You've got to feel sorry for Benjamin Netanyahu. Just six months ago, with his government facing what was arguably the most favorable strategic environment in recent memory, Israel's prime minister could wax cautiously optimistic.
Today, however, the situation is very different, and the reason has everything to do with Iran. Although a diplomatic deal of the sort signed between the P5+1 powers and Iran a little over a week ago in Geneva was something of a foregone conclusion, it's fair to say that Israeli policymakers were not fully prepared for such a bargain—or its geopolitical implications.
That agreement, although billed as just a preliminary one, represents a significant reversal in the status quo surrounding Iran. As part of the Geneva deal, the U.S. and its European allies acquiesced to something that was previously deemed unthinkable: that Iran will continue its uranium enrichment activities even prior to hammering out a modus vivendi with the West.
Thus, despite President Obama's triumphant assertion that the P5+1 had "halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program," the reality is that they have done no such thing. To the contrary, the economic sweeteners proffered by the U.S. as part of the preliminary bargain with Iran represent a major boost for Iran's ailing economy—and, invariably, for its nuclear effort as well. It's no wonder that Mr. Netanyahu himself has called the agreement an "historic mistake."
That harsh language reflects a profound sense of betrayal. For years, policymakers in Jerusalem believed that, even though they disagreed at times with their American counterparts about the pace of Iran's nuclear effort, they would ultimately end up on the same page regarding the gravity of the threat—and the ends that must be gone to in order to stop it. Today, however, they're not so sure. Instead, Israeli leaders quite suddenly are confronted by a diplomatic deal that implicitly accepts Iranian nuclearization—and by growing animosity from Washington and European capitals alike for their pessimism about the feasibility of such a diplomatic solution.
Complicating matters further is the reality that, at least for Israel, the debate over Iran isn't just about Iran. Already, other potential threats to Israeli security are materializing on the horizon. Saudi Arabia, for example, is now again signaling publicly that it might be forced to acquire a nuclear weapon from Pakistan in response to what it sees as Iran's now-inevitable nuclearization.
This can hardly be a trivial matter for Israel. True, Riyadh and Jerusalem have had a rare convergence of views of late as a result of shared apprehension over the West's rapprochement with Iran. But, absent the nuclear threat from Iran, a Saudi bomb would pose a similar existential danger to the Jewish state. Thus, Israel's calculus now revolves around two unsavory choices: dealing with a nearly-nuclear Iran now, or with a nuclear Iran and nuclearizing Saudi Arabia (and perhaps others) later.
Finally, there's the larger perception—now percolating throughout the region—that the Geneva deal marks a fundamental retraction of American power. The Obama administration, which not long ago was intoning that "all options" were on the table for dealing with Iran's nuclear program, seems to have drifted into a default policy of containment. Not surprisingly, this stance only reinforces worries among America's allies in the region that, at the end of the day, Washington can't be trusted to stop Iran, and that someone else will be forced to do it.
None of this is to say that military action by Israel is a foregone conclusion. Israeli public opinion—and even opinion among Israel's policy elite—is far from monolithic. Indeed, at least some Israeli statesmen appear sympathetic to the new Iran deal, and have counseled their government to exercise strategic patience. Meanwhile, a recent poll by Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, found nearly 60% of respondents to be in favor of a greater emphasis on diplomacy in their country's foreign policy.
Even so, it's already clear that the Israeli government, which long counted on support from Washington for its policies vis-à-vis Iran, now feels that it is well and truly on its own. Equally evident is a simple strategic reality: for Israel, the current regional configuration—in which Iran doesn't have nukes, and neither does anyone else—is the most favorable one possible. It stands to reason that Mr. Netanyahu and company will do everything in their power to keep things that way.