Why Israel Is So Afraid

The Obama administration is hoping that its recent deal with Iran will make the Middle East more stable. But the opposite outcome is at least as likely. For Israel in particular, the deal is a bad omen -- not because of what it says about the prospect of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons but because of what many fear it says about the United States’ commitment to Israeli security. In addition to believing that the agreement itself is no good, Israelis suspect that the United States’ pursuit of it signals the end of deep U.S. involvement in the region, upon which Israel has long relied to overcome isolation. Without the American safety net, Israel could now defy U.S. expectations and attempt to deal with emergent threats preemptively, disproportionately, and entirely unilaterally.

By some estimates, Israel has never been safer. The peace treaty with Egypt, the cornerstone of Israel’s security for the last 30 years, survived an uncertain period of Islamist rule in Egypt and is now guarded once more by an Egyptian military government that seems intent on staying put. The peace with Jordan looks as durable as ever, and further to the east, Iraq is decades away from rebuilding a military strong enough to threaten Israel. Events in Syria are even more fortuitous. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, stripped of chemical weapons -- his poor man’s answer to Israel’s impressive nuclear arsenal -- seems likely to survive his civil war. The Golan Heights, under his control, will presumably remain quiet, and it will be a long time before the Syrian army can credibly threaten Israel.

Despite these objectively good conditions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken to the hustings to decry the U.S.-backed interim agreement as a horribly misguided policy that will lead to Iran’s eventual emergence as a nuclear power. Israel’s reaction should not come as a surprise, since the country’s strong opposition to the prospect of any other nuclear power in its region is an established fact. Israeli raids on Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, both of which aimed to destroy nascent nuclear infrastructure, have proved as much. The fact that Israel has not yet launched a similar raid against Iran is likely a reflection of the technological and political challenges -- both internal and international -- that attacking Iran would entail...


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