Israelis unified in bemoaning Iran deal, even Netanyahu’s opponents

Earlier this year, Shabtai Shavit, a former director of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, joined the nearly 200-member Commanders for Israel’s Security group that campaigned to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March elections. He accused Netanyahu publicly of turning “the United States from an ally into an enemy.”

But now he echoes Netanyahu’s assessment of the agreement world powers reached this week with Iran over its nuclear program. Netanyahu called it a “historical error.”

“This deal is not good for Israel,” Shavit told McClatchy in a telephone interview. “There is no doubt Iran is going toward military nuclear capabilities. . . . On this topic I believe (Netanyahu).”

Israel’s security community in recent months has clashed bitterly with Netanyahu on the way he has dealt with the administration of President Barack Obama. But on the issue of the agreement reached this week in Vienna between the Islamic Republic and China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia and the United States, they’ve reached a rare consensus. In comments both public and private, stalwarts of Israel’s intelligence system agree the accord damages core issues of Israeli security. Where they differ with Netanyahu is on tactics.

In April, after the great powers and Iran agreed to a framework to a nuclear deal, Amos Yadlin, a former head of military intelligence, told Israel Radio that an accord that would delay Iran’s nuclear program by as much as a decade could be good for Israel. He urged then that his government at least consider the possibility of an acceptable agreement.

This week, in an opinion piece in the Times of London, Yadlin claimed the deal had no “real assurances that Iran’s program is properly defanged.” He lamented that the agreement made a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities highly unlikely.

“There are people in the intelligence community, veteran or current, who are not extremely fond of the prime minister,” said Ronen Bergman, a senior intelligence journalist in Israel. However, “on the Iranian nuclear project, you see a different approach.”

Danny Yatom headed the Mossad from 1996-1998 and served as a lawmaker for the center-left Labor party from 2003-2008. In comments to McClatchy, he said his top concerns with the accord were that Iran would maintain centrifuges to enrich uranium, would be able to continue research, and that the regime of appeals set up for when foreign inspectors seek to search military sites for evidence of nuclear weapons development essentially gives Iran 24 days notice – ample time, he said, to hide the evidence.

Yatom said that when negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program started, he expected a “breakout time” – the amount of time needed from the moment of decision to the development of enough fuel for a bomb – to be lengthened to five years. The current agreement has an estimated breakout time of one year.

“One year is almost nothing,” he said.

Only a handful of top security specialists have bucked the common wisdom on the Iran accord. Among them is retired Gen. Yitzhak Ben-Israel, former head of the military’s weapons development and technology industry administration and the current head of the Israeli Space Agency. Despite the agreement’s flaws, he said, it was “a reasonable compromise.”

“This agreement . . . distances the Iranian nuclear threat for a very long time,” Ben-Israel told the online news portal Walla!. “The agreement includes full and fitting supervision on the issue of enriching uranium.”

The mostly grim analyses from Israel’s intelligence veterans are reflected among opposition lawmakers.

Labor party chairman and opposition leader Isaac Herzog captured the mood in a comment to parliament on Tuesday. “The picture broadcast from Vienna is bleak and worrying for all that is important to the security of Israel and the region,” he said.

Yet shared dismay over the Iran accord has not tempered the animosity toward Netanyahu among his opponents.

Shavit clarified that his common ground with Netanyahu is restricted to Iran.

“In the context of the Commanders for Israel’s Security, I was more thinking of the solutions to the (Israeli-Palestinian) conflict and not the nuclear issue,” he said. “There I have criticism of the prime minister and difficult differences of opinion.”

Herzog’s party denied rumors in the Israeli press that the Iran accord could bring Labor into Netanyahu’s narrow hawkish ruling coalition. Fellow Labor lawmaker Shelly Yechimovich urged her party to avoid battling Washington over the accord and, instead, repair the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Security veterans share the concern about Israel’s relationship with the United States. Yatom recalled Netanyahu’s March speech against the agreement before Congress, which Netanyahu delivered over the objection of the Obama administration.

“One crucial mistake was to go to Congress and by that to initiate a war between himself and President Obama, because I am sure we could have achieved a better deal if we were able to talk to the Americans,” Yatom said. “We lost our capability to influence the nature and the content of the deal. . . . Israel was not even updated.”