Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to the United States this time knowing that Israel’s role in the current act of this saga is relatively marginal. Most of the world’s attention was focused on the speeches of the presidents of the United States and Iran at the UN General Assembly last week, and the somewhat tortuous dialogue between the two countries. Netanyahu was not a party pooper, as he described himself on the eve of his departure for the United States, because the party was over long before he landed in New York. The Americans are already over their heads in the political crisis paralyzing the federal government, and the international agenda is no longer fixed solely on Iran.
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Under these new circumstances, Netanyahu could not give the same belligerent and dramatic speech he gave against Iran last year, nor could he clash directly with President Barack Obama in their meeting Monday at the White House. As has been clear since President Hassan Rohani’s election in June, it is now time for diplomacy. Israel can insist on its demands and warn against Iranian duplicity, but cannot truly influence events. In his speech on Tuesday, Netanyahu, with his usual eloquence, presented the Israeli message for the coming months.
A good portion of his arguments had quite a bit of truth to them, both in regard to the true face of the regime in Tehran and in regard to its work toward a nuclear weapons program and involvement in terror is concerned. But it seemed that the audience had already been persuaded that diplomatic negotiations were the only way to go. It is unlikely that anyone in the hall believed that Israel is on its way to a military strike.
Netanyahu is now trying to prevent the sanctions against Iran from being lifted before a significant pledge is received from Iran in response to Western demands, and perhaps to explain to American lawmakers the importance of another round of sanctions (which are unlikely to be imposed given the current circumstances). The Israeli military option will come back into the picture, perhaps for the last time, this coming spring, if talks between Iran and the six superpowers fail. If an agreement is reached, even if it leaves Israel unsatisfied, Israel will find it very difficult to go against the opinion of the whole world and attack Iranian nuclear sites.
In addition to its demand for Tehran’s transparency with regard to its nuclear program, and for significantly tighter monitoring, Israel is highlighting the need to dial back Tehran’s nuclear program. Since Netanyahu does not believe in the good intentions of the Ayatollahs, it is important to him that they stay as far away from military nuclear capability as possible. The head of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies and the former Military Intelligence chief, Major General (res.) Amos Yadlin, wrote this week that Israel must make sure that if Iran breaches the agreement it will be “years, not months” from manufacturing a nuclear bomb. Yadlin’s position, which is quite close to that of the defense establishment, is that Iran be permitted to enrich uranium to the low level of 3.5 percent, not 20 percent, and that the enriched uranium be removed from the country.
The Israeli response to the conduct of the Obama administration in the Iranian case, as in the Syrian chemical weapons issue that preceded it, is mixed: harsh criticism over the method, doubt as to the final outcome, yet still hoping that the Americans know what they are doing and will arrive at a positive outcome. That can still happen with regard to Syria where (for now) Obama’s hesitant zigzag ended with a promising arrangement, if it is kept, to dismantle the Assad regime’s huge chemical weapons stores.
Israel was surprised at Obama’s soft, somewhat yielding attitude toward his Iranian counterpart. Rohani, under pressure from the sanctions, is the one who should have come crawling to Washington, instead of Obama’s courting, to which Rohani finally deigned to respond with only a phone conversation. In the Syrian case, as a senior political figure in Israel said, the Americans had great cards, but Russian President Vladimir Putin took the whole pot. The way the United States is approaching contacts with Iran could ostensibly presage similar results.