Iran Deal Can Be Scaffolding for Israeli Unity Government

The framework agreement reached by the six powers and Iran is the scaffolding upon which a unity government between Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog should be erected. Its most important and urgent mission must be the rehabilitation of Israel’s relations with the U.S. administration, in order to have some impact on the final deal with Iran, as well as translating into deeds the promise made by the American president to safeguard Israel’s security.

Netanyahu hinted at a possible political ramification of the interim nuclear agreement when he adopted Herzog’s proposal to demand that Iran recognize Israel as part of the final agreement. Netanyahu is demanding a recognition of Israel’s “right to exist” and is not stating what Israel will give in return for such recognition, but a statement he made at the end of Friday’s cabinet meeting indicated some moderation of his demands. A month ago, in his speech before the Congress, Netanyahu demanded that Iran desist from its “aggression against its neighbors” and from its support of international terror. Now he is justifiably focusing on Israel’s interests rather than on his touching concern for the wellbeing of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United Emirates.

Netanyahu labeled the interim agreement “a bad deal and an existential threat,” while Herzog made do with a call for improved U.S.-Israeli relations, so that the final agreement would ensure Israel’s security interests. Despite the rhetorical gap between the two, cooperation between them is vital in order to prevent Israel’s isolation and to guarantee that it receives some appropriate compensation in the form of defense measures, in view of the upgrading in the international status of its rival Iran.

Israel has several important demands to make of the U.S. administration. Firstly and above all, Israel’s nuclear capabilities and deterrence must be maintained, and a guarantee that any regional or international initiatives to impose a nuclear agreement on Israel that would restrain its power would be foiled. Iran will probably demand that the reactor in Dimona also be placed under strict limitations and supervision in the arrangements that are hammered out, just as will be the case for the facilities in Natanz, Fordow and Arak. The United States must protect Israel from such a demand.

The second demand must be to strengthen the conventional capabilities of the Israel Defense Forces, including funding the setting up of the David’s Sling (Magic Wand) missile system, which was successfully tested last week. The system is designed to afford protection from Hezbollah missiles. Further financing is required for Iron Dome batteries, for protection against short-range missiles and for the Arrow 3 system, designed to protect against Iranian surface-to-surface missiles. Also required are a strengthening of intelligence-gathering capabilities and more long-range unmanned aerial vehicles, and possibly a squadron of F-35 fighters, so beloved of Israel’s Air Force commanders. U.S. President Barack Obama will make conciliatory moves towards Israel, just as he did with the renewal of arms shipments to Egypt, as compensation for his rapprochement with Iran.

Netanyahu needs Herzog as a moderate foreign minister, who will be in charge of repairing relations with the Obama administration. There is no one suitable for the job in the proposed right-wing government. Not Netanyahu, who ruined his relations with Obama and continues to preach against the president’s policies. It can’t be Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman or Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett who wishes to replace him, or Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon who insulted Secretary of State John Kerry. This person can’t come from the executive branch either – there is currently no official in the defense establishment who is perceived as a reliable and useful interlocutor. Appointing Herzog will also enable Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, a right-wing political hack who is disconnected from the administration, to be replaced by a professional diplomat with experience and multiple connections, such as Israel’s ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor.

Cooperation between Herzog and Netanyahu is not self-evident. But Netanyahu no longer has trust in or respect for his natural allies on the right. The guiding principle in his efforts to form a government should be the national interest, not power struggles on the right. Timing is critical. The framework deal has changed the balance of power in the region, challenging U.S.-Israel relations. A unity government is the correct way of contending with these changes. A right-wing government will only enhance Israel’s isolation and weaken it vis a vis Iran and no fiery speech by Netanyahu can prevent this from happening. That can only be achieved by a government that projects political moderation.

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