Under the radar: Israel’s security establishment supports new Iran agreement

The Israeli brass’ stated view of the Geneva talks and Sunday’s accord is plainly at odds with the loud, sustained ‘gevalt!’ coming from the Prime Minister’s Office and cabinet.

The news from Israel is that Israel hates the Iranian nuclear deal struck in Geneva – but the news is not entirely accurate. It’s true, of course, that Netanyahu and his government ministers (with the exception of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni) think the agreement is bad, very bad, very very bad, and that Obama and the West sold the Jews out to Hitler again. But there are some other extremely powerful Israelis who don’t think the agreement is so bad, and who certainly prefer it to the no-agreement that Bibi and AIPAC were driving toward – and these Israelis make up the country’s military-intelligence establishment.

It shouldn’t be a big surprise; these are the same people who, with an assist from President Shimon Peres and the Israeli media, stopped Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak from bombing Iran like they wanted to last year. Israel’s generals don’t relish going head-to-head with the United States, they don’t live on paranoia, apocalyptic visions and scare-mongering, and right there you have enough to understand why they don’t go along with Netanyahu on Iran. The Israeli brass are certainly not peaceniks. They’re not sanguine at all about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. They are not opposed in principle to bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities – in fact, like with most Israelis, their preferred solution is for the U.S. to bomb them. But unlike Netanyahu and the right, they don’t automatically see red when they look at Iran, and they don’t delude themselves that the West can force Iran to surrender outright, to give up its nuclear program, at the negotiating table, which is what Netanyahu has been demanding all along.

Unlike the prime minister and his followers, the Israeli military-intelligence establishment are a sober bunch, they deal in possibilities, and they are not denouncing this agreement or the negotiations that preceded it. Instead, their message has been that an agreement which slows down but does not dismantle Iran’s nuclear project is far preferable to the alternative – which is not, as Bibi would have it, more Iranian concessions, but rather Iran’s departure from the negotiations and no Iranian concessions.

Unfortunately, this dissent on the part of the brass is not coming through clearly in the news. But there have been a series of public statements by leaders of the military-intelligence establishment that are plainly at odds with the loud, sustained “gevalt!” coming out of the Prime Minister’s Office and cabinet.

After the Geneva agreement was signed on Sunday, retired Gen. Amos Yadlin, former head of Military Intelligence, deputy commander of the Air Force and now director of the country’s leading strategic think tank, told reporters,  “If this were the final agreement – then it would really be a bad agreement, but that’s not the situation.” The situation, he said, is that this is an interim, six-month agreement, and that it’s the final pact to be negotiated later that will be decisive. He said the final agreement must not only freeze Iran’s progress toward a bomb, like the current, interim one does, but reverse it. He also gave Netanyahu credit for getting the world powers to extract additional concessions from Iran. But Yadlin said Sunday’s agreement, which Netanyahu condemns for having “made the world more dangerous,” did just the opposite:

It is possible that had there been no agreement, [Iran] would have decided to make the breakthrough to a bomb, because the sanctions are hurting it badly.”

And Yadlin is a hawk in the security establishment; other members were more avid for an accord. Last week, a senior Israeli intelligence official told reporters that the country’s brotherhood of spooks was hoping a deal would be struck in Geneva because the easing of sanctions on Iran would help Rouhani in his battle against his country’s militants. The Christian Science Monitor reported:

We see a bit of a possibility, although it’s quite problematic, of more … stability,” said the officer, who spoke on the basis of anonymity. But that is dependent on the success of negotiations “over the nuclear project, but more than that, over the relief of the sanctions on the Iranian economy,” he said.

Also last week, retired Gen. Giora Eiland, a former National Security Adviser whose voice remains very prominent here on matters of war and peace, was quoted in The New York Times using language that should have tipped people off about the brass’ discomfort with Netanyahu’s harangues against the Geneva talks:

The situation has changed and everybody else except Israel understands that a deal means to be more flexible,” said Eiland. … “Netanyahu speaks only about a good deal. The Americans are speaking about a reasonable deal, which is better than having no deal at all.”

A couple of months ago, the current head of Military Intelligence, Gen. Aviv Kochavi, wrote a report on Iran saying that Rouhani’s election in June signaled the country’s strong desire for an end to the impoverishment and isolation that the sanctions had brought, which presented an opportunity to Israel and the West. Kochavi wrote that under Rouhani, Iran’s nuclear goal hadn’t changed – but he didn’t say Iran’s goal was to annihilate Israel or even build a nuclear bomb. Instead, he said the Islamic Republic’s goal was to become a “nuclear threshold” state, one that maintained the capability to build a bomb in short order if it decided to. From Haaretz:

Kochavi wrote that while there has been no change in Iran’s nuclear program, there have been some real changes in Iran’s internal political situation since the election, of a kind not seen in many years. Rohani’s victory sparked a process of deep change that can’t be ignored, Kochavi maintained, describing the changes as “significant” and even “strategic.” …

Kochavi [partially] based his analysis on the stated intention of Rohani and his cabinet to promote internal reform, increase the country’s openness to the West and end the economic sanctions on Iran.

In all, this is a very different message than Netanyahu, Lieberman, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and AIPAC have been broadcasting about the negotiations and interim agreement with Iran. It’s even further away from the bleatings of “Munich!” by Alan Dershowitz and neocon William Kristol. But the Israeli brass’ message has largely gone “under the radar” as the political leaders, lobbyists and hasbaratists, with their constant, high-volume declarations, define for the mainstream media Israel’s reaction to the West’s opening to Tehran. That’s a shame, because it might change the debate on Iran if the world knew that the Israelis who may know the most about that country, and who are not known for their naiveté, don’t buy into Bibi’s hysteria.