Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Isn’t Iran the enemy here?

Isn’t Iran the enemy here?

It’s entirely legitimate for Israel and the US to disagree on the viability of an interim deal with Iran. It’s entirely counterproductive for them to be sniping about it publicly

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem on November 6, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

No, the deal that Iran chose not to sign in Geneva on Saturday does not involve the dismantling of so much as a single centrifuge — as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been at pains to point out. Repeatedly.

That’s because it’s an interim deal.

It is not the intended permanent agreement on thwarting Iran’s nuclear weapons drive. It is, rather, an intended first step down that road.

It is designed to freeze the Iranian program in place, not take it apart, in return for a certain easing of certain non-core economic sanctions. And to serve as the starting point for negotiations on a binding, permanent arrangement to ensure Iran does not attain nuclear weapons.

At the root of the current bitter, unpleasant and very public Israeli-American standoff — or rather the bitter Netanyahu-Obama standoff — is a difference not over the terms of this interim deal, but over whether an interim deal of any kind is a good idea.

The Obama administration is convinced that it is. As Secretary of State John Kerry explained from Geneva in the very small hours of Sunday morning, after the talks had broken up without a deal, “People need to stop and think about what happens each day now that you don’t have an agreement.” Until a deal is done, he said, Iran “will continue to enrich” uranium and install new centrifuges. What the diplomats are trying to do, Kerry said, “is freeze that program in place” with an interim deal, and then work toward a final agreement.

Netanyahu is certain that this is an utterly misguided approach. His fear is that even the slightest easing of sanctions, as part of this presumably soon-to-be-signed interim deal, will bring the entire house of cards down — that years of gradually escalated international pressure will be punctured, Iran will be off the hook economically, and any chance of achieving a lasting accord that keeps Iran from the bomb will have vanished.

These, as the nonagenarian President Shimon Peres told this writer in our public interview at Monday’s Jewish Federations’ General Assembly in Jerusalem, are entirely legitimate differences. “About tactics, you can argue,” said Peres.

That Netanyahu has chosen to make the dispute so public, and to rather obfuscate the argument by repeating the obvious point that the interim deal doesn’t dismantle Iran’s centrifuges, underlines the far deeper crisis of faith between the two leaderships.

That crisis is born of the administration’s conviction that Netanyahu cannot always be relied upon to act in Israel’s best interests on the Iranian or the Palestinian issues, and of the prime minister’s despair at what he considers President Barack Obama’s willful blindness to the ruthlessness of the Middle East and the imperative to deter enemies who rush to exploit any scent of weakness.

The Americans’ low assessment of Netanyahu was laid bare for all to see in Kerry’s from-the-heart interview with Channel 2 last week, in which the secretary earnestly struggled to understand why the Netanyahu government would insist on provocatively adding new Jewish homes to settlements in territory that the prime minister knows will have to become “Palestine” in the very two-state solution that Netanyahu claims to endorse.

And Netanyahu’s dire take on the administration is being hammered home daily in his withering English soundbites, accusing the administration of pushing for a mad, bad, dangerous deal with Iran.

It should not require stating that this open public spat between the Jewish state and its most important ally does neither side any good. It’s by no means the first such public bust-up between the two leaderships, but it’s centered on the gravest of issues.

Word from Geneva is that it was the Iranians who scuttled the deal last weekend, but you’d be hard pushed to appreciate that when Netanyahu and Kerry are sniping back and forth. It’s a bad deal, John. I’m not blind, Bibi. Then why are rushing to sign this, John? Because we’ve got to start somewhere, Bibi…

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gestures to Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, as they arrive at a press conference at the end of the Iranian nuclear talks in Geneva, early on Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013. (photo credit: AP /Jason Reed, Pool)

While Jerusalem and Washington fight it out on the airwaves, those centrifuges spin merrily on, Iran builds up greater stockpiles of enriched uranium, and its technical bomb-making prowess grows ever more assured. And Iran’s charm offensive — so quickly and correctly identified by Netanyahu for its capacity to delude the international community’s wishful thinkers — gains ground too.

The soft-spoken Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif — graciously telling the watching world from Geneva in his perfect English that he’s “not disappointed at all” that they didn’t finalize a deal this time, and cheerfully musing that if there weren’t differences, the sides would not have needed to meet — emerges as warm, mild and patient, the unthreatening face of poor, sanctioned, misunderstood Iran. What a contrast to those angry Israelites.

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