The most generous interpretation of a “senior US official’s” now-infamous smear of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is that the speaker was caught in a fit of pique.
After all, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg lists many of the less-than-flattering things that high-ranking Obama staffers have called Netanyahu over the years: “recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse.” None are complimentary, but none have the same bluntly insulting power of “chickens—.”
If the quote itself is a gaffe, it’s nevertheless consistent with what the US administration must recognise as a looming foreign policy challenge, perhaps one of the greatest of Obama’s presidency.
The administration is trying to finalise a nuclear deal with Iran that it knows the Israeli government is not going to like. The quotes in Goldberg’s article could be a part of an effort to portray the Israelis as recalcitrant, unappreciative, or needlessly belligerent, in full knowledge of the rupture in relations — and political controversy inside the United States — that will come with the Iran deal Obama’s team currently envisions.
Interestingly, Goldberg’s article came just a few days after one of the administration’s top Iran negotiators laid out the goals and parameters of this eventual deal. On October 23, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman addressed a forum on the Iran nuclear negotiations at the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington. The administration must have known that the Israelis could not have liked what they heard.
Sherman conceded that the negotiating process has been difficult, and promised that Tehran would never be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon. But she explained that the current negotiations have a more technical and more limited objective than that: “Our goal now is to develop a durable and comprehensive arrangement that will effectively block all of Iran’s potential paths to fissile material for a nuclear weapon,” she said. “Such an arrangement would bar Iran from producing fuel for a weapon with either uranium or plutonium.”
So even under a final agreement, Iran would retain enrichment capabilities — note the “for a nuclear weapon” modifier. It might even be able to continue research on advanced centrifuges or keep the infrastructure needed to enrich uranium to weapons-grade. It might even be allowed to enrich to weapons-grade, so long as its stockpiled remain below the 1000 or so kilograms of uranium needed for a warhead.
This vision of success is exactly what Netanyahu means when he warns of a deal that leaves Iran as a “threshold nuclear power,” as he did during his speech before the UN General Assembly in September.
But this isn’t the only potential source of Israeli anxiety from Sherman’s CSIS address. She said the US and the Iranians “have made impressive progress on issues that originally seemed intractable,” and suggested that remaining points of contention were of the trivial and even slightly generic variety, at least in light of the overall trend towards an agreement: “Like any complicated and technically complex diplomatic initiative, this is a puzzle with many interlocking pieces,” said Sherman.
And perhaps most alarmingly from an Israeli perspective, Sherman described this drift towards closer US-Iranian relations as an unvarnished good for the Middle East and the planet at large
“The world is clearly better off now than it would have been if the leaders on both sides had ignored this opening,” she said of the negotiating process. “With all that is going on in the Middle East today, an Iranian nuclear program that was not frozen but instead rushing full speed ahead toward larger stockpiles, more uranium enrichment capacity, the production of weapons-grade plutonium, and less transparency would hardly have been a stabilizing factor.”
The Israelis do not see it that way. They view the current Iran negotiating process, and the rebalancing of regional power that it represents, as one aspect of a larger and deeply worrying whole.
The Israelis do not want to see a deal that they think will empower Iran, which is a leading patron for Hamas and Hezbollah, two regional terrorist groups committed to Israel’s destruction. The Israelis are already juggling terrorism in the Sinai, the political and diplomatic aftermath of this summer’s Gaza flare-up, the civil war in Syria, the creation of a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas, ominous incidents on the border with Lebanon, and ongoing unrest in Jerusalem.
The re-orientation of American policy towards Tehran is be a troubling added variable, highlighted by statements made by officials to the Wall Street Journal.
Officials “said the intensive negotiations the U.S. has pursued with Iran since last year on the nuclear issue could help stabilise the Mideast and have improved understanding,” WSJ reports.
Furthermore, Sherman’s speech shows that US officials believe they’re close to a deal that the Israelis will find deeply unpalatable.
The whisper campaign in Goldberg’s article could be part of an effort to soften US public opinion for an upcoming and far more public crisis in relations between the two allies. Or it could be a reflection of behind-the-scenes dynamics — evidence that the Obama administration’s attempts to reassure the Israelis in private haven’t bore fruit.
It could also be the residue of a growing spat between the US and Israel over the parameters of a final deal — the full ugliness of which only became public yesterday.
Speculation aside, there was one very clear message in Goldberg’s article that Netanyahu probably heard loud and clear.
“It’s too late for him to do anything,” one of Goldberg’s anonymous official said of the possibility of Netanyahu launching an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”
Inevitably, Israel is going to have to live with whatever deal Washington signs with Tehran — regardless of what it looks like. And Obama will have to deal with the political fallout of Israeli’s disappointments and even anger over a final deal — regardless of what form that damage control will have to take.
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