The recent agreement in Geneva between the world’s major powers and Iran over its nuclear programme is a bitter pill that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has spent much of the past week choking on.
For much of the past decade, Netanyahu has been leading the chorus of doom about Iran, warning of the imminent threat posed by its supposed pursuit of a nuclear bomb.
Seven years ago, as leader of the opposition, Netanyahu issued one of his characteristic warnings: “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs.” The leadership in Tehran, he added, was “preparing another Holocaust for the Jewish state”.
Despite the available intelligence, almost all politicians in Israel publicly share the assumption that Iran is close to secretly building a nuclear warhead, with many further claiming that Tehran’s first priority will be to destroy Israel. More generally, an Iranian bomb is seen as a threat to Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East, and likely to give Iran much greater influence both in the region and in Washington.
There is also the fear that an Iranian bomb might push Arab states to pursue their own nuclear arsenals, further eroding what Israel calls its “qualitative military edge”. It emerged this month that Saudi Arabia has been in talks with Pakistan about acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Netanyahu has therefore been able to cast himself as the defender-in-chief of the Israeli interests that he describes as “existential”. He, more than anyone else, has dared to risk souring relations with the White House over the issue. The prime minister is also reported to have seriously considered a go-it-alone military strike against Iran, but was prevented by vehement opposition from most of Israel’s military and security leadership.
So when news of the deal emerged, secured in large part through months of back-channel negotiations that Israel knew nothing about, Netanyahu could barely contain his anger. He labelled the deal, which mildly eases the current sanctions in return for concessions from Iran on its uranium enrichment programme and increased international oversight, as a “historic mistake”.
“Today the world has become a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world has taken a significant step toward attaining the most dangerous weapon in the world,” he said. This interpretation has been widely echoed by Israeli pundits and commentators, many of whom have adopted the analogy of the appeasement of Hitler by Western leaders at Munich in 1938.
Senior government ministers went on the offensive too. Naftali Bennett, the economy minister and leader of the right-wing, pro-settler Jewish Home party, warned US television viewers that the agreement was a prelude to “a nuclear suitcase” blowing up in New York and Madrid within five years.
Avigdor Lieberman, the far-right foreign minister, joined the prime minister in condemning the deal and hinting that Israeli military action was still possible. “We have to be serious enough to take responsibility for our fate,” he said. “As always, all options are on the table.”
Coming to terms?
But there are already strong signs that Netanyahu and his ministers are rethinking their initial, confrontational stance towards the US. Yossi Alpher, a former adviser to Ehud Barak, who was until recently Netanyahu’s defence minister and shared his hawkish policy on Iran, said Netanyahu was showing signs that he was coming to terms with the outcome in Geneva.
The six-month interim agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany — the so-called P5+1 — is a “done deal”, said Alpher. “Netanyahu has nothing to gain now by frowning and sounding off angrily at the Americans. He will just create an unnecessary confrontation. He is too clever for that. I expect him now to spin the agreement his way.”
Furthermore, Netanyahu is again reported to be facing opposition behind the scenes from his military and security advisers. Although most of them believe Iran poses a threat to Israel, they are reported to be against any unilateral action, especially if it runs counter to US wishes.
Amos Yadlin, a former head of military intelligence, urged Israelis not be taken in by the general mood of gloom. “If this were the final agreement, then it would really be a bad agreement, but that’s not the situation.”
Similarly, Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser, recently told the New York Times: “Netanyahu speaks only about a good deal. The Americans are speaking about a reasonable deal, which is better than having no deal at all.”
According to Alpher, Netanyahu is already making clear the two main ways in which he will try to turn the agreement to his advantage, thereby avoiding damage to his image with the Israeli public and the international community. “He is trying to explain that the deal reached in Geneva, however bad, is much better from Israel’s point of view than the one nearly agreed a short time earlier. He can then take the credit for that.
