Israeli Intransigence

12.05.13

Blame America First—And Only

The day before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Oct. 1 address to the U.N. General Assembly, the Israeli leader travelled to Washington for a meeting with Pres. Barack Obama. Like the speech, the subject of the meeting was Iran and, according to recent reports, Obama told Netanyahu about back-channel contacts between his government and the Iranians. The next afternoon, Netanyahu excoriated the newly inaugurated Iranian moderate Hassan Rouhani in his speech: "Rouhani is a wolf in sheep's clothing, a wolf who thinks he can pull the eyes"—Netanyahu stumbled over the words—"the wool over the eyes of the international community."

One can't help but assume Netanyahu thought Obama among those international dupes. Indeed, the speech marked the opening salvo of an Israeli public campaign to influence a potential deal, but at times appearing aimed at scuttling it. Israeli officials have attacked diplomacy, the eventual deal having been struck, and even U.S. diplomats conducting talks (though the latter only when cloaked in anonymity).

Throughout the diplomatic wrangling and, eventually, after the agreement was struck in Geneva, Washington pro-Israel figures ranging from think tankers to pundits to members of Congress reminded the public and the administration that Israel must have its concerns addressed. Noting the public rift, some took to influential D.C. outlets to press their case. Two such figures from a pro-Israel think-tank, Robert Satloff and Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute, stressed "repairing the torn fabric of U.S.-Israel relations," and urged that the Obama administration must "reassure [Israel] that it understands these reservations and takes them seriously."

Taking Israel seriously would be easier if all of Israel's objections could be taken seriously. Unfortunately, however, Israel's public attacks on diplomacy with Iran have been sometimes detached from reality, and at other times completely unhinged. Israel's friends in Washington would do well to acknowledge that Israel, too, bears blame for deteriorating relations between the two stalwart allies. Incessant overreactions to each successive step of diplomacy have not helped, and the Jewish state—and its grassroots stateside supporters—should be made frankly aware of it (Satloff did note Netanyahu's mixed signals on the urgency of the Iranian nuclear issue).

Netanyahu's confrontational approach toward diplomacy between Iran and world powers—collectively the P5+1, constituted by the U.S., the United Kingdom, China, Russia, France and Germany—might be best embodied by his point man on Iran, Israeli minister of intelligence and international affairs Yuval Steinitz.

Before the latest round of diplomacy even got underway, Steinitz dismissed it: "There is no more time to hold negotiations" with Iran, he told the right-wing Israeli daily Israel Hayom on Sept. 20. The New York Times described this and Netanyahu's dismissal of Iranian intentions to negotiate as the onset of a "sustained campaign by Israel to head off any deal."

Then, hours before U.S. and Iranian foreign ministers met at the U.N. in September to re-open moribund diplomacy, Steinitz told the Wall Street Journal, "We don't want to cheat ourselves. Some people may be willing to be cheated." The day after talks got underway in Geneva in October, he told an Israeli parliamentary committee, "We’re worried Geneva 2013 will end up like Munich 1938"—referring to the deal brokered with the British that allowed Nazi Germany to take control of much of Czechoslovakia and, only for a short while, averted war.

Steinitz also led what one mainstream outlet called an "information war" against a deal. The Israeli cabinet minister lambasted the potential deal as giving Iran $40 billion in sanctions relief. That estimate was double the $20 billion cited by other Israeli officials as they campaigned against a deal on Capitol Hill, and more than four times the Obama administration's estimates. The number circulated widely and, asked about it in a press briefing, a State Department spokesperson said the figure was "inaccurate, exaggerated, and not based in reality."

The sniping only got worse when Israeli officials spoke anonymously to the press. In the Israeli daily Haaretz, an unnamed cabinet minister lashed out at the top U.S. diplomat, Secretary of State John Kerry. Another report by Israel's Channel 10 in early November, a week after some details of secret Iran talks were revealed, quoted "senior Israeli officials" wrongly asserting that Obama aide Valerie Jarrett had led the secret talks with Iran (The Associated Press and Al Monitor revealed after the Geneva deal that Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns led the U.S. delegation in the secret negotiations).

In late November, the sides in Geneva struck a deal, reportedly based on the document drafted in secret, that froze Iran's nuclear progress in exchange for modest sanctions relief. Israeli denunciations kicked into overdrive. Netanyahu called the agreement a "historic mistake": "This agreement has made the world a much more dangerous place," he said.

The inaccuracies from Israeli officialdom didn't cease either. An official critique from Israel's foreign ministry derided the Geneva deal by asserting the Iranians had made no "real concessions." But in the deal, Iran agreed to "neutralize" its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20-percent purity by processing it into a form unusable in nuclear weapons, among other concrete, verifiable concessions.

Netanyahu had made the 20-percent uranium stockpile a main point of his infamous 2012 U.N. speech, where he drew a literal "red line" on a bomb-shaped chart to represent the point at which Iran would have enriched enough 20-percent uranium for a single weapon.

As ThinkProgress and Harvard's Belfer Center head Graham Allison pointed out, that means the deal Netanyahu's government is saying provided no "real concessions" has actually moved Iran back significantly from the "red line" the Israeli leader laid down in New York a year before.

Perhaps the most callous Israeli response, however, came from economy minister Naftali Bennett. Bennett took to his Facebook page the morning after the Geneva deal and wrote, in English: "If a nuclear suitcase blows up five years from now in New York or Madrid, it will be because of the deal that was signed this morning." Israel may be accustomed to its leaders' apocalyptic warnings, but New Yorkers don't much like fantasies of a nuclear attack in their city—let alone one where ultimate blame gets placed on the American government and its partners (It's unclear why Madrid was singled out).

Anthropomorphizing relations between states usually doesn't make much sense, but in this case it does: when a relationship hits a troubled patch, both sides often bear some blame. Complaints that the U.S. didn't coordinate its Iran diplomacy closely enough with the Israelis or address Israel's concerns may well hold water. But, as the above catalogue of Israeli overreactions shows, repairing recent rifts between the two nations will take more than corrective measures from just one side.