Another round in the spat between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama was launched on Nov. 11, this time in an editorial in The New York Times. Ever since Netanyahu took off his gloves and collided head-on with the deal being hashed out between Iran and the major powers, he has found himself becoming the world’s punching bag. From left, right and center, he is being stabbed, criticized and dubbed “hysterical.” In the editorial, the New York Times — which is said to be well-connected to the White House — accused Netanyahu of sabotaging attempts to broker a deal that would curb Iran’s nuclear program.
The extent to which the relationship and trust between Washington and Jerusalem have deteriorated can be evidenced not only in reports and public statements but also in the “responsible adult” who on Nov. 11 tried to cool the heated atmosphere. I’m referring to the old-new Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who is considered a serial Middle Eastern pyromaniac. Now he is the one rolling up his sleeves in a bid to clear the air.
At a reception in his honor on the occasion of his return to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Liberman said, “The mainstay of Israel’s foreign relations is its relationship with the United States. We need to make it clear and cool down the emotions. My first work meeting this morning was with the US ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro. We need to understand that our relationship with the United States is our main asset, without which we would not be able to negotiate today’s world. Even when there are differences of opinion — and there have always been differences — they should not be aired in public. They should be dealt with internally, and I think we need to sound an all-clear siren on this issue.”
This was a bold hint on the part of Liberman to Netanyahu, to the effect of, “We do not need to bicker with the Americans over the front pages. We can do the same thing with an equally strong effect inside the room.”
Of all the Israeli journalists of today’s generation, I should be the last one to set out in Netanyahu’s defense. It seems to me that it would be hard to find a more combative journalist in Israel’s mainstream press against the Israeli premier than yours truly. But when it comes to this issue, I think he has suffered an injustice. It seems to me that he is fulfilling his duty as the leader of the Jewish state, which stands to lose the most if the country of the ayatollahs turns into a nuclear power.
Indeed, a nuclear Iran is a global problem. I believe part of the world has already come to understand that. Yet, only one state will find itself in a real existential danger in the face of an Iranian bomb: Israel. The reason for this is that Israel is a “one-bomb state.” Its tiny size and the fact that the overwhelming part of its population, advanced industries and assets are concentrated along a narrow coastal strip make it particularly vulnerable. Experts believe that one bomb, maybe two, could inflict immense — perhaps irreversible — damage to Israel’s independent existence.
A nuclear Iran could very well drain Israel of its will to exist. People would be afraid to live here, to do business, make investments or raise children. The Israeli struggle against Iran’s nuclear program is an existential one. It is not a theory. It is for real. And thus Netanyahu has very little wiggle room. He cannot afford to make a mistake.
A source closely associated with Netanyahu told me on Nov. 11: “[US Secretary of State] John Kerry demonstrates his lack of understanding and naivete when he lectures Bibi [Netanyahu], telling him not to interfere and saying that there is no deal and that he needs to wait until there is one, and only then judge it. We were sure that Kerry was seasoned enough to understand that the time during which you can influence a deal — one that determines your fate on earth — is when the negotiations are taking place. Not when they’re over. The time to warn, call a spade a spade and shed light on Iran’s ugly face and the dangers inherent in the evolving agreement is the present time. It’s now. Only now. If we wait for the outline of the agreement, it will be too late. We will have already missed the boat. The horses will have already bolted. In these negotiations, the Americans behave as if they need this deal more than the Iranians.
“It took a long time to bring Iran down to its knees. Instead of making the last, final push at this time to hash out a real deal that would dismantle Iran’s nuclear program instead of keeping it alive and kicking, Obama and Kerry have folded. Precisely at the most critical juncture — seconds before victory — they lay down their arms.”
Another minister, also closely associated with Netanyahu, said, “The Americans are saying, and you can read about it in The New York Times, that the demands made by the incumbent administration were also made during President [George W.] Bush’s administration. Yet, the Iranians also ignored them back then, proceeding full steam with their nuclear plans. That’s true. But that’s only part of the data. There is one more amazing piece of information,” the minister observed.
“The only time the Iranians fully stopped and suspended their nuclear program was back in 2003, when the Americans invaded Iraq. Iran picked up on the threat. The US aircraft carriers did their job. The Iranians folded. Not only did they freeze their nuclear program, they in fact shut it down. They renewed their charge on the program as soon as they realized that the military option was over,” he added.
The minister tried to explain: “At the end of the day, a country like Iran — theocratic, dictatorial, operating on some religious edicts and led by a clan that does not hesitate to mount terrorism across the globe — only understands the use of force. This does not mean that Iran should be invaded. But a true, not a bogus military threat should be made, one which the Iranians will understand and internalize. And this is something the Americans did not do even once during the Obama administration. Even when the president or his team said, halfheartedly, that ‘all the options are on the table,’ there was always some other American — be it the secretary of defense or the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff — who candidly said that there was no military option. This cemented the failure. In our case, this failure will leave its mark for generations, spawning a historic calamity of unimaginable magnitude.”
