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Iran Talks: What Should You Do When You Trust No One?

by Shmuel Rosner

October 16, 2013 | 8:06 am

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also seen
on a television monitor, addresses the 68th session of
the United Nations General Assembly in New York,
Oct. 1, 2013. (photo by REUTERS/Adrees Latif)

This morning on the radio, minister Silvan Shalom – formerly Israel's Foreign Minister – said something almost funny: if there will be an agreement between the international community and Iran, this agreement will be an unworthy agreement. How would an Israeli minister know such a thing – how can he know in advance that the agreement can't be one with which Israel could be satisfied? The simple answer is that he doesn't know. He can't know. The simple answer is that Shalom's radio comment doesn't reflect the information he has about the talks, but rather the level of trust he has in Iran- and in the US (the talks aren't handled by the US alone, but Israelis tend to have zero trust in European countries).

The fact that Israel feels alone when it comes to Iran, and doesn't have much trust in others, is clear from Jodi Rudoren's piece on Prime Minister Netanyahu from a couple of days ago. This picture is also consistent with recent public opinion polls. The Israel Democracy Institute's Peace Index Survey  found that Israelis, by and large, view American foreign policy with growing alarm. "A clear majority (66%) of the Jewish public thinks the U.S. administration’s handling of the Syrian issue projects weakness", the survey revealed. Interestingly, this view is shared by right wing, centrist, and left wing Israelis. On the issue of Iran the Israeli left still has some differences with the right and the center, but all in all "two-thirds of the Jewish public tends to doubt that President Obama will fulfill his promise that the U.S. will prevent Iran’s development of nuclear weapons at all cost". Only the "hard left" believes Obama is committed enough to preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear armed power. 

The fact that Israelis don't buy Iran's new show of moderation is hardly surprising. A "broad consensus (80%)" says that "Rouhani does not represent a real change in Iran’s policy, only in style". In a poll conducted by Panels Politics on October 3, 77% of the respondents said that they "don't believe" that Iran "truly aspires to reach an agreement", with only 6% believing the new President of Iran. Of course, the level of trust in President Obama is still higher – but troublingly not much higher. 68% of Israelis "don't trust" President Obama "when he says that the US will not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons. 29% do trust him.

What are the options available for Israelis when trust in the ability of the international community to stop Iran's program is so low?

They have four options:

  1. They can ignore the stream of news about talks with Iran, disregard all news related to Iran's advancement of its program, plug their ears so as not to hear Netanyahu's warnings – and live in blissful ignorance, suppressing bad news. I wonder if any psychologist would recommend such a response.
  2. They can gradually become more agitated and develop an unhealthy anxiety. This will not necessarily be an irrational move. As one keeps hearing from one's leaders that one is in danger of being annihilated if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, and as one doesn't trust anyone's promises not to allow this to happen, anxiety would be a proper response. 
  3. They can decide to trust Netanyahu's promises not to allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. But this is not an easy position to hold, as it means that A. Israel is truly alone, B. that Israel would have to go to war with Iran, and C. that this war isn't necessarily going to be supported by Israel's allies.
  4. They can decide that a nuclear Iran isn't as bad as Netanyahu claims it is. In fact, they can decide that "Israel should come to terms" with the fact that Iran is going nuclear and "devise a defense strategy based on the assumption that Israel is not the only nuclear state in the region".

In the IDI survey, 57% of Jewish Israelis (and 65% of Arab Israelis) said they "agree" with the view presented in option number four. That's down from 60% who gave the same answer a year ago, but still, a majority of Israelis essentially say that they see a way for their country to live alongside a nuclear Iran – a position which their quite popular Prime Minister strongly disagrees with.

Is he right, or are they right? We don't know the answer and we won't know it for a while. Obviously, if Israelis are wrong the consequences could be dire – annihilation – but if Netanyahu is wrong the consequences could also be quite bad – an unnecessary and very dangerous war against Iran.

In any case, the answer Israelis gave to this question about living with a nuclear Iran is interesting for several reasons. First of all- because it is an answer devoid of tactical manipulations. While with Netanyahu one can't conclusively discern between his real view and the propaganda aimed at prompting the world to act, with the public what you see is what they really think. Secondly – because it reveals that Netanyahu can't even convince the Israeli public of the idea he has tirelessly been trying to promote abroad – that a nuclear Iran means a catastrophe. The third reason – because as Netanyahu looks at the Israeli public, what he sees is in fact not much different from what he sees in Washington: a delusional hope that an evil regime can be contained. Fourth – because such this answer weakens Israel's official position, and might lead the Iranians and others to believe that Israel isn't truly adamant about preventing Iran from going nuclear at all cost.

When we look at the Israeli public's position we can attribute it to two possible reasons. It could be the logical conclusion reached by a public which is unwilling to submit to doom and gloom predictions, and which is quite confident about Israel's ability to survive no matter what happens in Iran. Or it can simply be a form of psychological suppression.

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