Iran diplomacy will take patience — just ask the Israelis

Iran diplomacy will take patience — just ask the Israelis

Joel Rubin
Joel Rubin

WASHINGTON — As we stand on the cusp of an historic diplomatic breakthrough with Iran, some Americans are second-guessing the value of diplomacy as the best way to ensure that Iran does not get the bomb.

That’s only natural. Hard-nosed diplomacy takes a lot of patience and nerve. Just ask the Israelis

In the late 1970s, when Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was engaged in intensive peace negotiations with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, his government had the fortitude to achieve diplomatically what was never fully accomplished on the battlefield: a peaceful international border with Egypt and Egypt’s recognition of the State of Israel.

Prior to this diplomatic deal, Israel and Egypt had just engaged in four major wars, killing tens of thousands.  Egypt was the existential threat to Israel, above all other rivals. It was the central actor in the Arab world, it had an army larger than any other, and it had a leadership that was focused on confronting Israel.

But Israelis never lost their nerve. They fought for their security, physically when absolutely necessary, yet also smartly kept the door to diplomacy with Egypt open at all times. So when Sadat walked through that door, Begin was there to embrace him with open arms.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Sadat may have visited Jerusalem in 1977, but peace didn’t come until 16 months later.  And it was a messy, complicated negotiation.  In fact, the final agreement required sustained intervention by the Americans at Camp David.

Critics at the time argued that one couldn’t trust a hostile regime like the one in Cairo. They argued that Sadat’s regime was committed to destroying Israel, that that regime oppressed its own people, wasn’t a democracy, and supported other enemies of Israel, thereby concluding that its overtures should be rejected.  There were those who argued that holding onto the conflict was better than trying to end it.  This is the kind of fear that happens when major change is under way.  

Fortunately, the Israeli government stood its ground when negotiating with Egypt, understanding that the alternative — more war — was not an acceptable outcome. And it proved the critics wrong.

Now, more than three decades later, Egypt and Israel have forged a secure relationship grounded in a verifiable, strong diplomatic agreement.  The international community, led by the United States, fortified the agreement through continuous support. And while it was a cold peace under Mubarak and the current upheaval in Cairo causes deep concern in Jerusalem, the peace has been sustained to the benefit of all sides.  

There is a lesson for Americans about this Israeli strategic patience exhibited during the negotiations with Egypt.  Patience, keeping one’s nerve, and maintaining a laser-like focus on securing the objective can produce the desired results.

So as negotiations between the international community and Iran head into a deeper phase, with the prospect of a deal that could verifiably block Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, we as Americans have to ask, will we be as patient now as the Israelis were when they negotiated peace with Egypt?

This is not going to be an easy negotiation. It is not going to be comfortable to overcome our long-held beliefs about Iran, given its record of hostility, ruthlessness and duplicity.

The same goes with Iran. Moves are afoot in Congress to scuttle the nascent talks just as they’re beginning to bear fruit.  Opponents are arguing that more sanctions on Iran now will force a better deal — even if the actual American negotiators, the American intelligence community and America’s allies that are engaged in the negotiations disagree.  

Fortunately, the American people understand the consequences of undermining negotiations.  Just like Israelis more than three decades ago, Americans understand that if negotiations fail before they’re given a chance to succeed, the outcome will be a terrible dilemma: either an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program or a war to try and stop it.

So let’s try to act more like the Israelis of the late 1970s in the coming days and give diplomacy a chance to succeed.  Their interests then were in making peace with a bitter enemy while securing its recognition.  Our interests are in verifiably

blocking an Iranian nuclear bomb while avoiding war.  Negotiations — not additional threats — are the best path now, just as they were the best path then.

It’s time for us to gather our nerve, for the opponents of diplomacy to take a pause, and for us to see if we can replicate the diplomatic miracle that Israel and Egypt pulled off more than three decades ago.

(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at the Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at or His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)