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Why the U.S. and Israel are split over the Iran deal

By Aaron David Miller, Special to CNN
updated 5:52 PM EST, Sun November 10, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Talks between major powers and Iran break down but are expected to resume
  • Aaron Miller says a key problem is gap between U.S. and Israel on Iran
  • Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's world view very different from President Obama's, he says
  • Miller: An agreement Israel opposes would be unpopular in Congress

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- The failure of the P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia plus Germany) to reach agreement with Iran Saturday in Geneva is a good thing if it allows the United States and Israel to sort out what really divides them on the Iranian nuclear issue before negotiations resume in coming days.

That the French -- not the United States -- seem to have taken the lead in stiffening the allies' demands with Iran is in itself a reflection of those differences.

And while a high-ranking U.S. delegation headed to Israel Sunday to brief the Israelis on the talks, bridging the gap there won't be that easy.

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

Where you stand in life has a great deal to do with where you sit.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's fierce reaction to the effort to reach an interim agreement reflects the realities of a small power with much less room to maneuver on a critical security issue than a great one.

And it reveals the sensitivities of an Israeli leader who's far more invested politically in seeing a nuke-free Iran, far more suspicious of Iranian motives and far more worried about the consequences of a bad deal for Israel than a U.S. President who's concerned more about what happens if there's no deal and Israel or the United States slides toward military confrontation with the mullahs who rule Iran.

That gap between the United States and Israel is real. And it should neither be trivialized nor exaggerated. But short of a final deal in which Iran abandons its nuclear ambitions, it may not be bridgeable. These two allies will need to manage it as best they can. And here's why.

Big and Small Powers

With non-predatory neighbors to its north and south and fish to its east and west, the United States enjoys a level of physical security unprecedented in the history of great and small powers. That gives America a margin for error that the small power simply cannot afford.

Indeed, Americans have a hard time internalizing what it's like to be a small nation living on the knife's edge, whose tiny physical size, isolation and sense of vulnerability exists alongside its power and strength.

I don't think Iran wants nuclear weapons to launch a first strike against Israel. But it's impossible to ignore, let alone trivialize, Israeli security concerns and vulnerabilities in this regard, particularly in the face of Iran's rhetoric, regional ambitions and support for terrorism over the years.

Israel isn't some hapless victim, a piece of driftwood bobbing about on a turbulent sea; it's a dynamic nation (and a nuclear weapons state) with great military power with the capacity if need be to deal with Iran too. But that doesn't take away from the reality that it's a small country living in a dangerous neighborhood.

Netanyahu's World View

All Israeli Prime Ministers are said to sleep with one eye open. Benjamin Netanyahu sleeps with two eyes open. No Israeli Prime Minister can afford to take Israel's security for granted. And none does.

But ever since I've known him, the key to understanding this Prime Minister is that he's immersed in the proposition that Israel's very survival can't be taken for granted either. All Israeli leaders function in a high threat environment. But in Netanyahu's case, it defines his world and creates an us-against-them sensibility that extends to Israel's adversaries and its friends too.

He has been deeply suspicious of American motives for many years and believes the United States doesn't understand the Arabs or Israel's security predicament. You live in Chevy Chase, he's said to me on more than one occasion; we live in a dangerous neighborhood with little margin for error.

I never argued with him. What was the point? Unlike Israel, there is no existential threat to the United States from any external enemy largely because of where we are. But Israel's history has been marked by a continuous series of threats -- large and small -- by virtue of where the Israelis are. However powerful they have become, that legacy endures. And combined with the dark history of the Jewish people culminating in the Nazi genocide, it has left an enduring mark.

The notion that Israelis fight the Arabs during the day and win and fight the Nazis at night and lose carries particular resonance with this Israeli Prime Minister. The late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin never used Holocaust imagery to describe the contemporary threats to Israel's security.

Ehud Barak refused to use Hitler analogies when discussing Iran. Netanyahu does, repeatedly. Iran is Nazi Germany; former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is Hitler and we're in 1938 on the nuclear issue. It infuses his rhetoric and his world view. And while Rouhani has changed the tone and may be genuinely looking for an agreement, the charm offensive hasn't dulled the acuteness of Netanyahu's suspicions.

