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Israel Reacts With Alarm At What Its Leadership Sees As A Bad Deal

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media after meeting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

The common view from here, in Jerusalem, reflects a combination of short-term relief over the French resolve, and a very deep concern over the new and potentially dramatic rift with the U.S. administration that unfolded in the last 24 hours.

Reports from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's last meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the airport, as the latter was leaving Israel on Friday, describe a very tense and almost irate Netanyahu. The Prime Minister's statements and body language in the past two days give the strong impression that he feels the United States has not stood up to its earlier commitments to him.

The Israelis claim that U.S. officials had previously briefed them on an outline of a deal which they, the Israelis, didn't like, but which they could have lived with – despite Netanyahu’s recent rhetoric. However, the Israelis claim that the terms that emerged in Geneva were far worse then previously outlined. So much so that when Kerry, after the tense meeting with Netanyahu, requested that the statements to the press be cancelled, Netanyahu simply marched over to the press to declare that Israel did not see itself bound to the agreement that was emerging. A subsequent phone call by President Barack Obama did not seem to calm Netanyahu's fears.

Israeli Objections To The Deal

On substance, the Israelis, like the French, appear very concerned about the provisions of the interim deal that: (a) permitted Tehran to continue some uranium enrichment; (b) allowed Iran to continue building the heavy water reactor in Arak (with only an Iranian commitment not to activate it), which would preserve the Iranian short-cut to nuclear capabilities via a plutonium — rather than uranium — track; and, most notably, (c) provided Tehran with incentives that the Israelis see as the beginning of the dismantling of the sanctions regime. Israel’s concern is that the proposed sanctions relief will not, in practice, be reversible, while the Iranian commitments could be easily reversed (and in the case of Arak will not even be halted).

Netanyahu himself publicly declared the potential deal as a "historic error." He similarly said that the Iranians were justifiably delighted, since they had achieved the "deal of the century." Even if the United States had not meant to go this far, discussions today in Israel suggest, the Americans have been over-eager to reach a deal and had allowed the terms to erode significantly. Rather than Iran feeling pressured to close a diplomatic deal in light of the biting sanctions, Netanyahu believes the West has been pressured into a bad deal. This plays into a common narrative in the region of a U.S. administration eager to find any diplomatic way out of a confrontation, which the Syrian chemical weapons confrontation supposedly exemplified.

Netanyahu's maximalist rhetoric risks severe backlash, but the Israeli surprise over the extent of the sanctions relief (and the terms regarding Arak) is genuine, and may have some merit. In Israel at present the perception that the outlined deal is a bad one has been sold very strongly. It is certainly Netanyahu's genuine belief, but it also represents a coordinated messaging. Minister for Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz, an associate of Netanyahu, has joined the messaging effort as has Likud Member of Knesset Tzachi Hanegbi. Speaking on Israeli Radio Reshet Bet this morning, Hanegbi contrasted the U.S. perspective on Iran to that of Israel.

The United States, he said, has lived through a Cold War, with thousands of nuclear-armed missiles aimed at its cities, and naturally it is less concerned about Iran. Small and vulnerable Israel on the other hand (especially under the leadership of Netanyahu,) views Iran as an existential threat. Still, Hanegbi pointed out that both the United States and Israel share a common strategic objective: preventing a nuclear Iran. Both he and opposition MK Shaul Mofaz recommended a less vocal Israeli opposition, focused more on quiet consultation with the United States.

Press reports suggest that Israel has in fact been very active behind the scenes in consultations with the Western powers, including the French. I am certainly not a France expert, but I find it remarkable that a socialist government in France presents itself as Israel's last defense here. I'm sure none in the U.S. government are amused.

Implications for U.S.-Israeli Relations And The Peace Process

Netanyahu now finds himself in a very difficult position. The close trust with the United States on this issue appears to be damaged, though I imagine tempers will cool soon. Israel risks appearing as the spoiler, rather than Iran. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius even spoke about the need to take into account the concerns of Israel and of Arab neighbors of Iran (code for Saudi Arabia.) This appearance risks making the issue an "Israeli" issue, rather an international one, something that makes the Israelis very wary.

Worse, the international coalition may now fracture, which could seriously endanger the sanctions regime. And if Israel were to act militarily, it could now hardly expect the international coalition to remain intact for the day after an attack, when sanctions and pressure would be more needed than ever.

For Netanyahu, the Geneva talks apparently convince him that the Iranians have simply played the United States. If not for the French resolve, there may already have been a relief of sanctions, and, he thinks, little chance of their full resumption if the long-term negotiations break down. Netanyahu and his allies, such as Yuval Steinitz, are barely mincing words of disappointment with the United States.

Netanyahu may even feel now that the trust he placed in the Obama administration's commitment to prevention of a nuclear Iran was misplaced and that he may have waited too long to act, forfeiting Israel's ability to act militarily on its own. Now he seems almost panicked by the U.S. positions.

What Netanyahu seems to miss, of course, is the cost of his apparent maximalist positions and the real danger that Iran no longer seems like the bad guy. If Iran is indeed playing a calculated charm game, as Netanyahu keeps warning, he seems to have played right into their hand by wholeheartedly assuming the charmless role Iran assigned to him.

On the potential fallout for the Middle East peace process, I worry further that whatever cooperation the United States enjoyed from Netanyahu recently will be weakened. If Netanyahu believes Washington is eager to end the confrontation with Iran, no amount of leeway on the Middle East peace process (within the limited bounds Netanyahu sees for movement there) will suffice to get the Obama administration back on hard-line track. Netanyahu may conclude that he need not play ball on Palestine if he won't get his way on Iran anyway. What was already a process faltering over new settlement construction, has actually taken another blow, I believe.

All in all, it was a bad couple of days for U.S.-Israeli relations and possibly for the Middle East peace process as well. I expect some frantic attempts to patch things up in the lead up to the resumption of the Geneva talks on November 20th. Indeed today Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman arrived in Israel in an attempt to clear the air somewhat. Still, I worry that the Israelis may have painted themselves into a corner, and moreover, may now be convinced that the United States lacks the resolve they hoped it had.