Israeli officials asked to be silent on issue of U.S.-Iran talks

By The New York Times

JERUSALEM — Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent an e-mail on Monday to its embassies and consulates around the world, sharing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that he had no knowledge about the possibility of bilateral talks between the United States and Iran, and advising others not to speak publicly about the issue.

“We remind that the P.M. asked that all requests for interviews in the matter require his approval,” read the brief e-mail, its last three words underlined for emphasis.

The e-mail was part of a broader effort, including instructions to all government employees who deal with the news media and orders by the prime minister himself to his cabinet that everyone should remain silent on the matter.

Weeks after Mr. Netanyahu struggled to repair a rift with the Obama administration about public comments on the Iranian nuclear threat, the prime minister and his aides were trying to head off any political problems over a report in The New York Times on Sunday saying that Washington and Tehran had agreed in principle to have direct talks after the American presidential election. With President Obama fighting for re-election on Nov. 6 and Mr. Netanyahu starting his own campaign ahead of Jan. 22 balloting, both sides wanted to control the message to avoid further flare-up.

But even the prime minister’s 10 a.m. warning to his cabinet to stay silent had come too late. At least three senior cabinet ministers had already commented in radio interviews on the article. And they had not all said the same thing about whether Israel was aware of the negotiations over whether to have negotiations, or whether it supported the idea.

The Times article has caused plenty of confusion in the United States, where Mr. Obama seemed to contradict himself on the issue during Monday night’s debate with Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger. First Mr. Obama declared of the reports, “They are not true,” but later he told Mr. Romney, “I’m pleased that you are now endorsing our policy of applying pressure and potentially having bilateral discussions with the Iranians.”

On Sunday, the Iranian Foreign Ministry dismissed the Times report. Meanwhile in Jerusalem, officials and spokesmen and spokeswomen struggled to manage their message, knowing that a central issue in the coming campaign would be the Iranian nuclear program, and whether Mr. Netanyahu’s aggressive battle against it had hurt Israel’s precious relationship with Washington.

In the United States, cabinet secretaries and leaders of the president’s party typically speak from the same talking points and, on significant matters, only upon authorization from the White House. That is not the case in Israel’s coalition government, where individual ministers are far freer to express themselves and do so without regard to official policy — at great length, in many forums and in colorful language. It is a truism of Israeli politics that if Mr. Obama wakes up worrying about what his Republican opponents will say about him, Mr. Netanyahu wakes up worried about ministers walking out of a cabinet meeting and diverting from the decision just made.

“I think most people who react don’t know anything and just speak as if they know,” one top Israeli official said of potential talks between Iran and the United States, speaking on the condition of anonymity in light of the prime minister’s order. “I heard from the P.M., not privately but in a group, just in passing, that we have no information about it. The prime minister should know. I think if he says it, it’s true.”

What the prime minister said, according to a statement e-mailed to international journalists at 7:51 p.m. on Sunday, was this: “I have no information about such talks, and I cannot say that they are taking place.” He neither denounced nor embraced the notion, but said more broadly that “Iran is using the negotiations with it to buy time” and that the international community should impose stricter demands on any further talks.

But this followed about 24 hours of confusion.

Around 8 p.m. Israeli time on Saturday, a senior Israeli official, demanding anonymity, told a Times reporter that the Israelis were aware of the effort toward bilateral talks and were open to it, so long as Washington’s demands were clear: Tehran must stop enriching uranium, export its enriched-uranium stockpile and forfeit any effort to weaponize the material. Iran insists that its program is only for civilian use.

Two hours later, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, called the reporter with an official response he said was authorized by a high-ranking person in Jerusalem. The White House had not informed Israel of the agreement with Tehran, he said, and “we do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks.”

Israelis woke up Sunday morning to see the Times article splashed across local news sites, and public officials were in high demand to discuss it.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel Radio that “there is no one in Israel who knew, and we hope this is nothing beyond selling half a duck.” But Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon, who is the head of strategic affairs and is well briefed on Iran, encouraged “any negotiation that will lead to the end of the nuclear program.”

Also on the radio was Silvan Shalom, a leader of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party whose portfolio has nothing to do with foreign affairs but is a frequent commenter on pretty much everything. “The Iranians are trying to buy time,” Mr. Shalom said. “Their desperate efforts to resume the dialogue stem only from the fact that the sanctions are working.” He added, “I do not think that we need to fall into this trap.”

Some who heard Mr. Shalom grew concerned. “Israelis speak even when they’re not in the loop because they don’t want anyone to know whether they’re in the loop or not,” noted one senior official, again on the condition of anonymity because of the prime minister’s demand. “The minister of transportation can talk about it, the minister of agriculture can talk about it, anyone can talk about anything.”

Conveniently, it was a Sunday morning, when Mr. Netanyahu meets at 9:30 with a forum of Likud officials called Sarenu — Hebrew for “our ministers” — and then with the full cabinet.

“He said that everybody who wanted to talk about it should be on the same page with him,” recalled a senior official who was at the session.

Another person who attended said the admonition was neither routine nor rare, especially on Iran but also on other delicate security issues, like Gaza or Egypt.

“Ministers like Yaalon, like Dan Meridor, like Ehud Barak — they know everything,” the official said, naming two deputy prime ministers who deal with Iran, plus the defense minister. “It’s more important for the ministers who are not in the security circle.”

Hours later, Mr. Netanyahu spoke for himself, and his words were widely distributed around the government with the warning — again, something that does not happen every day — not to deviate.

Shortly afterward in Washington, Ambassador Oren posted a link to the prime minister’s statement to international journalists on Twitter.


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