JERUSALEM — The Obama administration set up a choice for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday: allow the United States and other world powers some breathing room to make a good final deal with Iran, or dig in his heels against it.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry lobbied Netanyahu in their first face-to-face meeting since Kerry helped strike an interim deal with Iran last month that Netanyahu has called a dangerous blunder.
Kerry also began the delicate task of swaying Israeli public opinion toward supporting what is intended to be a stronger, long-term agreement to limit the Iranian nuclear program to peaceful medical and energy needs — but likely without meeting Israel’s demand for the complete dismantling of Iran’s ability to enrich uranium.
In brief remarks after the two met for several hours here Thursday morning, Kerry assured Israel that core sanctions against Iran would remain in place during the negotiations.
“The fundamental sanctions regime of oil and banking remains absolutely in place. It is not changed. And we will be stepping up our effort of enforcement through the Treasury Department and through the appropriate agencies of the United States,” Kerry told reporters in Jerusalem.
Kerry wants Netanyahu to back off his ardent public opposition to give the United States and five other world powers time to make a bargain with Iran, which Netanyahu claims is bent on building a nuclear weapon that could be used against Israel. Iran insists that its program is for peaceful energy and medical purposes and that it neither wants nor needs nuclear weapons, which the country’s supreme leader has declared are prohibited by Islam.
“While there certainly is a disagreement over tactics, as we all know, the Israelis had supported an effort to have a comprehensive agreement,” a State Department official traveling with Kerry said.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity to preview Kerry’s discussions.
“We felt a first step was the only viable path forward. We are now negotiating comprehensive steps. So this is what he is hopeful to speak with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his team about,” the official said.
The United States also wants Netanyahu to signal to pro-Israel lawmakers in the United States that he is willing to give the talks a chance. That may be unrealistic, because the congressional drive for more sanctions on Iran could strengthen Israel’s hand in demanding a strong deal. Netanyahu also does not have complete control over powerful pro-Israel activist groups in the United States, which sometimes take a harder line than the Israeli government on security matters.
Kerry and other U.S. officials have made direct appeals to Congress against new sanctions, which the administration claims would violate the terms and spirit of the fragile rapprochement with Iran. Iran signed a six-month agreement to begin curtailing its disputed program in exchange for limited relief from the current set of economic sanctions.
Kerry was also pushing Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to increase momentum that has been flagging five months into a planned nine-month negotiation for a peace settlement.
In his remarks Thursday, Kerry said, “I believe we are making some progress.”
Retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen, tasked by the Obama administration to sketch possible security arrangements for Israel if it withdrew from the occupied West Bank, was presenting partial findings to Netanyahu on Thursday.
“We have said all along that Israel’s security and meeting Israel’s security needs would be of paramount importance in the context of negotiations that cover not only that topic, but a broad range of concerns on both sides,” the State Department official said. “General Allen’s mission essentially is to generate ideas and understanding to sort of — to accomplish that part of the negotiations. “
The peace talks have been conducted mostly in secret, and it is not known whether they have progressed much beyond disputes over what additional protection Israel would need if its soldiers no longer had full control over the West Bank. The negotiations are meant to establish an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
U.S. officials claim that obvious tension with Netanyahu and other security hawks in Israel over the Iran deal has not clouded the separate peace talks with the Palestinians.
“It is a separate discussion,” the U.S. official said. “We’re well aware there have been disagreements, and we’ll have an ongoing robust dialogue on it.”
Netanyahu has come under some criticism at home for his vocal campaign against the interim Iran accord. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert said that Netanyahu “lost his head” by “declaring war on the United States.”
In remarks at a defense institute earlier this week, Olmert accused Netanyahu of antagonizing the White House and trying to do an end run around the Obama administration by directly appealing to Israel’s allies in the U.S. Congress.
“At no stage did we want to do battle with Israel’s number one ally and to incite the Congress against the president,” Olmert said of his own term in office from 2006 to 2009.
The Israeli military and intelligence establishment appears to be of two minds — warning of dangers in allowing Iran to continue its nuclear program, while urging Israel’s leaders to work effectively to strengthen the final deal.
“We must remember that this is only an initial agreement, not a final one. The fact that Iran is on the threshold of nuclear capabilities is not the result of this agreement, but because the Iranians were hard at work on these capabilities for many years and no one has been able to stop them,” said Amos Yadlin, director of the Institute for National Security Studies, speaking earlier this week in Tel Aviv.
At the same time, Yadlin warned that Iran was just “one breakthrough away from the bomb.”
Netanyahu until now has shown that he will continue to criticize — in public, and loudly — what he called a “monumentally bad deal” with Iran.
“In contrast to others, when I see that interests vital to the security of Israel’s citizens are in danger, I will not be silent,” Netanyahu said during a visit to Rome this week.
“It is very easy to be silent. It is very easy to receive a pat on the shoulder from the international community, to bow one’s head, but I am committed to the security of my people,” Netanyahu said.
“And as to the actual threat, we will act against it in time if need be. I would like to dispel any illusions. Iran aspires to attain an atomic bomb. It would thus threaten not only Israel but also Italy, Europe and the entire world,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu repeated his earlier warning that Israel would act alone and would not allow Iran to possess “military nuclear capability.”
“Netanyahu has made quite clear what he thinks about the recent flop. Kerry will try to convince him it’s only temporary and there is a possibility to change the final agreement. But I don’t think Netanyahu will buy that,” said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University.
Inbar agreed with the prime minister’s view that the interim deal was bad for Israel. “Netanyahu simply cannot give in and say this is a wonderful agreement,” he said. “There is no way to improve this agreement. I don’t believe there will be a second agreement. The interim agreement in the Middle East usually ends up being the final agreement. And if there is no new agreement, this agreement will hold.”
Inbar said relations between the two countries had suffered, and he blamed Obama and the White House — not Netanyahu.
A monthly poll carried out by the Israel Democracy Institute in Tel Aviv, one of the most respected surveys in the country, found that 77 percent of Israelis do not believe that the agreement between Iran and the world powers will lead to the end of what Israel suspects is an Iranian nuclear weapons program.
The survey also assessed Israeli opinion on Israel’s relationship with the United States and other potential allies. In response to a question on who is Israel’s greatest ally, 71 percent of Israelis said they believed the United States to be Israel’s most loyal and important ally.
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