Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with US President Barack Obama next week is likely to look less like a rapprochement than a showdown at the OK Corral.
The flurry of spy stories spinning around in recent weeks makes clear that US-Israel relations remain in crisis.
Two weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal published a fairly detailed account of the US’s massive spying operations against Israel between 2010 and 2012.
Their purpose was to prevent Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear installations. The Journal report, which was based on US sources, also detailed the evasion tactics the Obama administration employed to try to hide its covert nuclear talks with Iran from Israel. According to the report, the administration was infuriated that through its spy operations against Iran, Israel discovered the talks and the government asked the White House to tell it what was going on.
Over the past several days, the Israeli media have reported the Israeli side of the US spying story.
Friday Makor Rishon’s military commentator Amir Rapaport detailed how the US assiduously wooed IDF senior brass on the one hand and harassed more junior Israeli security officials on the other hand.
Former IDF chiefs of General Staff Lt.-Gens. Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz were given the red carpet treatment in a bid to convince them to oppose Israeli strikes on Iran’s nuclear installations. More junior officials, including officers posted officially to the US were denied visas and subjected to lengthy interrogations at US embassies and airports in a bid to convince them to divulge information about potential Israeli strikes against Iran.
Sunday, Channel 2 reported that the IDF’s Intelligence Directorate’s information security department just issued guidance to all IDF soldiers and officers warning them about efforts by the CIA to recruit them
as US agents.
These stories have been interpreted in various ways. Regardless of how they are interpreted, what they show is that on the one hand, the Obama administration has used US intelligence agencies to weaken Israel’s capacity to harm Iran and to actively protect Iran from Israel. And on the other hand, Israel is wary of the administration’s efforts to weaken it while strengthening its greatest foe.
These stories form the backdrop of next week’s meeting between Netanyahu and Obama – the first they will have held in more than a year. They indicate that Obama remains committed to his policy of weakening Israel and downgrading America’s alliance with the Jewish state while advancing US ties with Iran. Israel, for its part, remains deeply distrustful of the American leader.
This Israeli distrust of Obama’s intentions extends far past Iran. Recent statements by Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have convinced Israel that during his last 15 months in office, Obama intends to abandon US support for Israel at the UN Security Council, and to ratchet up pressure and coercive measures to force Israel to make irreversible concessions to the Palestinians.
From Netanyahu’s perspective, then, the main strategic question is how to prevent Obama from succeeding in his goal of weakening the country.
The implementation of Obama’s deal with Iran deal will form a central plank of whatever strategy the government adopts.
As far as Obama and his allies see things, the nuclear accord with Iran is a done deal. On October 21, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi hosted a reception for Democratic congressmen attended by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to celebrate its official adoption.
Unfortunately for Pelosi and her colleagues, Iran is a far more formidable obstacle to implementing the deal than congressional Republicans. As Yigal Carmon, president of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), explained in a report published on his organization’s website last week, at no point has any Iranian governing body approved the nuclear deal. Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, and its Guardians’ Council have used their discussions of the agreement to highlight their refusal to implement it. More importantly, as Carmon explains, contrary to US media reports, in his October 21 letter to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei did not give his conditional approval to the deal. He rejected it.
Carmon explained that the nine conditions Khamenei placed on his acceptance of the nuclear deal render it null and void. Among other things, Khamenei insisted that all sanctions against Iran must be permanently canceled. Obama couldn’t abide by this condition even if he wanted to because he cannot cancel sanctions laws passed by Congress.
He can only suspend them.
Khamenei also placed new conditions on Iran’s agreement to disable its centrifuges and remove large quantities of enriched uranium from its stockpiles.
He rejected inspections of Iran’s military nuclear installations. He insisted that Iran’s Arak heavy water reactor must remain capable of producing heavy water in contravention of the deal. And he insisted that at the end of the 15-year lifetime of the deal Iran must have sufficient uranium enrichment capability to enable it to develop bombs at will.
As Carmon noted, the US and EU have announced that they will suspend their nuclear sanctions against Iran on December 15 provided that by that date, the UN’s International Atomic Energy Commission certifies that Iran has upheld its part of the bargain.
By that date, in conformance with their interpretation of the nuclear deal, the US and the EU expect for Iran to have reduced the number of centrifuges operating at the Natanz facility from 16,000 to 5,060 and lower enrichment levels to 3.67%; reduce the number of centrifuges at Fordow to a thousand; remove nearly all its advanced centrifuges from use; permit the IAEA to store and seal its dismantled centrifuges; reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium to 300kg.; remove the core from the Arak reactor and disable it; and submit to agreed monitoring mechanisms of its nuclear sites.
Carmon noted that Iran has taken no steps to fulfill any of these conditions.
With Khamenei’s rejection of the nuclear deal and Iran’s refusal to implement it, there are two possible ways the US and the EU can proceed.
First, as Carmon suggests, Obama and the EU may renew nuclear talks with Iran based on Khamenei’s new position. These talks can drag out past Obama’s departure from office. When they inevitably fail, Obama’s successor can be blamed.
The other possibility is that Iran will implement some component of the deal and so allow Obama and the EU to pretend that it is implementing the entire deal. Given the US media’s failure to report that Khamenei rejected the nuclear pact, it is a fair bet that Obama will be able to maintain the fiction that Iran is implementing the deal in good faith until the day he leaves office.
So what is Israel to do? And how can Netanyahu use his meeting with Obama next week to Israel’s advantage? Israel has two policy options going forward. First, it can highlight the fact that Iran is not implementing the deal, just as Israel took the lead in highlighting the dangers of the nuclear accord with Iran over the past year. This policy can potentially force Obama onto the defensive and so make it harder for him to go on the offensive against Israel at the UN and other venues in relation to the Palestinians.
But then, it is far from clear that Obama will be deterred from adopting anti-Israel positions at the UN even if Israel succeeds making an issue of Iranian noncompliance with the nuclear deal.
Moreover, if Netanyahu leads the discussion of the Iran’s bad faith, as he drove the discussion of the nuclear deal itself, he will reinforce the already prevalent false assessment in the US that a nuclear Iran threatens Israel but is not dangerous for the US.
This incorrect assessment has made a lot of Americans believe that by seeking to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Israel is advancing is own interests at America’s expense.
The other policy option is the one that Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon indicated Israel is pursuing in his meeting last week with his counterpart Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. At the Pentagon Ya’alon declared, “The Iran deal is a given. Our disputes are over.”
The downside of this position is that it indicates that Israel accepts the legitimacy of a deal that Iran is not implementing and that would imperil Israel’s national security even if Iran were implementing it.
Its upside is that it takes Israel out of the US debate regarding the nuclear deal. To the extent that opponents of Obama’s Iran policy are willing to lead the fight against the deal themselves, Israel could do worse than to take a step back and plot its own course on Iran, independent of the US policy discussion.
It is hard to know which line of action makes more sense. But as the spy stories demonstrated, one thing is clear enough. Whatever he says before the cameras next week when he meets with Netanyahu, Obama has no intention of letting bygones be bygones.