Consequences of Israeli-American Tensions

This world view poses enormous challenges for a U.S. administration, partly because it's validated by Iran's own past rhetoric and actions and because Iran has tried to hide suspected military aspects of its nuclear program. Leaving an angry, aggrieved Israel in the wake of an interim deal with Iran that is judged to be a bad deal carries tremendous risk and consequence.

First, the focus is now on an interim agreement -- a first step. That means that we won't know the end state for at least six months. Time is both an enemy and an ally here. The step-by-step approach creates time to test intentions.

It also affords time for Iran to continue to advance aspects of its nuclear program and to develop a break-out capacity to dash for weapons. And they are going to be a rocky six months if Netanyahu concludes that the interim arrangements reached in Geneva work to Iran's advantage.

Going right to the endgame would be ideal. But it's just not feasible. There's too much suspicion and mistrust. And neither Iran nor the United States are prepared for that. So there's built in U.S.-Israeli tension inherent in the structure of the talks themselves.

Second, while the Prime Minister's fierce reaction to events in Geneva is driven by genuine anger and concern, it's also designed to begin to stir up opposition in Congress. And it won't take much stirring.

There's zero capacity in Congress to give Iran the benefit of the doubt on anything. And Congress is already inclined to adopt the Israeli view that what's required now is more pressure on the mullahs rather than less, including additional sanctions.

The idea that the Obama administration would want to place itself in a position of defending a deal with Iran that Israel and much of Congress oppose -- and appear implicitly to be defending the Iranians in the process -- defies the laws of political gravity, particularly for a much weakened president.

To overcome these political downsides and go into battle mode, the administration would really have to have a compelling interim agreement that's sound and defensible.

Third, the United States is measuring an agreement with Iran at this stage not against an ideal end state -- Iran capitulates and surrenders any hope of maintaining the capacity to enrich uranium, let alone make bombs. It's evaluating success in terms of what's practical and what will happen if no deal is reached, namely the slide toward the use of military force against Iran.

Israelis don't want a war with Iran either; but they are much more comfortable with threatening military action and conditioned to accept the possibility that force may have to be used, even if the end state is an imperfect one and Iran sets about rebuilding a nuclear program. The key issue is putting time on the clock to delay Iran getting nukes -- preferably through diplomacy, but if necessary by force.

Fourth, an already problematic Israeli-Palestinian peace process is going to get a lot more complicated. Narrowing the gaps on borders, refugees and Jerusalem was always going to be tough; but now getting Netanyahu to make decisions will be almost impossible.

Israel-Palestinian peace process at risk

Whether the administration thought through the overlapping of a peace process with a nine-month timeline and a negotiation with Iran of six months now aligned to come to fruition right around the same time isn't clear. But the coincidence of the timing couldn't be worse.

The odds that this Prime Minister would make decisions on historic issues with the Palestinians before there was clarity on Iran's nuclear program were always slim to none. For Netanyahu, the Palestinians are a long-term challenge; Iran is an imminent, acute problem. And a Netanyahu who believes the Americans aren't taking him seriously on Iran is certain to be withholding when it comes to the peace process.

To satisfy Israeli requirements, an interim agreement would have to do at least three things: first, avoid doing anything that dismantles the sanctions regime and removes real pressure on Iran to cut the final deal; second, make it impossible for Iran to use the next six months to advance in a significant way any of the aspects of its nuclear program -- not just to freeze Iran's program but to actually set it back significantly. And finally, not to do anything with regard to sanctions that can't be reversed.

All of this may not be possible. But in the next 10 days before negotiations with Iran resume, everything should be done to try to make certain that Washington and Jerusalem understand one another and to ensure that there's as much confidence and trust going forward as possible.

An orchestrated good cop/bad cop routine between allies could be helpful in negotiating with Iran. A rift that signals the United States and Israel are fundamentally out of step is not.

There are no happy or perfect endings here. At best, the choice is between an imperfect interim agreement that buys six months to determine whether Iran is prepared to give up its quest for a nuclear weapons capacity or no agreement and an inevitable slide toward military confrontation.

As of now the United States sees the advantage of the former; Netanyahu doesn't. The United States has no stake in concluding an agreement with Iran that leaves Israel angry, aggrieved and vulnerable. So, the two sides will find a way to work this through. But for now, buckle your seat belts. We could be in for one bumpy ride.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron David Miller.

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