Giving a speech. Alone.

Photographer: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

Israelis Feel Surrounded Yet Alone After Iran Deal

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
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Last summer, to get away from the war in Gaza with its air-raid sirens and cascade of terrible news, my wife and I decided to head north, and to rent a small cabin in the middle of nowhere for a few days.

The tzimmer (from the German “Zimmer,” for “room”) is a ubiquitous Israeli institution. There are thousands of little cabins all over the country, some more upscale and some less. We picked the one that claimed to be the highest altitude tzimmer in Israel. The higher up, it somehow seemed, the better.

If we’d hoped for quiet, we were about to be disappointed. At night, there was shelling from Lebanon; during the day, artillery landed not too far away as Syrian and Islamic State forces battled it out.

This week, because it’s been a quiet summer on the military front, we decided to give the place another try. We drove three hours north, climbing the winding roads up the border’s mountains, to return to the same cabins. Just as we walked in the door, though, our phones started pinging. It was the Code Red app, which rings whenever there’s an air-raid siren. One quick look at the screen tells you where the siren has gone off -- it was not far from where we were.

My wife looked at me half laughing and half horrified. “You’ve got to be kidding,” she groaned. The siren was due to a malfunction, which happens fairly frequently, but gone was the calm. We each grabbed a book and sat outside. Then the artillery started. Boom after boom -- we looked at each other again and just laughed. When the owner came by, we asked what the artillery was. “Probably just IDF practicing,” he said seeking to reassure us. Neither of us believed him, but we went along with the ruse.

Half an hour later, a WhatsApp message arrived from one of our sons. It was a video he’d just taken of his fellow Israeli soldiers marching through a Polish forest not far from a village where Jews had been evicted from their homes, marched into the woods and shot en masse. The Israel Defense Forces regularly takes soldiers back to those places. For many Israelis, the image of our children, who bear the responsibility for defending us, in the place where helpless Jews were killed by the thousands is a source of no small amount of pain, but a strange sort of comfort, as well.

Our ability to defend ourselves, our knowledge that we are thus different from the Jews who died in those forests -- while the world looked on and the U.S. sealed its shores -- has been a source of pride to this small country. “Never again” is a ubiquitous phrase.

It is in that context that one needs to understand Israelis’ widespread sadness at the nuclear weapons agreement with Iran that the P5+1 group reached this week. The news reached us on the mountaintop, again on our iPhones. It was no surprise, of course, but the finality was still sobering. The overwhelming sense was one of alone-ness. Few Israelis believe President Barack Obama’s protestations that he has Israel’s back. He wanted a deal and a legacy, Israelis sense, and Israel was the price.

“Iran is now on the map, while Israel no longer is,” read one headline. “Israel has to decide whether to become part of the West with its preference for creative diplomacy,” the Channel 2 article continued, “or to make do in our difficult neighborhood and to announce that we will defend ourselves, even if we remain alone.”

The artillery we could hear as I read the article was a reminder that this is, indeed, a rough neighborhood.

“Even if we remain alone” was the prevailing sentiment. Avi Issacharoff, a moderate Israeli columnist, said that with the agreement, “Obama awarded Iran hegemony in the Middle East,” and suggested that July 14, 2015, may “prove to be one of the darkest days in the region’s history, especially for moderate Arab Sunni states and Israel.” Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s defense minister, called the deal a “massive betrayal.”

Indeed, to many Israelis, the Obama administration has become synonymous with betrayal of Israel. Much discussed in this context is Michael Oren’s new book, “Ally,” about his years as Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. A meticulous scholar and an understated, elegant diplomat, Oren has unleashed a bit of an uproar by arguing unabashedly that Obama sold Israel down the river. At one point, he wrote, “Most disturbing for me personally was the realization that our closest ally had entreated with our deadliest enemy on an existential issue without so much as informing us.” That sense of alone-ness, again.

On the Times of Israel's website Thursday morning, four headlines appeared: “Netanyahu on Iran deal: The more you read it, the worse it gets” was followed by “Former Auschwitz guard indicted as accessory to murder.” Just under that was “Daughter badly hurt as Paris Jewish family attacked at home,” and, finally, there was “US presents draft Iran resolution to Security Council.” The proximity of those articles on the Iran deal, the Holocaust and Europe’s resurging anti-Semitism reflects the sentiment here that not enough has changed in 70 years.

That video our son sent of Israeli soldiers marching somberly through the Polish forest spoke volumes this week. True, Israelis can now defend ourselves. But our ability to do so was just significantly curtailed. In ways more harrowing than we might once have imagined, we know we are still surrounded. And increasingly, it feels like we are once again alone.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net