Bibi’s people added: “The administration keeps telling us to trust it. The major powers say they are not patsies and that the West is neither stupid, nor naive or inexperienced. We really want to believe that. Yet, when we look around, it seems to me that there are no hard facts to substantiate this belief. After all, North Korea took advantage of precisely this US naivete and spinelessness. When all is said and done, North Korea turned nuclear in the face of US ineptness. It’s a deja vu. When we examine John Kerry’s tactics, which so far has produced nothing but trouble, and when we look at his determination to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within a few months — with little regard for reality — we cannot arrive at any positive conclusions about Iran.
“We see how the United States made a bad call about Egypt and how it relinquished its allies. We see how it applied heavy pressure on Israel to apologize to Turkey to put the [Mavi Marmara flotilla] affair behind it, even though we knew all too well that Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t want to. When we look at US global policy, practically anywhere, we don’t see sweeping successes. On the contrary. We are pretty sure that Obama would have very much liked — in hindsight — to erase from history his preposterous “Cairo address.
“The feeling is that what Obama wants is simply to sweep the Iranian problem under the rug; to pass the buck to his successor. He doesn’t have the energy to deal with it. The problem is that Iran will have turned nuclear by the time his successor comes along. Let’s look in the mirror. Iran is already a nuclear threshold country. How did this happen? Who’s to blame?”
Israel always comes up with doomsday prophecies, but unlike most previous cases, this time around — it seems to me — this prophecy is real, founded and disconcerting.
Yes, Netanyahu is a hysterical man who easily panics with every passing breeze. And I know that all too well. But just as a paranoid is occasionally actually being chased after, even the panic-prone hysterical man sometimes panics due to truly alarming developments.
The problem with the interim agreement that is being hashed out between the major powers and Iran rests with its imbalance, sources close to Netanyahu have said. The Iranians get a lot, but hardly give anything in return. The two things they do give are inconsequential. Keeping the heavy water reactor in Arak nonoperational for six months is a joke, Israeli Minister for Intelligence Affairs Yuval Steinitz said on Nov. 11. This reactor is not ready and will not be ready by the end of next year, so prohibiting its operation counts for nothing. The second Iranian concession — discontinuing enrichment of uranium to 20% — is also insignificant. Allowing Iran to enrich uranium to a 3.5% grade preserves its enrichment capability; from here until military capability (90%) it is a rapid break.
The idea of the interim agreement, officials in Israel are saying, is that both sides should give up something. If the West rolls back the sanctions, Iran should roll back its nuclear program. But in the setting of the agreement-in-the-making, the West rolls back the sanctions whereas Iran gets to freeze the existing status of its nuclear program. That’s the Israeli position.
“Lifting the sanctions in the gold field, in spare parts trade and the petrochemical industry, is similar to puncturing holes in the wheels of the sanctions,” said a very senior Israeli official.
There are thousands of European companies standing in line to renew trade with Iran. This move will enable them to move in quickly. The sanction regime will collapse a lot faster than the Obamacare health insurance website did, Bibi’s people are saying, firing a very broad hint in the direction of the US president
So what is the bottom line? Well, it is complicated. The Israeli objection to a deal with the Iranians makes sense and stands on solid ground. Netanyahu’s government must come to terms with the fact that the world is heading toward a deal with Iran. Getting everything you want is not feasible, and Iran cannot be brought down to its knees the way Germany and Japan were after World War II.
Notwithstanding, Iran should not be allowed to keep its status as a nuclear threshold country and should not be allowed to wait for the opportune moment to break out a bomb or produce one stealthily. Therefore, the heavy water reactor in Arak, which offers an alternative and fast plutonium track toward a bomb, must be stopped. It all depends on the number and quality of centrifuges left in Iran, the amount of enriched uranium it has left and the level of invasive international supervision. The problem is that Netanyahu’s people barely trust Obama’s people. Netanyahu himself doesn’t really trust Obama. As of Nov. 10, Kerry will have to get along with his Israeli counterpart, Liberman, who is kind of a Netanyahu himself, only much more blunt and more aggressive.
Knesset member Ayelet Shaked from the HaBayit HaYehudi Party told me last weekend, “In the end [Former Republican candidate] Mitt Romney was right. Obama does throw Israel under the bus.”
Shaked is obviously exaggerating. Nobody remembers Romney, and Netanyahu is still around, alive and well. He has singlehandedly earned the attitude he has been getting from the US administration. He diligently and painstakingly built the dangerous mistrust between himself and Obama. He has not been wise enough to create a genuine, sincere and vital process between Israel and the Palestinians. Nor is he really willing to make tough, painful concessions to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians or at least begin to resolve it with an interim agreement that will lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state. And in the end he still remains surprised that the Americans do not coordinate with him and do not do as he says.
Netanyahu’s argument is correct, but the road he has taken to reach it is perilous and tortuous. Netanyahu must understand that he cannot have everything he wants, nor have it “both ways.” If he wanted the United States to be on his side on the Iranian issue, he should have been on its side on the Palestinian issue. In the end, he might find himself losing on both counts — seeing a nuclear Iran and a Palestinian state.