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US clarifies position on nuclear-free Middle East

The Obama administration keeps pressuring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept a future agreement with Iran as a fait accompli, while demonstrating its commitment to Israel's security on the nuclear-free Mideast front.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the Opening Meeting of the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) at United Nations headquarters in New York, April 27, 2015.    REUTERS/Mike Segar - RTX1AJ58

An unusual event took place May 23 when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called US Secretary of State John Kerry and warmly thanked him for the role played by the United States in halting the Egyptian initiative of “demilitarizing the Middle East of nuclear weapons,” in the course of the Review Conference for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) held in New York from April 27 to May 22. This conversation represented a timeout and routine-breaking event in the tense reality of almost daily deteriorating bilateral relations between Washington and Jerusalem. Most probably, the Americans — who are not used to hearing Netanyahu say "thank you" — suppressed bitter smiles.

Behind the scenes, a true diplomatic drama is taking place, a drama that has been going on for more than six years now. The seeds were already planted in April 2010 when US President Barack Obama decided to convene on his behalf an international forum to block nuclear armament. Although the Americans promised the Israelis that this summit was not intended for Israel bashing and that the United States would stand guard regarding Israel’s strategic interests on the matter, the also-new Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu decided to boycott the event at the last minute. Instead, he sent Dan Meridor, his minister of intelligence and atomic energy.

This week, Israeli sources who are well-versed in the ins and outs of the Netanyahu-Obama relationship spoke on condition of anonymity with Al-Monitor about the nuclear issue having been an important factor in the credibility crisis that erupted between the two. The sources said that Netanyahu did not trust Obama from that very moment, when it became clear to him that the long-term strategic agreements between Israel and the United States would be at risk during President Obama’s tenure.

This event had an intense and lingering impact. The issue was coordinated by then national security adviser Uzi Arad, who made several work trips to Washington; he began to anchor the secret agreements in clear, explicit correspondences, and even clearer oral agreement. All in all, sources speaking on condition of anonymity said that Arad brought three letters from the US administration to Jerusalem in which all these historic agreements were detailed, and even upgraded.

The problem was that in the 2010 NPT Review Conference, which took place in the United States, an unexpected glitch occurred when the United States lost control of the proceedings for a short time. This allowed Egypt to insert a few sentences regarding Israel’s ostensible nuclear abilities into the summit’s final resolution, while vaguely calling for a conference — to be convened within two years — that would be dedicated to a Middle East free of nuclear weapons. This mishap affected the Netanyahu-Obama relationship the way gasoline affects a campfire, and Netanyahu was now convinced of the suspicions he held all along. He felt that the Americans were secretly conspiring to dismantle Israel of its various capabilities, or at least contribute to the erosion in Israeli nuclear ambiguity.

Even more important: Netanyahu worried that Obama aimed to whittle down the immunity that Israel had enjoyed on the international front in regard to the nuclear issue. Even the presidential letters brought to Netanyahu by Arad were not enough to allay his fears. The credibility crisis between Netanyahu and Obama has remained in place throughout the years with short methodical breaks — mainly surrounding Obama’s visit to Israel on March 2013.

On May 23, the Americans gave its resounding answer to all those who questioned America’s commitment to Israel’s national security and to its agreements with Israel. The Americans delivered the goods, and then some. Together with Britain and Canada, the United States torpedoed Egypt’s attempts — backed up by Russia — to push through a resolution that before the end of March 2016 an international summit would be held for demilitarization of the Middle East from nuclear weapons. The Americans adopted an ironbound position and were able to halt all the Egyptian attempts, since resolutions can only be reached at the conference with an absolute consensus vote.

“It seems to me that, once and for all, the Americans have resolved all the doubts related to this issue that stood between us and them.” Speaking not for attribution, this is what an Israeli security official who dealt in the past with this issue said this week. “Over recent years, several question marks arose regarding the extent of US commitment to go hand in hand with Israel with regard to this sensitive domain. Understandings on this were achieved as far back as the days of President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Golda Meir — understandings that were subsequently upgraded by later administrations. This week, these question marks were conclusively removed,” the source told Al-Monitor. “Even in the current period, in which tensions between Jerusalem and Washington rise on daily, record-breaking levels, it turns out that the Americans don’t blink when it comes to such a supreme strategic interest as this.”

Will this help to dissipate the deep tensions between Netanyahu and Obama? Probably not.

Obama himself continues to create a clear distinction between the various issues: With everything connected to security, he continues to give sweeping support to Israel’s security needs, as expressed in the hefty weapons deal between the sides that was approved in mid-May by Congress. Obama continues to suggest to Israel that it enter the intensive dialogue regarding the US strategic “compensation package” to offset the emerging agreement between the powers and Iran. In this domain, Israel still prefers the wait-and-see method and Netanyahu will not enter direct rapprochement for fear of appearing to give his stamp of approval to the “bad deal” with Iran.

In other spheres, Obama continues his scathing criticism of the Israeli government and its prime minister. This week, the criticism was expressed mainly in an interview given by Obama to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and in the president’s speech in the Adas Israel synagogue in Washington, as part of the "Jewish American Heritage Month." Goldberg has already said, tongue in cheek, that Obama is the “first Jewish president” who — in his outlook and speeches — essentially presents the views of the liberal, tolerant and pragmatic Jew, the kind who would vote in Israel for Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog or others like him. And in Jewish-religious terms, Obama could be considered as closer to the reform and conservative Jewish-religious denominations that have little representation in Israel’s prevailing orthodoxy. In the political-diplomatic sphere, Obama is pro-Israel left-wing lobby J Street, in a world controlled by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and entities that are even more to the right. The president guilelessly stated that despite disagreements with Israel, that does not imply his lack of support for the country.

Before we begin to analyze the president’s strategy, what he hopes to achieve and how he will navigate his policies and future relations (should there be such as thing) with Netanyahu, we should take into account another possibility.

“It could be that this is simply what the president thinks, that this is what he feels and that’s why he behaves [the way he does]. And at this stage of his term of office, he’s sick and tired of putting on acts and playing games, so he simply goes and utters his own inner truth,” a Jewish-American leader, close to both administrations, who keeps close tabs on current events told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

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