First and foremost, Dermer on Sunday stressed that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (a.k.a. the Iran deal) did not resolve the Iranian nuclear threat. “Iran is advancing its nuclear weapons program,” he said, pointing to the JCPOA’s permission for Iran to pursue research of advanced centrifuges. If Iran abides by the agreement, he pointed out, Iran will be freed from restrictions on its nuclear program in eight to 13 years. The world cannot, he argued, remain on “cruise control,” allowing Iran to become a nuclear power. Using the popular slogan of those pushing to revisit the Iran nuclear deal, he described the “fix-it-or-nix-it approach,” which must, in Israel’s view, include removing the sunset clause, additional inspection provisions to allow observation of military sites and a halt to Iran’s ballistic missile testing (which Dermer pointed out is designed to develop missiles that can reach Europe and the United States).
How does heDermer expect these changes to come about? “The most important thing is for Iran to believe [President Trump] will walk away if he doesn’t get these changes,” he said. That’s essentially what Trump has been threatening to do, but the problem remains: How viable is that threat if the Europeans remain committed to the deal and Iran remains in technical compliance with the deal? At this point the administration has not pursued the most obvious course — heightening pressure on Iran’s non-nuclear activities not covered by the JCPOA so as to drive Iran back to the bargaining table. (Israel, one can see, can easily appeal to Trump’s ego and proclivity for bluster and threats; the problem comes when one expects effective action that could maintain U.S. credibility but not unleash another nuclear standoff.)
Most recently, an Iranian drone invasion of Israeli airspace led to destruction of the drone, the loss of an Israeli plane and multiple Israeli hits on Iranian and Syrian targets in Syria. Dermer said that Israel is “dead serious” about enforcing its “red line” — that is, protecting Israel’s territorial integrity. “I think if people haven’t understood that up until this point, they’ll understand it in the future,” he warned. His message: The more seriously the international community understands Israel’s bottom line, the less likely will be a wider war.
The challenge for U.S. policymakers remains the absence of a coherent approach to Syria, and more broadly to Iran. If the United States is unwilling to apply pressure on Iran and more importantly on Russia, Israel will take matters into its own hands, raising the potential for a Middle East War. Interestingly, speaking at almost the same time as Dermer was talking to AIPAC, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) had this exchange on “Face the Nation”:
GRAHAM: The last thing on my mind right now is the peace process.We’re about to have a war between Israel and Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon. Iran is winning, and we’re losing. So, I went to Israel and Jordan. The king of Jordan is under siege. Plus, we have no policy regarding, as the United States, the Russian-Iranian access.Southern Lebanon is a rocket-launching site against Israel. They are developing precision-guided weapons. So, I would focus on containing Iran, rather than pushing the peace process that’s broken.If we don’t come up with a strategy against Iran, we’re going to make Israel go to war here pretty soon with the Hezbollah elements in Southern Lebanon.[MARGARET] BRENNAN: Well, you’re referring there, though, to the outgrowth of the war in Syria.GRAHAM: Yes.BRENNAN: The president was very clear. We’re there just to get rid of ISIS and get out.Does he need to reconsider that policy? How do you fix the problem you identified?GRAHAM: Well, he said he didn’t want to turn Iran over — Syria over to Iran. We don’t have a strategy to contain Iran. They are about to take over Damascus.He’s done a good job fighting ISIL. But Iran is now dominating the Mideast. Hezbollah elements being supplied by Iran have over 100,000 missiles pointed at Israel. The king of Jordan has suffered mightily from the Syrian civil war.If we don’t push Iran out and come up with an agreement in Geneva that gives Syria back to the Syrians, this war never ends.So, Mr. President, it is just not about defeating ISIL. If you leave Syria in the hands of Russia and the Iranians, this war never ends and our friend in Israel are in a world of hurt.
Ironically, it was President Barack Obama’s reluctance to act sooner in the Syrian civil war that permitted Syria to become a jihadist haven and genocidal war to grind on for years. In the absence of a more robust U.S. policy under Trump, the result may well be yet another escalation of violence — a direct clash between Israel and Iran.
Dermer lavished praise on Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He declared this decision “will be remembered forever” and insisted the move actually “advances peace.” He reasons that until Palestinians accept that Jews are in Israel “by right and not just by might,” peace remains elusive. Frankly, there is no peace process on the horizon and recognition of Jerusalem does not make the Palestinians more eager to seek peace. And finally, Dermer voiced optimism that a dispute concerning egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall — an issue that has created a rift with non-Orthodox Jews in the diaspora — could by this time next year be resolved amicably.
Below the surface, two forces are creating one of the more interesting AIPAC gatherings in memory.
On one hand, Israel is well aware that if American progressives, who have shown less support for Israel over the years than conservatives, cease to come to the defense of Israel, the Jewish state will lose vital bipartisan political support. As a result, AIPAC’s new president and other speakers (including Democratic former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm) are making specific pleas to the U.S. left, citing Israel’s record on everything from LGBT rights to health care. (Hence we saw the promise of resolution of the Western Wall dispute, which has dismayed American Jews.) If Israel becomes another casualty of extreme partisanship in the United States, Israel will lose its ability to maintain a steady level of U.S. support regardless of which party is in power.
However, just as it is courting American liberals, Israel is simultaneously trying to cling even more tightly to Trump, buttering him up at every turn both to stay in his good graces and to influence him on Iran policy. On a more partisan level, it has not gone unnoticed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now faces an expanding corruption probe. (News broke Friday that in addition to more mundane allegations of receiving gifts for political favors, “Netanyahu and his wife were questioned as potential criminal suspects in the case involving telecommunications giant Bezeq, a case far more expansive than the others. Netanyahu, who served as minister of communications until last year in addition to his duties as prime minister, is alleged to have asked Shaul Elovitch, who owns Bezeq, to guarantee the Netanyahus positive news coverage in exchange for regulatory favors for Bezeq.”) Like most world leaders, Netanyahu would dearly love to show his value on the international stage as a means of shoring up domestic support. While there may be strategic as well as personal reasons for Netanyahu to hug Trump closely, in doing so Israel risks undermining its own efforts to keep progressive Americans in the pro-Israel fold.
Nothing is simple in the Middle East. Things are made even more complex by the confluence of a rising threat from Iran, a chaotic Trump foreign policy, Netanyahu’s domestic difficulties and Israel’s conflicting objectives with regard to American support.