Five Benefits of U.S.—Israel Discord

by Tom Rogan
Divisions in the alliance seem bad, but are actually helping the nuclear negotiations.

The American president and the Israeli prime minister do not get along.

And that’s being generous. Their disagreements (frequent and overt) reveal two very different men. Netanyahu is the archetypal Israeli conservative — a former top-tier special-forces operator and a man suspicious of diplomatic niceties. Conversely, Obama is the standard-bearer for America’s liberal intelligentsia — highly contemplative and eager to forge consensus.

Now, facing the prospect of a P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran, mistrust is bubbling to the surface. Netanyahu is protesting that this deal would be “a terrible mistake, a historic error.”  Kerry is retorting that the US is neither “blind” nor “stupid.” In short, the U.S.-Israeli relationship isn’t looking so good.

But this may not be such a bad thing for American and Israeli hawks. Here are five good reasons why the present U.S.—Israeli discord could help the nuclear negotiators reach a good, enforceable deal.

1. Israeli anger reinforces the seriousness of the prospective deal
Nuclear negotiations with Iran have been ongoing in various forms since 2003. Still, up to this point, successive Israeli governments have tended to keep their criticism of America’s negotiating strategy behind closed doors. This time around, Prime Minister Netanyahu has loudly condemned even prospective deals.

So what’s changed?

Seriousness. The Israelis believe that Obama is on the verge of signing an agreement. If they know a deal will be reached, the Israelis have an incentive to maximize their interests in it. And while some commentators argue that Israeli anger will doom Obama’s effort, the opposite may be true. 

Ultimately, a serious nuclear accord will require all parties to take risks in pursuit of the prize. In specific terms, both the P5+1 and Iran will have to show their negotiating hands and gamble that, in doing so, they will find a compromise. That can’t happen unless all parties believe that this is a serious deal worth their signatures. By their explicit complaints, the Israelis are encouraging an understanding among Iran and American allies that the U.S. is deeply invested in this effort. That belief is legitimating the process.

2. U.S.Israeli discord empowers the Iranian moderates
The Iranian hard-liners don’t simply hate Israel as a political entity; they’re motivated by a pathological anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, the king hardliner, Ayatollah Khamenei, will ultimately decide whether Iran accepts any proposal. If President Hassan Rouhani wants a deal, he has to win Khamenei’s support.

By their public broadcasts of disagreement, Netanyahu and Obama (via Kerry) are proving that the deal on the table is one that’s hard for Israel to swallow. That denies Iranian hard-liners the ability to tar this proposal as a figment of U.S.—Israeli collusion (which tends to be a key fetish of Iranian propagandists). If the U.S. is at the table without Israeli support, that might actually be instrumental in helping a deal earn legitimacy in Iran.

3. Israel is looking beyond America
Since its birth as a nation, Israel has had one unshakable ally — the United States. That’s something Americans can be proud of. Still, Israel’s reliance on one ally has been problematic: In the absence of multiple reliable friends, Israel has been vulnerable to a pernicious mix of abusive propaganda and outright violence. Yet the discord between the U.S. and Israel is forcing Israel to branch out: Whether with France or the Sunni Arab monarchies, Israel is using mutual concerns to build new partnerships. These developments are assuring Iran that Israel is far from alone in its adamant concern about Iranian power and the survival of the Jewish state. These developing relationships also offer something else: a powerful riposte to the delusional bigotry of anti-Israel forces. Indirectly, Israel’s newly multilateral approach is legitimizing its interests at the bargaining table.

4. Israeli skepticism will encourage Iranian compliance
If there’s one lesson from Israeli history, it’s this: The Israeli Defense Forces have an uncanny knack for appearing out of nowhere and making things disintegrate. With Netanyahu, this legacy is personal

In the context of a prospective nuclear deal, this history means the Iranian hard-liners face a binary choice. They can fully comply with a deal that prevents weaponized nuclear capabilities, or they can gamble on an unforgiving gauntlet. The Iranians know that if they play games (see Assad), they’ll be risking military action. It’s pretty simple. In the face of Iranian post-deal non-compliance, the Israelis could honestly assert that they gave peace a chance and Iran’s leaders invited their fate. Israel’s skepticism of the inherent enforceability of a Geneva deal, in other words, makes it more enforceable.

5. The discord will produce an improved U.S.Israeli relationship.
No alliance is perfect, not even the special relationship. Herein lies the defining truth of international relations: States act in their own self-interests. That’s why Israel spies on the U.S. and vice versa. It’s why states have independent armies. Nevertheless, U.S.—Israeli relations have long reflected a dichotomy. On one side, there are those who claim that America and Israel must walk in lockstep; on the other, those who assert that the relationship is devoid of legitimate moral purpose. The Iran showdown is helping vent this stupidity. Both countries are realizing that the stakes are too high for them to obsess over the degrees of disagreement. As Netanyahu himself put it, “Even among the best of friends, disagreements can arise.”

This awakening is crucial. Where allies are comfortable in honest disagreement, the tangibles of their relationship are joined by a precious addition — the opportunity for trusted introspection and a more useful consideration of each state’s interests. That will help the U.S. reach a sensible deal, and empower Israel’s threat to enforce it. 

On paper, this spat doesn’t look good. But diplomacy isn’t about talk, it’s about outcomes. America and Israel share the same fundamental goal — an Iran that lacks the capability to construct nuclear weapons. Though their courses toward that destination might be different, by speaking clearly and forging new relationships, they can use their present disagreements to advance their common goal.

Tom Rogan is a blogger based in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to TheWeek.com and the Guardian.