Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center), Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman (right) and Minister of Foreign Affairs Israel Katz (left), attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on July 7, 2019.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center), Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman (right) and Minister of Foreign Affairs Israel Katz (left) attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on July 7, 2019.

Credit:

Abir Sultan/Reuters

More than a year after President Donald Trump made the decision to quit the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the international agreement appears to be collapsing.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was never a fan of the deal. Over the years, he has sent the message again and again. 

“I repeat: Israel will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons that threaten our existence and endanger the entire world."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

“I repeat: Israel will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons that threaten our existence and endanger the entire world,” Netanyahu said last month. 

Related: Israel could strike first as tensions with Iran flare 

More than once, the Israelis have been willing to take preemptive military action if they see a nuclear threat on the horizon. 

In 1981, Israeli jets destroyed a nuclear reactor outside of Baghdad in Iraq. And in 2007, Israel bombed a suspected nuclear site in Syria. 

When Iran made its latest announcement — that it was increasing its level of uranium enrichment beyond what is allowed under the nuclear deal — Netanyahu called it “a very, very dangerous step.” 

He went on to ask the Europeans why they are not yet imposing new sanctions on Iran. 

Netanyahu was a fierce critic of the Iran nuclear agreement from the start. He applauded President Trump’s decision to quit the deal in 2018. But that’s not the whole story, says Ehud Eiran, from the University of Haifa in Israel.

“The prime minister was indeed very vocal against the deal,” Eiran says. “At the same time, Israel’s defense establishment, which is very dominant in the decision-making process, accepted it.” 

Eiran says while many Israelis did not celebrate the Iran deal orchestrated by President Barack Obama’s administration, they learned to live with it and even saw some benefits. 

“In fact, the Israel Defense Forces even rearranged its budget in the last few years away from Iranian-related issues,” Eiran says. 

But now that the Iran nuclear deal might be falling apart once and for all, the Israeli security establishment is faced with a new worry. Eiran says that’s because it is so unclear how the Trump administration plans to deal with Iran and its proxy forces in the region — most importantly Hezbollah in Lebanon. 

Related: Are sanctions on Iran spurring economic resilience?

“For Israelis, this is not a faraway issue,” Eiran says. 

“Hezbollah has over a hundred thousand rockets directed at Israel, and there is a concern here [in Israel] that if there is further escalation with Iran [and the US], we may end up paying the price.”

Ehud Eiran, associate professor, University of Haifa, Israel 

“Hezbollah has over a hundred thousand rockets directed at Israel, and there is a concern here [in Israel] that if there is further escalation with Iran [and the US], we may end up paying the price.” 

Hezbollah is not just the dominant force in Lebanon. Its fighters have also been active in the Syrian civil war. And the Israelis have been conducting air strikes there to prevent the Iranian-backed militia from establishing itself inside Syria.  

“We have no desire for a conflict with Syria, but we cannot agree for Syria to become an arena for the establishment of Iranian forces that target us. We cannot allow Syria to become a logistic base for the transfer of armaments to Hezbollah in Lebanon."

Yossi Cohen, head of Israel's intelligence agency, the Mossad

In early July, the head of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, gave a rare public speech. Yossi Cohen laid out his view of the regional threats faced by Israel. Cohen talked about Iran and its nuclear program, but he spent just as much time addressing Iran’s support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria. 

“We have no desire for a conflict with Syria, but we cannot agree for Syria to become an arena for the establishment of Iranian forces that target us. We cannot allow Syria to become a logistic base for the transfer of armaments to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Cohen said through an interpreter.  

Related: Things That Go Boom: In nuclear negotiations, diplomacy can be a slog

Among the Israeli public, left, right and center, there is strong support for Israel’s military campaign against Iranian-backed forces in Syria. Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-born Israeli and security analyst. 

“The conversation, when it comes to the Iranian regime, is not very nuanced, for understandable reasons,” Javedanfar says. 

“This country is made up of a great number of Holocaust survivors and their children and when the Iranian regime makes cartoon competitions ridiculing the Holocaust, people have no patience.”

Meir Javedanfar , Iranian-born Israeli and security analyst 

“This country is made up of a great number of Holocaust survivors and their children and when the Iranian regime makes cartoon competitions ridiculing the Holocaust, people have no patience.” 

“As far as Israelis are concerned, anyone who’s willing to confront this regime in any way, they would back them,” Javedanfar says. 

Like many Israelis, Javedanfar says he sees the Iran nuclear deal as flawed. But Trump’s decision to quit the deal has created new uncertainty, he says. And that makes some Israelis nervous. 

It’s a mistake to assume that Israel is keen to start a military conflict with Iran. For all his hawkish rhetoric, even Benjamin Netanyahu is wary about that possibility. 

Eiran says there are some big political and personal constraints on the prime minister. 

“Elections coming Sept. 17, three indictments and his general tendency — which is completely contrary to his public image — to be very, very careful with any military action,” Eiran says. 

“Even in the face of continued shelling from Gaza, [Netanyahu] went for a political solution. This is usually done from political calculations. Like all politicians, he realizes a war can come with a political price tag.”  

In regard to Iran’s nuclear program, the Israelis will continue to ask themselves this question: How far is Iran from getting the bomb, if it finally decides to race toward the nuclear finish line? 

Experts say the 2015 nuclear deal pushed Iran’s break-out time from a couple of months to a full year. Iran’s recent move on enrichment does not change that timeline much. But on July 8, Iran threatened to boost enrichment even further.

For now, international inspectors remain in Iran. And European leaders are still looking for a way to keep the nuclear deal in place.

An earlier version of this story misspelled Meir Javedanfar's name.

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