There were no surprises when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama met at the Oval Office on Wednesday.
Beyond the niceties and the public statements, the huge, almost unbridgeable differences between the two leaders were evident for all to see, in particular on two key issues: negotiations – or rather their absence – with the Palestinian Authority; and how to deal with Iran and its nuclear program.
From Netanyahu’s point of view, the US president made all the wrong calls.
On the Palestinian front, Obama said the US was “deeply concerned about the situation in Gaza... I think we also recognize that we have to find ways to change the status quo so that both Israeli citizens are safe in their own homes and schoolchildren in their schools from the possibility of rocket fire, but also that we don’t have the tragedy of Palestinian children being killed as well.”
In respect to Iran’s nuclear program, Obama, to Netanyahu’s chagrin, highlighted the “progress being made.”
Netanyahu, for his part, paid lip service to the two-state solution, and hurriedly moved to point out Israeli concerns about the US and the West’s dealings with Iran.
In his conversation with Obama, the prime minister repeated the warnings he delivered earlier this week in his speech to the UN General Assembly.
Israel has warned that Iran’s secret project to build nuclear bombs must be stopped; Netanyahu is especially worried the US will soften its position and sacrifice Iran’s nuclear program on the altar of fighting Islamic State. In his public speech, Netanyahu said that defeating the terror group – while at the same time, letting Tehran continue with its nuclear weapons program – would be “winning a battle, but losing the war.”
Amid the struggle against Islamic State, there are increasing indications that the US and the Western powers are willing to relax their position regarding Iran’s nuclear program. This impression became that much stronger following reports that Washington coordinated with Tehran on its recent aerial assaults on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Jerusalem is thus increasingly concerned about the warming ties between Iran and the US. It is very troubled by the offers made to Iran in negotiations over its nuclear program – which Iran has rejected as unsatisfactory – in that they demonstrate the world powers’ willingness to accept the Islamic Republic as a “threshold nuclear power,” just a screw’s-turn away from possessing a nuclear bomb.
This anxiety was apparent more than a week ago when Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz published classified information – surely with the approval of Netanyahu and his intelligence chiefs.
Steinitz revealed that Iran has used its Parchin military base for secret tests of technology that could be only be used for a chain reaction to detonate a nuclear weapon. In recent years, Iran has stubbornly blocked the access of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to Parchin. At the same time, satellite imagery obtained by a US think tank has clearly shown that Iran was deeply involved in a massive cleanup of some areas of the base – including removing and changing soil to conceal any traces of nuclear materials.
Steinitz and Netanyahu are hoping to influence the world powers, in the nuclear talks that resume next week, to delay the signing of an agreement with Iran that would leave Tehran with significant capabilities to enrich uranium.
The negotiations with these P5+1 world powers – the US, France, Britain, Russia, Germany and China – are supposed to end with a permanent agreement in around two months. Over the last weeks, senior officials in the Obama administration leaked some ideas that could form the basis of an agreement with Iran.
One idea is that Iranian centrifuges will not be dismantled but will rather be disconnected from the system that fuels and connects them. Another idea under consideration is to allow Iran to keep some 5,000 centrifuges, which would put Tehran in a good position to enrich high-level weapons-grade uranium in the future if it chose to do so.
These offers have infuriated Jerusalem. Israel’s position is that in any agreement, Iran would have to dismantle all its centrifuges or only be able to keep around 1,000, which would prevent it from enriching uranium to a high level.
The latest developments in the Middle East have hardened Iran’s bargaining position in the nuclear talks. On one hand, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his associates are interested in a permanent agreement on the nuclear issue that will remove the painful sanctions still crippling their economy.
On the other hand, as the master of “bazaar-style” negotiating, Iran’s leaders sense they can reach a better deal by standing firm. Iran feels the West wants to see it as a de facto partner in the coalition that is forming against Islamic State. Even the accomplishments of the Shi’ites in Yemen, who control large parts of the capital, Sanaa, encourage the Iranians and give them hope that regional events and time are in their favor.
Iran could still miscalculate – but Netanyahu doesn’t want to count on it. For him, relations between Iran and Israel are a zero-sum game. Any Iranian achievements – even minor – and any Western concessions to Iran are a loss for Israel.
More than five years ago, when he was elected prime minister for the second time, Netanyahu was advised by commentators and some in the intelligence and security establishment to adopt a twofold complimentary policy.
To make concessions in the peace front with the Palestinians would have gained him the support of the US, the Arab world and probably most of the world’s nations, and as a reward Israel would have been allowed to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites.
Netanyahu ignored the advice and did neither. Now, he and Israel are facing the consequences.
In regard to the Palestinian question, Israel is isolated more than ever.
In respect to Tehran, it doesn’t have a viable, doable and believable military option – while the chances for an international deal that leave Iran as a threshold nuclear state are growing.
Yossi Melman blogs at www.Israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman