Israeli President Shimon Peres, left, escorts US Secretary of State John Kerry during a visit to Israel on Nov. 6. Kerry also met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. (Getty Images)
JERUSALEM — The Israeli government is girding for confrontation over what officials here fear is a precipitous US-led dash to secure an Iranian nuclear disarmament deal and an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on terms it deems unacceptable.
Officials and experts here said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is prepared to risk renewed tension with Washington by challenging the top two items on President Barack Obama’s diplomatic agenda. Only through strict adherence to maximum demands on Iran and minimalist concessions to Palestinian claims for its future state will Israel be able to control the outcome of incipient agreements, sources here said.
In his September address to the UN General Assembly, Obama cited the Iranian nuclear threat and the Arab-Israeli conflict as “primary diplomatic initiatives” he aimed to pursue during his remaining time in office.
With Obama pressing to conclude parameters for a two-state agreement by May and likely to sign off on an interim deal with Iran much sooner, experts here expect Netanyahu to dig in his heels as his options narrow on both core issues.
Acrimony was already apparent in Netanyahu’s remarks to the press here before and after a final meeting Nov. 8 with visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry. The top US diplomat was winding up the latest round of intense Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy before heading to Geneva to facilitate a potential breakthrough first phase disarmament deal with Iran.
Unlike their joint press availability two days earlier, Netanyahu spoke alone and with anger over reports that the six world powers were on the verge of conceding temporary sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for a partial slowdown of its nuclear weapon program.
“I understand the Iranians are walking around very satisfied in Geneva, as well they should be because they got everything and paid nothing,” Netanyahu said.
Insisting that Israel “utterly rejects” what he termed “a bad deal,” Netanyahu warned that Israel “would do everything it needs to do to defend itself.”
Netanyahu said the same holds true with the Palestinians, who he said “refused to budge,” despite Kerry’s efforts of the previous days. “I will never compromise on Israel’s security… not in the face of any international pressure.”
Already, key figures in his own Likud Party are joining coalition government hardliners in calls to abandon Palestinian peace talks pending firm action by Washington to dispatch with the Iranian nuclear threat.
“If I could speak to President Obama today, I’d tell him, ‘Let’s change the calendar,’” Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon told reporters here. “In May 2014 — in just six months — he wants to finish negotiations with the Palestinians. That’s wishful thinking; unrealistic. I say let’s finish the Iranian threat issue by May 2014 and then go with the Palestinians to the negotiating table.”
As chairman of the Likud Central Committee, Danon said he reflects majority thinking in the coalition government and the public at large in disputing Obama’s high-priority focus on a two-state peace deal.
“When Obama says the two biggest issues are Iran and Palestine-Israeli peace, I object. You can’t put those two issues in the same place,” Danon said.
When asked if the constituency he represents trusts Obama’s repeated pledges to use all means — including military force, if necessary — to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, Danon told Defense News: “We’ve heard his commitment about this threat, but we have to look at the results… There’s a big gap between declarations and actions.”
Distrust, Dismantle and Verify
As the six large powers and Iran convened Nov. 6 in Geneva for the second round of so-called P5+1 talks, Netanyahu reiterated demands for a complete halt of uranium enrichment, removal of all enriched materials and a shutdown of key infrastructure prior to easing sanctions against Tehran.
Speaking here Nov. 5 alongside a visibly uncomfortable Kerry, Netanyahu said: “We’ve spoken about it a million times, and I believe that as long as they continue their goal to enrich uranium, to get nuclear weapons, the pressure should be maintained and even increased.”
Kerry insisted that negotiations aim to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only with “no capacity to produce a weapon of mass destruction.”
But despite Kerry’s insistence that Washington would not make “a bad deal,” experts say Netanyahu is increasingly anxious about prospects for rewarding Iran with sanctions relief without stripping away its ability to reconstitute its nuclear program later.
“The worse the deal, the greater the chance Israel will have to act unilaterally,” said Ephraim Inbar, director of Bar Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
In a Nov. 7 interview, Inbar noted that Netanyahu has resisted strident calls within his own constituency for the sake of demonstrating flexibility and goodwill in ongoing peace talks. “He freed terrorists precisely in order to minimize tensions with the Americans ... whom he’s counting on to maintain a firm, united front against the real strategic issue of Iran.”
Indication of the growing bilateral divide over Palestine peace talks was evident during Kerry’s Nov. 6-7 visit here, when Netanyahu blamed Ramallah for creating “an artificial crisis” over Israeli plans to build thousands of new homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
In a Nov. 6 meeting with Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Kerry reiterated Washington’s long-held view that Israeli settlements in heavily populated areas of the West Bank were “illegitimate.” He repeatedly called for “good faith” and a “serious effort” by both sides.
Clearly frustrated after two days of intensive shuttle diplomacy in his seventh trip to the region, Kerry warned that failure to reach an accord could provoke a third intifada, or uprising, and leave Israel increasingly isolated.
“If we do not find a way to find peace, there will be an increasing isolation of Israel, there will be an increasing campaign of delegitimization of Israel that’s been taking place [internationally],” Kerry told Israel’s Channel 2 and the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation in a joint interview from Amman, Jordan. “The alternative to getting back to the talks is the potential of chaos. ... I mean, does Israel want a third intifada?”
Tzipi Livni, the Israeli justice minister leading negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, has been trying to convince government hardliners that legitimacy is as critical to Israel’s national security as military might.
“Delegitimization of Israel impedes our ability to act against our enemies. ... We don’t want to be an isolated island,” Livni said.
Livni said that Palestinian peace “is not something that’s just nice to have or something the left wing in Israel wants.... It’s an important component of national security.”