(Reuters) - The day after a nuclear deal with Iran was announced, the sun rose high above Jerusalem’s shimmering hills just as it does every July, as if the ancient land shrugged off two decades of apocalyptic warnings from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and decided to go about its usual routine.
Israeli officials across the political landscape decried the “very bad deal,” as Netanyahu termed the agreement, which the United States and five world powers hope will curb Iran’s weaponization of its nuclear program. But no one, not even the prime minister, rattled the sabers of war.
“An Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites is no longer a relevant scenario,” wrote Amos Harel, military analyst for the Israeli daily Haaretz.
Once the agreement was announced late Tuesday night, Netanyahu’s first, brief statement ignored the nuclear issue entirely and asserted that “the world is a much more dangerous place today than it was yesterday.”
“The leading international powers have bet our collective future on a deal with the foremost sponsor of international terrorism,” the statement said. “They’ve gambled that in 10 years’ time, Iran’s terrorist regime will change while removing any incentive for it to do so.”
It was not a frivolous sentiment for the leader of a small state on permanent war alert with two of Iran’s ruthless proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, on its northern and southern borders.
In an interview with the New York Times a few hours later, President Barack Obama responded soberly (if testily) to the charge. “What’s been striking to me is that increasingly the critics are shifting off the nuclear issue, and they’re moving into, ‘Well,’” the president said, slipping into his opponents’ characters, “‘even if the nuclear issue is dealt with, they’re still going to be sponsoring terrorism and they’re still going to get the sanctions relief and so they’re going to have more money to engage in these bad activities.’”
“That is a possibility,” the president acknowledged. “And we are going to have to systematically guard against that and work with our allies, the Gulf countries, Israel, to stop the work that they are doing outside of the nuclear program.”
The difference in perspective is essential.
If Iran represents a challenge - and, possibly, a future nuclear power - to the United States, for Israel, Iran is an implacable foe that strikes on every level and on every platform, from its flagship nuclear program to its support of Mideast Islamist groups, from cyber warfare to its sponsorship of attacks against Israeli targets worldwide.
Israel views the sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy as a force that curtails it on all fronts.
“Israel is like the little child who is pointing its finger and saying, ‘The king is naked, this agreement is naked!’” said Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister responsible for nuclear affairs.
The grim ping pong between Washington and Jerusalem was so intense that, had relations between the two allies not already been at a nadir, it would have been tempting to speculate that the United States and Israel were playing a coordinated game of good cop, bad cop.
The American gambit, made explicit by the president, is to separate the nuclear issue from all other “odious” Iranian activities and hope for a nuclear-bomb halt for 10 years. In Israeli eyes, those are 10 years in which Iran will invest in all sorts of odiousness, including, but not limited to, the nuclear.
Iran has two paths to the bomb, Netanyahu told NBC. “One is if they keep the deal, and the other is if they cheat on the deal. They can cheat on the deal because inspections are not instantaneous. In fact, you don’t have inspections within 24 hours; you have 24 days before you can inspect any site that you find suspicious in Iran.”
“Twenty-four days. Can you imagine giving a drug dealer 24 days’ notice before you check the premises? That’s a lot of time to flush a lot of meth down the toilet.”
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister, slammed Netanyahu’s recalcitrance and defended the deal as “responsible.” He said, “Israel should also take a closer look at it and not criticize the agreement in a very coarse way.”
Worse, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who will be in Jerusalem on Thursday, betrayed his lack of sympathy for Netanyahu’s hard line: “The question you have to ask yourself is what kind of a deal would have been welcomed in Tel Aviv. The answer, of course, is that Israel doesn’t want any deal with Iran. Israel wants a permanent state of stand-off, and I don’t believe that’s in the interests of the region.”
The significance of the statement is not principally in its uncommon public expression of exasperation but in the seemingly offhand reference to Israel’s commercial capital. It is almost unheard of for a representative of an Israeli ally to use Tel Aviv as shorthand for the state, which claims Jerusalem as its “eternal, unified capital.”
The offense to Israeli sensibilities on the eve of a state visit is huge.
Why such fury? Netanyahu is reaping the harvest of the scorn he’s heaped on the West and his brazen alliance with Republicans, which culminated in last March’s controversial address to Congress in which he railed against this very Iran deal.
That bad blood is exposing Israel to a risk that is no less significant than that posed by Iran: the danger of international isolation.
Harel, the military analyst, estimates that “the serious crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations, at whose lies the tense relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, has produced a situation in which the prime minister’s influence over the nuclear talks’ final stages was marginal.”
Israel’s response to the threat posed by Iran’s new stature, he concludes, “depends on achieving closer ties with the United States.”