Netanyahu Fires Opening Shot Against Iran Nuclear Talks

Prime minister’s hard-hitting speech to American Jewish leaders showed no signs of willingness to compromise on nuclear issue.

Just in case anyone had forgotten how much Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu loathes the negotiations between Iran and the six world powers that are slated to open in Vienna on Tuesday, he provided a reminder in his address Monday to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The speech was the opening shot of a renewed and aggressive public campaign by Israel’s government against the talks, which are aimed at reaching a permanent agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.

Netanyahu adopted a maximalist stance, devoid of any willingness to compromise. He opposed allowing even a single centrifuge to continue enriching uranium on Iranian soil.

Netanyahu, who was addressing dozens of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, openly challenged the Obama Administration’s policy, which opposes any additional sanctions on Iran at this stage.

Just a few days ago, the White House succeeded in getting the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to drop its efforts to advance new sanctions legislation through the U.S. Congress.

“I know it is not fashionable, but we need more pressure on Iran – not less,” said Netanyahu, who will also address AIPAC’s annual conference in Washington in two weeks’ time.

Netanyahu’s speech was unusual, mainly because in recent weeks he has said little about the Iranian issue.

One reason for this is that most of his time has been devoted to the Palestinian issue, specifically to the negotiations over an American proposal for a framework agreement.

The other reason is that Israel’s main campaign on the Iranian issue these past weeks has been conducted via quiet diplomatic channels.

This campaign has been led by National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen, who has visited several capitals to deliver Israel’s messages to representatives of the six powers – the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – conducting the talks with Iran.

In Moscow, Cohen asked the Russians to refrain from signing a huge energy deal with Iran. He has also met with his French counterpart in Paris and his German counterpart in Munich.

A week ago, Cohen paid a secret visit to Brussels and met with Helga Schmid, a senior aide to Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief. Ashton is conducting the talks with Iran on behalf of the six powers, and Schmid is playing a key role in this effort. Cohen therefore met with her in an effort to coordinate positions before the first round of the latest talks.

Though the messages Israel delivered through these quiet channels were identical to the ones Netanyahu presented publicly on Monday, the tone was less confrontational.

The dispute between Israel and the six powers over the right way to conduct the talks with Iran hasn’t changed. But so far, it hasn’t turned into a public confrontation.

That could change after Netanyahu’s speech, which might reignite the public conflict between Israel and its Western allies over Iran. But even if it doesn’t, the Americans and Europeans have been disappointed by Israel’s attitude toward a permanent agreement, which reminds them of Israel’s attitude toward the interim agreement.

Netanyahu believes that any Israeli flexibility would prompt a dangerous flood of concessions by the six powers. But what he sees as a forceful, uncompromising stance is seen in Washington and European capitals as a policy disconnected from reality, or else a deliberate effort to put a spoke in the wheels of a diplomatic solution.

In this situation, Israel is liable to once again find itself relegated to irrelevancy, just as it was during negotiations over the interim deal. It can shout from the sidelines, but will have almost no influence over the final result.

AP