‘Israel intends to be a player’
“And he needs to prepare for the next round of talks in six months’ time to ensure Israel’s position is well-represented. At the same time, he can ready his ammunition to tell the world ‘I told you so’ if the deal unravels.”
Indications emerged this week that Netanyahu was softening his tone, following a telephone conversation with US President Barack Obama on Sunday. British Foreign Minister William Hague conveyed the sense of that conversation, when he suggested that Netanyahu had been warned not to take “any steps that would undermine this agreement”.
The next day the Israeli prime minister announced he was sending a team, headed by his national security adviser, Yossi Cohen, to meet with US counterparts to discuss the nature of a future permanent agreement. Similar meetings are due to take place in the next few weeks with Britain, France and Germany.
An official close to Netanyahu told the Jerusalem Post newspaper bluntly: “Israel intends to be a player.” A leading Israeli columnist has termed the period before the permanent agreement Israel’s “six-month war”.
According to observers, much of that effort will concentrate on using intelligence — real or otherwise — to suggest Iran is not complying with the agreement, allowing Netanyahu to emerge vindicated.
What most Israeli observers agree on is that Netanyahu will not launch a military attack to try to sabotage the deal. Amos Harel, the military correspondent for the Haaretz newspaper, said: “As long as there is such sweeping international support for the interim agreement, bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would be political and diplomatic suicide.”
Less clear is whether Netanyahu will use Israel’s hawkish political lobby in Washington, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), to arm-twist Congress into a confrontation with Obama when legislators return next week from their Thanksgiving break. Alpher said he believed Netanyahu would not risk “further battering US-Israel relations”, though he conceded this might be “wishful thinking”.
Uri Savir, a former Israeli diplomat and the director of the Peres Centre for Peace, agreed, saying that further erosion of relations with Washington, Israel’s main patron, would be “more dangerous than anything that Iran can threaten us with”.
Despite these warnings, AIPAC published a memo in the wake of the agreement that called for Congress to “legislate additional sanctions”. However, AIPAC appears only to be demanding the threat of extra sanctions as a stick to extract further concessions from Iran, and possibly from the White House, when negotiations on a final agreement begin next year.
In a sign of US efforts to maintain common ground with Israel on Iran, Time magazine reported on Thursday that the two countries would stage a large joint military exercise in May as the interim agreement expires.
“The strategic decision is to continue to make noise,” an unnamed high-ranking Israeli officer was quoted as saying. “[The exercise is] going to be big. … It will send signals both to Israel and to the Iranians that we are maintaining our capabilities in the military option. The atmosphere is we have to do it big time, we have to do a big show of capabilities and connections.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry is due in Israel next week, reportedly to smooth relations and further cooperation between the two countries.
Fear of a ‘break-out state’
The Israeli media have reported that Netanyahu’s most pressing concern now is to ensure that a permanent agreement forces the Iranians to renounce their rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to any nuclear programme, including their current civilian one. Israel claims that any nuclear capability would give Tehran the ability to become what it terms a “break-out state”, with the potential to quickly convert its nuclear energy programme into a military one.
Netanyahu told his Likud party this week that a future accord “must bring about one outcome: the dismantling of Iran’s military nuclear capability.”
Israel is said to want Iran to destroy all its existing centrifuges, transfer its stockpiles of enriched uranium out of the country, close the uranium enrichment facility at Fordow and stop work on the heavy-water reactor at Arak. This differs from the US position, which so far has been committed to allowing Iran a limited uranium enrichment programme.
One final question posed by the interim agreement is how it could affect Israel’s other great point of contention with the White House: the current peace talks with the Palestinians. Here opinion is divided. Harel believes Obama’s success on the Iranian and Syrian fronts could embolden it to tackle the issue of a Palestinian state, either putting pressure on Israel to make concessions or imposing its own solution.
But Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian analyst, believes the US clash with Israel over Iran might push it in a different direction. “Coming out of the current public confrontation, the last thing that the White House might want is another war of words with Israel. This line of thinking might mean that the United States will try to make it up to Israel.”