Israel Reduced to Heckling Iran Pact From Afar

With Netanyahu's loud bickering with the White House, culminating in his Congress speech, Israel's PM has inadvertently positioned himself as someone whom the Americans won’t take seriously.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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U.S. and U.K officials, including U.S. Secretary of State John  Kerry (second from left), wait for a meeting at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, March 28, 2015.
U.S. and U.K officials, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (second from left), wait for a meeting at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, March 28, 2015.Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

It’s still a bit early to safely assess if a memorandum of understanding on curbing Iran’s nuclear program will be signed between Tehran and the superpowers or what exactly it will include. The deadline set for finishing this round of talks in Lausanne is Tuesday. 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, sits with his delegation during a negotiation concerning Iran's nuclear program with Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, right, in Lausanne, March 19, 2015.Credit: AFP

This is the stage at which the spin machines of the negotiators are working overtime to influence the final wording of the agreement. Although both sides have demonstrated a desire to reach a deal and have expressed optimism regarding the chances of doing so, there may be last-minute twists.

Israel’s role in the drama is limited to expressions of skepticism and reprimands from the sidelines. With his loud bickering with the Obama administration, culminating in his speech to Congress early this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has inadvertently positioned himself as someone whom the Americans won’t take seriously.

Now Netanyahu has only two cards left to play – public warnings of destruction arising from an agreement, and indirect political pressure through congressional Republicans. Practically speaking, senior Israeli officials half admit that under the circumstances that have emerged, they would oppose any pending deal with Iran, regardless of its details.

Alongside Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, who has been trying to wake the international community from its slumber at the prime minister’s behest, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Netanyahu himself spoke up yesterday. Ya’alon called Iran “the greatest danger to world stability” and accused it of “lying without blinking.” Netanyahu contributed a new slogan, calling the “Iran-Lausanne-Yemen” axis a danger to humanity.

Israel is right to be concerned about the looming agreement, but it seems that as usual, it is better to keep these warnings in proportion. One might consider the U-turn Netanyahu just made on Friday, when he moved to free up the frozen Palestinian Authority tax funds. Suddenly, after three months of pleading by the heads of the defense establishment, the prime minister recalled that the security situation required the release of the frozen funds. In his statement Netanyahu made no mention of delaying the change in his position until after the elections for fear of criticism from the right, or that his decision was aimed at avoiding another confrontation with the U.S. administration.

Similarly, there is room for healthy skepticism regarding the horror scenarios currently being bandied about by Jerusalem regarding the nuclear agreement. Experience shows that often, ministers’ pronouncements do not fully coincide with the positions of the relevant professionals.

From the Israeli perspective, several risk elements are emerging, based on what’s been published about the upcoming agreement. The first is what capabilities will remain in Iranian hands, and specifically how long the “breakout” time would be – the time between an Iranian decision to violate the agreement and the point at which it would have enough enriched uranium available to make a bomb. The administration is talking about extending the period from a few months, as it is now, to a whole year. But Olli Heinonen, former deputy chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency, argued last week in an essay published by the Washington Institute for Near East Research that the administration is ignoring the fact that it might take some time before the powers even discover that Iran is deceiving them. That is, the actual breakout time would be shorter, because Tehran, if it decided to break the agreement, would already be en route to the bomb.

Another critical question concerns how fast sanctions will be lifted in relation to the length of time the agreement will remain in effect. Israel wants the economic blockade on Iran to be removed as gradually and slowly as possible and that the restrictions on its nuclear program continue to apply over time.

The third point concerns the powers ignoring what Iran is presently doing in the region. During the past two months Iran has been increasingly meddling in Iraq, established a substantial military presence along the Syrian and Lebanese border with Israel, and has helped the rebels in their efforts to overthrow Yemen’s government and gain control over maritime traffic through the strategic Bab-el-Mandeb strait.

Not only are none of these things being raised in the negotiations in Lausanne, but U.S. policy in the Middle East is so full of contradictions that it is joining with Iran to battle the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, while giving intelligence aid to the states in the Sunni camp battling the Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen.

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