26.11.2013 analysis by Avishay Ben Sasson-Gordis
E.U. F.M. Ashton and Iranian F.M. Zarif, Geneva, October 2012. Photo: EEAS
E.U. F.M. Ashton and Iranian F.M. Zarif, Geneva, October 2012. Photo: EEAS    

New Israeli opposition leader holds alternative views on Iran

Avishay Ben Sasson-Gordis looks at the new opposition leader's alternative stance on Iran as the P5+1 sign a first-stage deal
This weekend, a first step agreement between Iran and the P5+1 was signed in Geneva. According to reports, central to the deal are a requirement that Iran halt key aspects of its nuclear work, freeze construction at the Arak heavy-water facility, and commit to more rigorous inspection. On the other hand, the deal allows Iran to maintain a certain level of enrichment and some leeway within the existing sanction regime. Notably, the agreement neither removes the heavy sanctions from Iran’s oil and banking sector, nor recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium. It is a deal that was decried by Prime Minster Netanyahu, but cautiously greeted by newly elected Knesset opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog.

Over the next six months negotiations will continue in search of a final agreement, one that Iran hopes will remove all sanctions and enable her to retain enrichment capabilities and in which the international community will continue to seek assurances that Iran has given up all hope of acquiring military nuclear capabilities.

In the Western world, only one government has rejected outright the agreement signed in Geneva—that of Israel. The Israeli Prime Minister reacted to the deal with frustration, calling the agreement “an historic mistake,” and “cosmetic”. Those tuned in to the Prime Minister’s statements over the last few months—and particularly over the last few weeks—expected his reaction. Netanyahu’s long-held position has been that the only acceptable agreement is one in which Iran agrees to dismantle all of its nuclear capabilities. He aimed to achieve this end by means of additional crippling sanctions, or better, the immediate threat of a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. This position would appear legitimate. It is enshrined in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1737 which demanded that Iran suspend its nuclear activities as early as 2006. However, not unlike various other political realities in the Middle East, a final agreement will most likely require at least partial recognition of facts on the ground. Moreover, the deal is not final; the deal signed in Geneva is an interim agreement, one Netanyahu should have gotten behind, instead of getting in the way.

In light of this, the election of MK and former minister Yitzhak Herzog as head of the Labor Party has particular significance. It is widely expected that he will shift the Labor Party’s attention from socio-economic issues to focus on foreign policy and security. Whether his election signifies a new direction for the Labor Party and the creation of a space in the Israeli political sphere for more constructive engagement with the international community remains to be seen, but Herzog’s stance on the Iranian issue would suggest that the answer is incontrovertibly positive.

The incoming Labor Chairman’s position differs from that of the Israeli right in two fundamental ways: First, he believes that Israel needs to act with the international community and not against it. Second, he does not seek to disconnect a resolution to Iran’s nuclear program from moving towards an end to the occupation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Herzog’s view that Israel should act in concert with the United States and the international community is significant. It both points to a need for a different climate in which Israel deals with the international community and stakes out a polarity with Netanyahu on the first step agreement:

The agreement that was signed tonight between the powers and Iran is a fait accompli and Israel must adjust itself to the new situation. A question mark remains regarding the end of the process, and on this matter the Israeli concern is justified. Accordingly, Netanyahu must do everything in his power to fix the damage caused by the public clash with the United States and to return to an intimate relationship with President Obama and other world leaders.

This statement is consistent with those Herzog made before winning the Labor primaries. On November 9th at an event in the Israeli city of Nes Tsiyona, he said the following:

It may well be that the agreement being formulated and the new situation [it creates] will actually be good for Israel despite [the fact that] Israel has no influence over them. We must wait and see the end result of the negotiations, and it should be clear that a basic condition for an agreement is an absolute freeze of the enrichment program. The West has an historic opportunity to bring about a change towards Iran and to dismantle [its] military nuclear [capacity]. 

Both Herzog’s case for waiting for the final results to come in and his recognition that the current agreement may ultimately be positive for Israel are vastly divergent from official Israeli positions. Earlier this year, after Netanyahu’s yearly appearance at the United Nations, Herzog wrote an op-ed the daily newspaper that favors the Prime Minster, Yisrael HaYom (“Israel Today”), in which he unforgivingly criticized Netanyahu for his policy on Iran, writing that “[the speech] did not accommodate the possibility, however remote, for strategic change in Iran.” Herzog’s indictment continued: 

Unfortunately Jerusalem knows how to function only according to one activation code. For Israel’s government, international relations are meaningless. [For Israel’s government] there are no internal-political interests [in other countries]. The sole interest of the international arena revolves around Israel.

Herzog also recognizes the important place of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in dealing with Iran. The Israeli government has pushed the—obviously correct, yet thoroughly irrelevant—fact that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not the cause of all of the problems in the Middle East hard on the international community, effectively disconnecting the discussion on Iran from the Palestinians. Contrary to this, Herzog, writes in his political platform that, “An Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough will aid Arab regimes in partnering with Israel against the Iranian nuclear program and increase the West’s commitment to Israel.” He adds that, “a political agreement and the presence of Western inspectors will increase the West’s commitment to Israel’s security. Israel should strive for a comprehensive political agreement with international casing as a key to consolidating a front against Iran.”

At the same November 9th event where Herzog addressed the then-potential Iran deal, he spoke to importance of the peace process:

Netanyahu should understand that his policy on the Iranian issue has failed and that he did not succeed in convincing the powers. Had he tied his position to a courageous political process [with the Palestinians] he might have penetrated their hearts more deeply.

The Labor Chairman has also repeatedly mentioned the centrality of the Arab Peace Initiative—an option consistently dismissed by the current government—as a potential bridge between Israel and the Arab world.1 Herzog has expressed precisely the position that the American government has called upon Israel to adopt: recognition of the linkages between Israel’s policy issues, and acknowledging that progress on one can help solve the other.

Herzog is now in a unique position to open the opposition’s doors to the international community and make the Labor Party the address for Israeli cooperation on Iran. He is no less committed than Netanyahu to the prevention of a nuclear Iran, and as opposition leader, he holds a public position that will bring his prudent and measured voice to the fore.

With regard to the U.S.-Israel relationship, Herzog potentially represents a more effective partner for the current American administration. In his speech to the UN General Assembly in September, President Obama named dealing with Iran and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as his two main agenda items in the region. Yet Netanyahu continues to openly clash with the U.S. on these items, leading to more tension than the relationship has seen in years. This is bad for both countries. With Herzog challenging the Prime Minister in the Knesset, the Labor Party may yet present a viable alternative to the current government.


[1] For examples of Herzog’s embrace of the API, see herehere and here [Hebrew]. 

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