work by lengthening the lines of defense. Instead of concentrating on fighting terrorism against Israel, security forces have to divert considerable resources to protecting citizens who have chosen to live in the heart of Palestinian territory.
Thus, an organization such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which declares itself on the main page of its website to be “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby,” has in important respects acted against the interests, especially security interests, of Israel. The same is true of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which moves in similar supposedly “pro-Israel” directions as AIPAC, draws on similar sources for financial support, and has made a specialty of opposing diplomacy with Iran at every turn, with the apparent ultimate objective being a war with Iran.
What these organizations, and other groups and individuals who propound similar themes, are supporting is not Israeli interests—certainly not regarding Israeli security. Rather, they are supporting the current policies of the Israeli government. That is something different—in Israel, in the United States, or in any other country. This distinction ought to be understood by anyone at home or abroad who, say, has criticized the Biden administration for policy on Afghanistan or some other security-related matter. Such criticism does not make the critic any less “pro-U.S.” than someone who consistently supports the administration’s policies.
Most of those who bankroll or work in organizations such as AIPAC and FDD are surely motivated by genuine love of, and admiration for, Israel. (It is harder to say the same thing about many politicians who see the “pro-Israel” label more instrumentally as a path to campaign contributions or votes.) In that limited sense, they are friends of Israel. But they have become friends who are enabling self-destructive behavior by the person, or in this case the state, they have befriended. The truest friends of Israel would not enable such behavior and would not espouse policies that condemn Israel to living forever by the sword, never knowing genuine peace and security, and constantly having to fight off legitimate criticism through such contorted means as labeling human rights organizations as terrorist groups.
Those who are escorting Israel down this unhappy path do not deserve the descriptor “pro-Israel.”
Paul Pillar retired in 2005 from a twenty-eight-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. Professor Pillar also served in the National Intelligence Council as one of the original members of its Analytic Group.
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