In just these last few weeks, the amount of material published in print and online regarding the JCPOA—the so-called “Iran Deal” signed in Vienna on July 14 between the Iran, the European Union, Germany, and the five members of the United Nations Security Council—has become so voluminous that no one could possibly read all of it, let alone digest it all thoughtfully or thoroughly. Nor has anyone’s approach emerged as “the” interpretation of the deal’s implications with which all others must either agree or take issue; even a basic consensus about what the details of the deal actually mean has yet to emerge in the kind of unassailable way that would make it easy to agree, at least, about what it is we are so passionately disagreeing about. As things stand, listening to politicians and talk-show pundits (not to mention rabbis) untrained in science, let alone in the intricacies of nuclear physics, give forth passionately about “break-out times” and centrifuge types is, to say the very least, unedifying and nothing like the kind of thoughtful, fact-based analysis for which the moment calls. It feels a bit as though we’re trying to focus on a moving target while we ourselves are also in motion. I’ve hardly read anything at all that isn’t directly contradicted by something else I’ve read.
The President, clearly, has his own interpretation of the deal, one he has put forward forcefully now on many different occasions. The political leaders of all countries who negotiated and signed the agreement have also come out strongly in favor of its implementation. What else did anyone expect David Cameron or Angela Merkel to say? Nor did it come as a real surprise that the Iranian political leadership has mostly spoken out favorably about the deal their own representatives negotiated with the West or even that the Ayatollah Khamenei did. To my way of thinking, all those naysayers who have made the basis of their opposition to the deal the fact that the very people who negotiated it, or whose representatives did, are spreading out over the globe to sell their own product—all those naysayers whose basis for saying nay is the fact that the deal is supported by its own authors sound just a bit naïve: speaking honestly, who didn’t expect the deal to be enthusiastically touted as a magnificent achievement by those people who spent years negotiating its terms? To me personally, none of their comments matter much: when I walk into a Ford dealership, I expect the salesperson to try to sell me a Ford and certainly don’t take offense when that is precisely what happens. That does not mean, however, that I feel morally bound to buy one.
The response from Israel’s political leaders has also been entirely along predicted lines. Prime Minister Netanyahu denounced the deal as “capitulation.” Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely used the expression “historic surrender” in her analysis of the deal. Naftali Bennett, head of the Bayit Yehudi party, described the situation as “grave and dangerous.” Others had even harsher things to say, but even those Israeli politicians that did voice some sort of cautious support for the deal did so out of the conviction that something was better than nothing…and that facing the prospect of a nuclear Iran in ten or fifteen years is better than facing one now. With that, surely no one could rationally disagree. But is that a good enough reason to encourage Congress to lend its support to a deal that is merely better than nothing? That is the question facing our nation as I understand it this third week in August as Congress approaches the midway point in its self-mandated sixty-day review period.
I’ve just returned from five weeks in Jerusalem, and I did not hear one single Israel speak enthusiastically and unreservedly about the JCPOA as a great achievement that no thinking person should reject. But neither did I encounter a populace preparing for its own nuclear annihilation. Instead I heard people speaking with a strange mixture of resignation to reality and confidence in the future…and it is that specific man-in-the-street Israeli response that, fresh from five and a half weeks in Jerusalem, I wish to write about today.
From the Israeli point of view, there was, to be sure, something of the theater of the absurd in the whole negotiation process, but this was mostly a direct outgrowth of the fact that Israel was excluded from the negotiations somewhat in the way that Czechoslovakia was not invited to the table in 1938 as countries—as countries not one of which at the time had any idea how much was really at stake—sat down to negotiate its dismemberment. (When the doctors finally convinced my father a few years before he died to agree to the amputation of his left leg, the discussion was a bit surreal…but at least he was being asked to agree to the amputation of his own leg, not someone else’s!) And so there Israel was, firmly on the sidelines, its presence neither wished for nor required…while the world thoughtfully discussed how much time would be reasonable for Iran—a nation that has openly, shamelessly, and repeatedly declared its wish to annihilate the State of Israel and to murder all of its Jewish citizens—how much time Iran should reasonably have to wait before acquiring weaponry so powerful that even the successful deployment of a single bomb would be sufficient to wreak almost unimaginable damage to Israel’s cities, its farmland, and its people. In the end, the fact that the people to whom the specifics of the deal will almost inevitably matter the most were personae non gratiae at the table at which it was being worked out simply led most Israelis to consider the whole enterprise more akin to some sort of dark, post-modern tragedy in which the people whom the play is about never actually appear on stage…and the people who do appear on stage only think that they play is about themselves.
