Nuclear Accord With Iran Could Create Fierce Diplomatic Storm Between U.S. and Israel

Netanyahu’s harsh rejection of Geneva accord signals looming battle that could strain relations, split the Jewish community, raise prospects of a unilateral Israeli attack – and put Avigdor Lieberman in the spotlight.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

If there were a synoptic map for diplomatic storms, the National Weather Service would be putting out a hurricane warning right now. The winds are blowing cold, tensions are on the rise and tempers are beginning to flare in the Bermuda triangle of relations between Israel, the US and the American Jewish community.

And given that the turbulence is being caused by an issue long deemed to be critical to Israel’s very existence, we may actually be facing a rare Category 5 flare up, a “superstorm” of US-Israeli relations.

The flashpoint, of course, would be the emerging agreement between Iran and the P5+1 forum - which is not the bag yet, as US Secretary of State John Kerry said upon his arrival in Geneva on Friday. Nonetheless, Netanyahu’s exceedingly harsh condemnation of the contours of the proposed pact provides early warning signs of the potential ferocity of the approaching storm.

Netanyahu’s expressions of frustration and anger stem from the substance of the emerging agreement being negotiated as well as the fact that it appears to have taken Israel by surprise. After receiving assurances from the Administration that it would not seek an interim deal and that it would not offer partial sanction relief, Washington, in Jerusalem’s eyes at least, appears to be doing just that.

The prime minister’s video-taped, no-holds barred condemnation on Friday of the “very bad deal” that Israel “utterly rejects”, photographed in unflattering close up that only magnified its ominous resonance, seems to set the stage for a monumental confrontation. At the very least, a “first step” agreement on Iran’s nuclear program could trigger a Congressional counteroffensive aimed at strengthening sanctions rather than relieving them, with Israel and its supporters in Washington rallying to help undermine the Geneva accord. The stakes, and the potential fallout, couldn’t be higher.

Such a confrontation would rekindle the underlying mistrust and animosity that characterized Netanyahu’s relations with President and the US Administration for most of Obama’s first term. Despite his successful visit to Israel in March, most Israelis continue to view Obama as naïve and soft in his dealings with Arabs and Muslim countries. Obama’s detractors, both in Jerusalem and in the American Jewish community, will say: “We told you so”.

That feeling may have intensified in recent days in Israeli government circles as a result of what seems to be an American effort to undercut its own pledge to keep the military option “on the table” in its dealings with Iran. A US “senior official” told reporters in Geneva that a military attack on Iran “would not end, in our view, Iran’s nuclear program. It would set it back, but it would not end it.”

In internal discussions, Administration figures have also said that even if there was a US attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, the sides would still have to return to the negotiating table to work out a the same kind of deal that they are discussing now.

The American Jewish community itself would also face a potentially divisive and acrimonious internal debate. American Jews are likely to be split almost evenly between those who will want to “give peace a chance” and others who will cite Netanyahu’s “Iranian deal of the century” description. Most of the American Jewish establishment is likely to line up behind Netanyahu, but most Democratic-voting American Jews may prefer to back the Administration’s diplomatic efforts.

In any case, the Administration is likely to face a steep uphill battle to prevent Congress from taking direct action to undermine a Geneva agreement. Obama’s approval ratings have never been lower, he is struggling to keep his Affordable Care Act afloat, and Democratic lawmakers up for reelection in 2014 were starting to keep their distance even before an Iranian agreement was in the offing. Together with the Republican caucuses in the Senate and the House who would like nothing better than to embarrass Obama on the world stage, Democrats could form a majority that would suffice to put any agreement with Iran in jeopardy.

Such Congressional sabotage would result in an unprecedented internal and international crisis and would also highlight what is already emerging as the mammoth elephant in the room: does a Geneva agreement increase or decrease chances for a preemptive Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear installations? Would Israel dare disrupt a diplomatic process that enjoys almost universal international support with such a brazen move? Can it afford, others will ask, to allow this “historic mistake”, as Netanyahu termed it, to go forward?

Adding to the volatile mix is the appearance of growing US impatience with Israeli settlement building and its negative impact on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Kerry’s unusually blunt criticism of the scope of recent government decisions on construction in the territories and his unprecedented warning that Israel may be facing a “third intifada” are telltale signs that all was not well between Jerusalem and Washington, even before reports of an impending Geneva agreement. A falling out between Netanyahu and Obama over the Iran accord could very well spill over into an open confrontation over the Palestinians as well.

But possibly the most intriguing question, from an internal Israeli point of view at least, is what will Avigdor Lieberman do. Buoyed by his exoneration on Wednesday of criminal charges, the right wing firebrand is returning to the Foreign Ministry on Monday just as Israel may be entering a critical diplomatic confrontation with the world.

Will Lieberman be nudging Netanyahu into a dangerous make or break gamble, as most people would expect, or will he choose to don the persona of the mature and responsible politician who urges caution and restraint? At this point, only Lieberman can know for sure.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, November 8, 2013.Credit: AP

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