“[I]solate Israel even further” is how Daniel Drezner summarizes the potential costs to Israel of unilateral military action in the aftermath of a concluded deal between the P5+1 countries (the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, China, and Germany) and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program. ((Drezner:
…Israeli jaw-jawing about a military strike puts it into a corner with no good exit option. Netanyahu’s definition of a bad nuclear deal seems to include… any nuclear deal. So say that one is negotiated. What can Israel do then? Netanyahu could follow through on his rhetoric and launch a unilateral strike. Maybe that would set Iran back a few years. It would also rupture any deal, accelerate Iran’s nuclear ambitions, invite unconventional retaliation from Iran and its proxies, and isolate Israel even further.
)) I find that description to be rather an extreme understatement.
Replying to my initial comment along these lines under Drezner’s post at Foreign Policy, “Israel Is Wigging Out,” commenter “johnboy4546” puts the matter from the perspective of the US in relation to a determined, declared, and diplomatically realized “national interest” having been ignored and undermined by a (supposed) ally. De-stabilization of the alliance with the US is one potential cost, and, given the role of the US in the international system, concretely reflects the larger potential costs to Israel, but for the same reason we can approach the problem from the alternative perspective, and leave the US last.
If we imagine a deal concluded with the approval of the entire P5+1, then Israeli military action without approval of those countries would be action in direct defiance of all of them, not just defiance of their leaders but quite possibly, I would suspect quite probably, of large majorities in those countries as well as in many others. Israel would likely, and perhaps quite justifiably, be branded a criminal or rogue regime, a demonstrated danger to the peace of the world. The entire history of the state going back to its inception would be re-considered in a harshly unfavorable light. Boycotts, war crime accusations and possibly indictments, and demands for punishment would spread, and Israel (along with the Saudis, possibly) would be held responsible or co-responsible for acts of terrorism and for other political violence, and for any further deterioration in relations or escalation of violence across the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond, as well as for global economic disruption especially via the oil market. One expression of the new situation would almost certainly be an upsurge in antisemitism alongside further alienation from Israel on the part of many Diaspora Jews. It almost goes without saying that the current sanctions regime would collapse, possibly to be replaced with a new regime against the identified rogue nuclear nation Israel. If Iran on its own or through its proxies responded militarily or para-militarily, it would receive sympathy. To whatever extent it refrained from direct response, its international standing would be improved, facilitating its recovery from the attack, including both a resumption of a nuclear program in whatever mode it chose to resume it, possibly under effective or even explicit guarantees of protection, accompanied by a re-opening of its economy to the world.
The only thing that might mitigate these risks to Israel and benefits to its adversary would be clear, persuasive evidence that Iran was flagrantly violating the terms of the deal, and was on the verge of a nuclear breakout, but the scenario presumes that Israel has already failed to make that case persuasively to the P5+1 or anyone else other than perhaps Iran’s regional rivals and the always already persuaded anti-Iran, pro-Israel war hawks. Conceivably, even after being “pissed on” as Mr. Drezner puts it so indelicately, the US might in the short term still try to support and protect Israel amidst and against worldwide condemnation, but the sustainability and for that matter the minimal desirability of the US-Israeli alliance would be put gravely in question.
In short, the costs to Israel of a unilateral conventional attack on Iran in defiance of an agreement with Iran would be comparable to, might even amount to the effective equivalent of, the political costs of a unilateral nuclear first strike. Israel, or rather the current Israeli government, can be presumed well aware of this fact. Its recent “wigging out” is probably intended to serve particular political ends, and does not likely reflect a high near-term risk of Israeli military action. The real problem for Israel, both the source of its apparent panic and the in one way or another final limitations on its ability to act, remains geopolitical, as symbolized but not exhausted by Iran’s nuclear potential, more generally appearing as the uncertainties of a shift to a new balance of power in the region that, as in the not too distant past, as indeed for thousands of years, very well may not favor the existence of a small but relatively powerful, fully independent Jewish state.