When I put my ear to the ground, I heard two themes occurring and recurring all summer when the table talk turned to Iran and “the deal.”
The first had to do with the fantasy that this whole prolonged negotiation was about the security of the West as much as it was about Israel. The President has made that point repeatedly. But does anyone really think that the chances that the Iranians might one day launch a premeditated nuclear strike against France are even remotely similar to the chances that the Iranian leadership might one day strike out mindlessly, violently and (if they are a nuclear power) unimaginably murderously against Israel? When our nation and Israel are vilified in the Iranian media as the greater and lesser Satan, does anyone truly conclude from that parallel usage that it is just as likely that Iran might declare launch a nuclear missile strike against Cincinnati as against Tel Aviv? Surely no thoughtful observer thinks either of those things. But, if that is the case (which is surely is), then why vilify the Israeli leadership for being unwilling to embrace a deal that basically puts on hold for a decade or fifteen years a potentially devastating threat to its security that is highly unlikely ever truly to matter to any of the countries who negotiated the accord? Even just lately, I continue to hear people talk about a nuclear Iran as a threat to our country. I suppose that a nuclear Iran would, by its very existence, destabilize the Middle East and thus by extension also bring untoward, unwanted consequences to our country as well. But to compare the threat a nuclear Iran would constitute, say, for the U.K. with the threat it would constitute for Israel just makes Israelis laugh. It makes me laugh as well…but not quite as heartily as I wish it did. I mentioned my father before, so I’ll mention him again: his expression for that kind of laughter would have been bitter gelechter, bitter laughter, the kind that leaves a sour taste in your mouth…and that only exists to hold back tears of frustration and tension.
The second has to do with the childish, naïve willingness of the world to assume that a maniacal dictator who openly speaks of his wish to murder the six million Jews of Israel couldn’t possibly mean it, that only crazy people take that kind of political rhetoric seriously. This too I’ve been hearing constantly, the mostly recently from someone who called into a radio show I was listening to in the car the other day. “Didn’t the naysayers,” the young man asked, “realize that the Iranians would be risking everything by launching such an attack against Israel, that the consequences for their own country would be devastating and impossible to calculate in advance? They’d be crazy even to consider doing such a thing…so why are we so worried about it?” I’ve reconstructed his remarks here from memory, so I can’t vouch for the exactitude of the quote…but that was the general gist. And it is precisely that kind of naiveté, that kind of good-natured ignorance of the fact that the history of the world is peppered with examples of nations so fully in the thrall of their own anti-Semitism that they behaved precisely in the way the caller found so unlikely, risking everything to go war with its own Jewish citizens—it’s that kind of utopian worldview that no student of Jewish history can find at all rational and which Israelis, almost all of whom study Jewish history in high school and all of whom are fully schooled in the history of their own country, find so childish and so unwise. Why, after all, would the Iranians cheat? They’d only get in trouble! But what if giving vent to their violent anti-Semitism—and to judge from the rhetoric of their leaders, we are speaking about people whose loathing for Israel knows no bottom line—what if their unyielding desire to destroy were to be more important than avoiding whatever consequences their actions might conceivably trigger? What then? That was the question I heard asked over and over during my weeks in Israel this summer.
And so we now enter the second thirty days of the Congressional review period, the crucial half. My representatives in Congress are split on the issue: two against, one for. I feel that myself. I admire Senator Schumer for his principled stand in the fact of what must have been overwhelming pressure from the White House to toe the party line. I admire Congressman Steve Israel for doing the same thing and for the same reason. I don’t see any reason to argue this ad hominem, but I also don’t see any way in which the deal as negotiated comes even close to fulfilling President Obama’s pledge to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power in the sort of absolute way that everybody, myself included, understood it to mean at the time. And that being the case, I can’t quite imagine how Senator Gillibrand, whom I heard with my own ears last winter repeat and personally endorse the president’s pledge that our country would prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, can feel honorable supporting the bill. On the other hand, I can’t quite turn away from the hope that buying a decade’s time at least creates the possibility for the kind of meaningful regime change that could at least possibly put an end to Iran’s support for world-wide terror and its endlessly bellicose hostility toward Israel. I find that a very improbable prospect, one no one as familiar with Jewish history as myself could reasonably be expected to embrace as likely. But it does constitute a noble hope…and hope itself is never something reasonably dismissed as pointless or foolish. And Jewish history teaches us that as well.