Bibi Throws Down a Tough Choice for Obama

It’s either an Iranian deal or a Palestinian deal, he seems to be telling the president, but not both.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Hassan Rouhani
National Journal
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Michael Hirsh
Nov. 17, 2013, 4 p.m.

The prob­lem is not so much that Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu and Barack Obama don’t like each oth­er. The prob­lem is they don’t trust each oth­er. Which ex­plains the Is­raeli prime min­is­ter’s ful­min­a­tions last week in blast­ing, from afar, a tem­por­ary deal be­ing ne­go­ti­ated in Geneva that would have frozen Ir­an’s urani­um-en­rich­ment pro­gram. But if Net­an­yahu ex­acts re­venge, it may not be on the Ir­a­ni­ans. It may well be on the Palestini­ans.

Ever since he first met then-can­did­ate Obama in mid-2008, Net­an­yahu has lumped the Ir­an and Palestini­an is­sues to­geth­er and in­sisted they be solved se­quen­tially — Ir­an first, peace and state­hood second. “If Ir­an be­came nuc­le­ar it would mean the vic­tory of the mil­it­ants in Hamas and Hezbol­lah and un­der­cut the mod­er­ates,” Uzi Arad, Net­an­yahu’s then-na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser, ex­plained in an in­ter­view at the time. So now Net­an­yahu, in his um­brage, has an ex­cuse to put off the is­sue of Palestini­an state­hood yet again — and, frankly, the Is­raeli-Palestini­an talks are go­ing so poorly that not too many Is­rael­is would blame him.

The hard-line Net­an­yahu, son of an ul­tra-right­ist schol­ar who brooked no rap­proche­ment with Ar­abs and be­lieved that Jew­ish his­tory was simply one holo­caust after an­oth­er, has rarely seen a ne­go­ti­ation he likes, wheth­er on Ir­an or Palestine. (Former top U.S. peace ne­go­ti­at­or Den­nis Ross called him “in­suf­fer­able” dur­ing Net­an­yahu’s first ten­ure as PM in the 1990s.) And yet for all Is­rael­is, the is­sue of trust is a very real one. Do they really be­lieve Obama’s “got their back” against Ir­an — in oth­er words, will he en­sure that Tehran nev­er gets a bomb — as the pres­id­ent pledged in 2012? Or will they, in the end, de­cide they have to take ac­tion against the Ir­a­ni­an nuc­le­ar pro­gram them­selves, ne­go­ti­ations or no?

It didn’t help to in­spire trust last week when French For­eign Min­is­ter Laurent Fabi­us — one of Bibi’s new bud­dies — pub­licly slammed the nuc­le­ar deal as a “suck­er’s bet” al­most as soon as he ar­rived in Geneva, em­bar­rass­ing Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry and en­ra­ging the chief Ir­a­ni­an ne­go­ti­at­or, For­eign Min­is­ter Mo­hammad Javad Za­rif.

Some of this was pos­tur­ing. Par­is gets piqued when it’s not fully con­sul­ted on ma­jor Middle East is­sues, es­pe­cially since it has taken a mus­cu­lar lead in ad­dress­ing re­cent flash points from Libya to Mali. And French Pres­id­ent François Hol­lande is still fum­ing over the way Obama sud­denly spurned mil­it­ary ac­tion against Syr­ia a day after Hol­lande en­dorsed it, mak­ing the lat­ter look a little fool­ish at a time when he is already deeply un­pop­u­lar at home. Gal­lic pride is sorely in need of a patch-up.

Net­an­yahu is do­ing some pos­tur­ing, too. Whatever threats he might make about Is­raeli mil­it­ary ac­tion against Ir­an, he knows that’s not go­ing to hap­pen in the middle of these ne­go­ti­ations. Nor is it likely to hap­pen any time soon: His mar­tial bluster can’t hide the fact that most of Is­rael’s de­fense/in­tel­li­gence ap­par­at­us is res­ist­ing a strike — be­cause an at­tack could, in the end, achieve the pre­cise op­pos­ite of what Is­rael needs. It might dam­age Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar fa­cil­it­ies only par­tially, mar­gin­al­ize the mod­er­ates in Tehran, and send Ir­an ra­cing even faster to­ward a bomb, many Is­raeli of­fi­cials fear.

And yet the trust is­sue is not go­ing to go away. Most signs point to­ward some kind of tem­por­ary pact between the West and Ir­an, es­pe­cially since Obama and Hol­lande spoke by phone Wed­nes­day. But the Is­rael­is fret that as more time passes in ne­go­ti­ations, not only does Ir­an get closer to in­dus­tri­al ca­pa­city to pro­duce a bomb, but Is­rael’s re­tali­at­ory op­tions weak­en as well. The Is­raeli mil­it­ary may not have the bunker-busters and oth­er fire­power ne­ces­sary to take out deeply bur­ied en­rich­ment fa­cil­it­ies such as For­dow, near the city of Qom, once they be­come fully op­er­a­tion­al. Thus, what Is­rael wants from Ir­an is something close to total sur­render of its nuc­le­ar fa­cil­it­ies be­fore any­one dis­cusses eas­ing sanc­tions at all.

Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials say the only sanc­tions re­lief they are dis­cuss­ing in ex­change for a freeze is tem­por­ary and can be turned on and off like a “spig­ot,” in the words of Deputy Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Ben Rhodes, at the pleas­ure of the U.S. gov­ern­ment if Tehran doesn’t halt all nuc­le­ar-weapons work. But of­fi­cials around Net­an­yahu sus­pect that Obama and Kerry are both a little too eager for a deal that in the end will still al­low Tehran to slip quietly to­ward nuc­le­ar cap­ab­il­ity — a sus­pi­cion high­lighted when Fabi­us in­sisted that con­struc­tion of the heavy-wa­ter re­act­or at Arak be in­cluded in the six-month freeze agree­ment.

All of which brings us back to the Palestini­ans. Kerry badly wants to push peace talks, know­ing they are a cru­cial part of the sta­bil­ity equa­tion in the un­rav­el­ing Middle East. And just be­cause Net­an­yahu is mostly blus­ter­ing on Ir­an (al­though he has some power­ful en­emies on Cap­it­ol Hill who are threat­en­ing to add new sanc­tions), the Is­raeli knows he has some real lever­age. Net­an­yahu claimed to have been taken by sur­prise Tues­day when his hous­ing min­istry sud­denly an­nounced plans for an­oth­er 20,000 units in West Bank set­tle­ments, prompt­ing Palestini­an ne­go­ti­at­ors to threaten a walkout. But the move was all too re­min­is­cent of oth­er such cal­cu­lated re­buffs, like the time the Is­raeli in­teri­or min­istry an­nounced con­struc­tion of an ad­di­tion­al 1,600 apart­ments in East Jer­u­s­alem in 2010 — in the middle of a vis­it by Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden.

Non­ethe­less, Net­an­yahu is play­ing a dan­ger­ous game, gambling with both Is­rael’s fu­ture and his own repu­ta­tion. In­deed, the chief vic­tim of the prime min­is­ter’s ef­forts to shoot down Palestini­an talks could well be his own foot. Put­ting off a two-state solu­tion, however sat­is­fy­ing to hawks, could still someday turn Is­rael in­to a Middle East ver­sion of an apartheid na­tion, and pos­sibly even des­troy the Jew­ish nature of the state. The Ir­a­ni­ans are hardly the only ex­ist­en­tial threat.