Away From Spotlight, Israel and U.S. Begin post-Iran Deal Security Talks

Israeli and American officials say initial, unofficial talks will turn into higher-level discussions in coming weeks, and culminate in November when Netanyahu and Obama meet in Washington.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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Obama and Netanyahu during their meeting at the White House, September 30, 2013.
Obama and Netanyahu during their meeting at the White House, September 30, 2013.Credit: Bloomberg
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

With no public announcements, keeping a low profile and unofficial status, Israel and the United States began two weeks ago talks aimed at addressing the aftermath of the nuclear accord with Iran. Senior American and Israeli officials said that the preliminary low-level contacts preceded what would in coming weeks turn into full-fledged meetings at the highest levels.

Ten days ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended a Rosh Hashanah toast at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. It was the first visit by Netanyahu, who is also the foreign minister, since the new government was formed in May.

Before the ceremony Netanyahu met with senior ministry staff members, responding to their questions. Deputy Director General Jeremy Issacharoff, one of Israel’s top officials dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, turned to Netanyahu and posed a question, more suggestive of a recommendation, based on the fact that U.S. President Barack Obama was on the verge of obtaining the number of Senate votes needed for the accord to proceed.

“Isn’t it time to start talking to the Americans about the compensation Israel would receive following this deal?” Issacharoff asked. On April 2, after reaching agreement on the principles of the final accord, Obama contacted Netanyahu and proposed the immediate opening of talks about upgrading the capabilities of the Israel Defense Forces following the conclusion of the deal with Iran. Obama repeated his offer on July 14, in a conversation with Netanyahu.

On both occasions Netanyahu rejected the offer, preferring to focus his efforts on foiling the deal in Congress. This time Netanyahu, who for some months has been waging an aggressive campaign against the deal — aided by Israel’s ambassador to Washington Dermer, the Israel lobby and senior Republican Party officials — gave an answer that greatly assuaged many senior Foreign Ministry officials. “We’ll start these talks as soon as we see this deal passing through Congress,” he said, according to three people who were in the room.

In fact, “day-after” discussions between Israel and the United States began unofficially four days before the Foreign Ministry meeting, with the arrival in Israel of Adam Szubin, the Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Crimes at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, who is in charge of sanctions against Iran.

Even though Szubin’s talks in Israel were defined in Jerusalem and Washington as “routine,” Israeli and American officials claim that the talks naturally led to discussions of “the day after” and to issues of future security, diplomatic and intelligence cooperation between Israel and the United States regarding Iran.

“In the last month once it became clear that the deal will survive the Congressional review, you couldn’t completely wall that off from talks about ‘the day after.’ There doesn’t need to be some big announcement that now we are beginning those talks. It is happening more naturally,” said a senior American official.

During Szubin’s visit, he presented his colleagues at the Foreign Ministry, the National Security Council at the Prime Minister’s Office and other intelligence officials with American thoughts on possible additional sanctions on Iran with regard to topics unrelated to the nuclear accord, such as response to support for terror groups.

Szubin updated his Israeli colleagues about preliminary steps the United States intended to take against senior Hamas and Hezbollah officials who are responsible for money transfers from Iran or who are in contact with Iran for the purpose of planning attacks against Israel. Indeed, several days later public announcements were made regarding American sanctions against Hezbollah operative Samir Kuntar, the head of Hamas’s military wing Mohammed Deif and other senior Hamas officials.

Israeli-American talks about the aftermath of the nuclear accord continued last week. A few days after posing that question to the prime minister, Issacharoff arrived in Washington for talks, many of which dealt with Iran and security collaboration between Israel and the United States.

One of his meetings was with Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military affairs Puneet Talwar. A senior U.S. official said that one of the key topics that were discussed was American aid for upgrading Israel's military capabilities and the maintenance of its qualitative edge over other regional armies.

“They discussed a wide range of issues as part of our continuing and regular bilateral consultations, including security cooperation, our commitment to ensuring Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge, and ways to continue building on our progress to date in expanding our enduring strategic partnership.”

In the coming weeks discussions between Israel and the United States are expected to accelerate and to include top-level meetings. At the end of this month Netanyahu will meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry after the UN General Assembly winds down. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon is expected in Washington in mid-October for talks with his U.S. counterpart Ashton Carter. They will discuss an aid package that Israel will receive from the United States following the ratification of the nuclear accord.

All these meetings will be a preamble to the meeting planned for the second week of November between Netanyahu and Obama. Netanyahu is expected to arrive in Washington on November 8 to deliver a speech at the annual convention of North American Jewish Federations. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said during his daily briefing to correspondents on Friday that during that visit a meeting is planned with Obama at the White House, coming after a whole year during which they did not meet.

On Thursday, during a conference call with 500 rabbis in honor of Rosh Hashanah, Obama said that he was interested in meeting Netanyahu soon. “Consultations between us and Israeli security and intelligence officials have already commenced” he said. “I hope I can discuss these topics at length with Netanyahu.”

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