TEL AVIV – After an extended truce over opposing positions on the US-led nuclear deal with Iran, the US and Israel rekindled their public rift on the issue, with President Barack Obama suggesting Israel own up to misplaced hysteria while Israel's Defense Ministry likened the accord to pre-World War II appeasement of Nazi Germany.
The firestorm provoked banner headlines Sunday in Israeli daily newspapers and hit as Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, and his head of planning, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, were returning after a week of US-based discussions on an historical expansion of bilateral cooperation and US funding to Israel.
It was sparked by Obama's Aug. 4 Pentagon press conference, in which he noted that the military and security community of Israel – "the country that was most opposed to the deal" now realizes that "this has been a game changer."
Obama urged Pentagon reporters to find out "why… some of these folks who were predicting disaster [don't] come out and say, "This thing actually worked."
"That would be impressive," Obama said. "If some of these folks who said the sky was falling suddenly said, 'You know what? We were wrong and we are glad that Iran no longer has the capacity to break out in short term and develop a nuclear weapon.'"
The US president was referring to a January 2016 address by Eizenkot, in which he characterized the year-old Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and six world powers as "significantly changing the vector that Iran has been on."
In that address, and in subsequent public assessments, IDF top brass have flagged "many dangers as well as opportunities" inherent in the accord.
But in an unusually caustic statement the following day, Israel's Ministry of Defense appeared to liken Obama to the hapless British Premier Neville Chamberlain who, in his desire to prevent war, signed the 1938 Munich agreement with Adolph Hitler.
"The Munich agreement did not prevent the Second World War and the Holocaust, precisely because their basic assumption, that Nazi Germany could be a partner to any kind of agreement, was wrong. And because the leaders of the world at that time ignored the explicit statements by Hitler and the rest of the leaders of Nazi Germany," the MoD statement read.
"Therefore, the defense establishment, like all of the Israeli nation and many in the world, understands that agreements of this type concluded with powers like Iran, do not help and rather harm the uncompromising struggle that must be waged against a terror state like Iran."
Shortly after MoD's Aug. 5 release, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu weighed in with his own statement aimed at softening the affront to Obama and refocusing the discussion on ways the two countries must work together to mitigate dangers.
"While Israel's view on the Iran deal remains unchanged, Prime Minister Netanyahu firmly believes that Israel has no greater ally than the United States.
"As the Prime Minister articulated last year at the UN, it is important now that both those who supported the deal and those who opposed it work together to achieve three goals:
- Keep Iran’s feet to the fire to ensure that it doesn’t violate the deal;
- Confront Iran’s regional aggression; and
- Dismantle Iran’s global terror network."
Netanyahu's office concluded the statement with how he "looks forward to translating those goals into a common policy and to further strengthening the alliance between Israel and the United States with President Obama and with the next US Administration."
Israeli Opposition leader Yair Lapid blasted the MoD statement as "a combination of diplomatic irresponsibility and further harm to US-Israel relations." According to remarks published in Sunday's Jerusalem Post, Lapid said there was no place for an official response that compares Obama to the man who surrendered to the Nazis.
"The Americans tend not to forget such insults," Lapid was quoted in the paper as saying. "This is yet another example of how the current government does not function in international relations."
Yossi Yehoshua, military correspondent for Israel's largest daily Yediot Ahronot, said the timing of the tempest could not have come at a worse time, as Eizenkot, Norkin and acting National Security Advisor Jacob Nagel were wrapping up discussions in the US aimed at enhancing strategic cooperation for years to come.
He suggested that the MoD statement made in the name of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman was not only aimed at Obama, but at IDF uniformed officers who dare to offer professional assessments that run counter to the government's political stance.
"Now we need to ask what does Liberman expect from Eizenkot, for example in his next meetings with his American counterpart: Should he not offer his professional opinion on Iran?"
In an Aug. 4 statement released after Eizenkot's weeklong visit to the US as guest of Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, Pentagon spokesman Greg Hicks highlighted the close military-to-military ties between the two nations. "Gen. Dunford emphasized the closeness of the US-IDF relationship, highlighting the trust and bond between the two militaries," he said.
But when viewed in the context of the reignited rift at the political level, the Pentagon statement merely reinforced the parallel tracks of recent US-Israel relations, when defense establishments strive to strengthen ties despite efforts of their political leaders.