Nuclear Palestine

09.10.13

A Very Israeli Linkage: Iran's Bomb and Peace With the Palestinians

The last 10 months have seen a slow yet evident sunset of Israeli threats regarding Iran's nuclear program. The watershed moment was —somewhat unexpectedly—Prime Minister's Netanyahu's United Nations speech, when he drew Israel's red line (literally) on Iran's uranium enrichment program. 

That speech came after months of speculation in the international and Israeli media on the probability and potential effect of Israel exercising a military option against Iran.  In his speech Netanyahu's red line referred  the 20 percent of uranium held by  Iran. The Iranians are still—by virtue of this red line or because of other reasons—careful not to cross that threshold. They have been continuously converting some of their high grade material to nuclear fuel rods, thus substantially slowing down the growth of their stockpiles

Meanwhile, the credibility of the Israeli military threat has been eroded by a series of off-and-on-the-record quotes, originating both in Israel and the U.S., questioning the Israeli army's ability to carry out a successful and effective strike. Both Israel and Iran held elections, threats from all sides have been diluted and the situation seems relatively (a crucial word in the Middle East) stable.

This quiet is misleading, argue Israeli decision makers. For one thing, Netanyahu decided to pursue an aggressive line against Iran's new President, describing Rouhani as a "wolf in sheep's clothing." Jerusalem is extremely worried that the international community will adopt a forgiving stance towards the reformist-styled President, and Netanyahu is perennially quick to hoist the banner  of alarm. 

But the issues at hand are much more practical. In 2012, a high ranking Israeli decision maker who actually supported a strike  remarked that "the only difference between me and the chief of staff (of the Israeli army) or the head of the Mossad (both opposed Israel going it alone) are the dates. They say 2014 and I say 2012." (he spoke, naturally, off the record). With 2014 rapidly approaching, Israeli officials say a decision is possible. At the same time, it is wise to respond cautiously to these deadlines; they have become a sort of folklore for Israeli insiders ("oh, I remember when they said 2005 was the year of decision, then 2007, 2008).

But some factors lend credibility to the assertion that 2014 is a crucial year. Some of them are political and quite obvious—the frustration from the ongoing stalemate, Rouhani's rise to power, increased pressure on Iran's economy. Yet the essence lies  with the technicalities of Iran's nuclear program. By the summer of 2014, the heavy water Arak reactor is scheduled to become active. The reactor has the potential to produce weapons grade plutonium. Any strike after the reactor turns "hot" might result in substantial radiation pollution, which is why  the general assessment in Israel is that the reactor's activation must be prevented.  Some put it bluntly: they say that if Arak starts working, Iran's bomb is inevitable. 

But it is not only Arak. The increased numbers of uranium enriching centrifuges means Iran could theoretically "breakout" a bomb at an unprecedentedly rapid pace. According to the most recent IAEA report, thousands could soon become operational .  When the world  learn s about this breakout, it will be too late. 

The ISIS's David Albright labels this possibility "critical capability," meaning "technical capability to produce sufficient weapon-grade uranium from its safeguarded stocks of low enriched uranium for a nuclear explosive, without being detected".  Regarding this scenario, Ehud Barak, Israel's former defense minister, said in private conversations that it was "too early (to strike, N.E), too early, and then it's too late." 

The Spring 2014 will likely be important not only because of Iran. The nine month timeline for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is supposed to lead to a final statues agreement in March-April 2014.  Very few insiders, at least in the Middle East, believe that an agreement will reached by this deadline. But  most  agree that a general direction will be apparent by then. In a rare case of mutual agreement, both the Palestinian and Israeli sides are highly skeptical. 

So the two big issues, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran's nuclear program, are coming to a joint juncture  in the spring of 2014. And here comes the linkage theory, which is very popular these days in Israel.  The theory is that the Israeli-Palestinian process will be directly linked, in the policies of Israeli and American decision makers, to Iran's nuclear program. 

According to the theory there is  a tradeoff:  the Israelis will advance to a final status agreement, one that includes dramatic compromise, if the Americans  lead an international solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis – by any means. 

An Israeli minister argued, off the record, that "What Jerusalem understands is that it needs to show good faith, real good faith, in order for the Americans to have leverage to act, if needed, on Iran". He went even further: "if someone thinks that we will reach a historical deal for the formation of another state between the sea and the Jordan River while knowing that Iran has just become nuclear – well, his mistaken." He meant that Iran's achieving nuclear capability is likely to result with growing influence, which already extends somewhat to Gaza and the West Bank. Alon Ben David, senior military correspondent for Channel 10, wrote recently for Haaretz newspaper: "the choice for Netanyahu will be cruel: Either give up precious parts of the Land of Israel or remain alone against what he sees as a threat of destruction."

It seems unlikely that the Obama administration will frame the argument in these terms. The U.S. president's commitment to preventing Iran from achieving military nuclear capability cannot be publicly linked to or conditioned by the peace process with the Palestinians. But arguably, if Israel advances to a final-status agreement, the possibility of assembling an international coalition against Iran increases. An agreement will also sharpen the divide between the moderates in the region and the axis of Syria-Iran-Hezbollah. A historic settlement will grant Netanyahu prestige and widen Israeli leverage for a possible preemptive strike. Its hard to imagine Israelis supporting a historic and painful agreement with the Palestinians and discovering, the same spring, that the Iranian bomb is inevitable. This is the stuff of nightmares for an Israeli prime minister. 

The whole argument seems a notch too neat for international politics. The negotiations with the Palestinians are not really expected to mature by the spring of 2014, and Israel's decision on Iran would probably come before any breakthrough with them. But creating a linkage provides Netanyahu with a very potent argument for a peace deal: a compromise not only for the end of the conflict but also to ensure a lasting strategic security. That's a powerful pitch if the prime minister wants convince Israelis to vote for his peace deal.  Linkage or no linkage, the question of Netanyahu's intentions remains.