Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, came out with guns blazing against a deal reached Sunday morning in Geneva to slow Iran’s nuclear development program, calling the agreement a “historic mistake,” while a government official made clear that Israel will not abide by the pact.
Under the six-month deal between Iranian officials and the P5+1 -- the U.S., Britain, China, Russia, France and Germany -- Iran agreed to halt some elements of its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of certain sanctions. But will the agreement make a military confrontation between Israel and Iran closer, or push it away?
Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, Yuval Steinitz, a close Netanyahu confidant, said the government will now assess its future moves, and told me that the Geneva interim agreement with Iran is “a bad deal that would allow the Iranians to continue enriching uranium, and this time do it with international legitimacy.” Given the pressure that Iran is currently under, Steinitz added, “it was possible to reach a much better deal that would start dismantling Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, not only freeze it.”
Yair Lapid, Israel’s finance minister whose centrist party, Yesh Atid, is the largest partner in the ruling coalition, implicitly criticized Netanyahu’s, saying, “We lost the ear of the world.” In an interview with Army Radio he too said the agreement was a ”bad deal,” indicating that this view is widely held in Israel’s military and political circles.
A former official at Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission who also worked for the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, Ephraim Asculai explained that at the end of six-month period, the deal can be extended for another six months. “That’s a long time,” Ascuali told me, adding that even now, with its known capabilities, Iran can conduct a nuclear test within four to six months if it so decides.
And the Geneva agreement, Asculai noted, does not cover possible undeclared nuclear facilities, which several world experts believe Iran has. “You can do a lot with a small hidden enrichment facility,” he said. Adding that the agreement is vague on inspection of sites related to the military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program – including the Parchin base, to which the IAEA has long sought access.
Much of Israel’s opposition to the deal derives from the feeling that its concerns were overlooked while agreements were tacitly reached behind Jerusalem’s back. After the Sunday signing in Geneva, unnamed U.S. officials confirmed to the website Al-monitor and to the Associated Press that, since the summer, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns has been secretly meeting in Oman with his Iranian counterpart, Abbas Araghchi, and other Tehran officials.
BuzzFeed quotes cabinet minister Silvan Shalom as saying that Israel knew about the secret channel from its own sources. Indeed, its existence was first reported, from unnamed Jerusalem officials, by Israel’s Channel 10 a week earlier. The television report, however, misidentified the American interlocutor, naming Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, indicating that the Israeli sources were kept in the dark, and while they may have gotten a whiff of the secret channel, likely from Saudi intelligence sources, they were blind to such details as the identity of the officials conducting it.
Another source of Israeli anger is the belief that the Obama administration is rushing toward a deal with what it believes to be a “moderate” Iranian leader, President Hassan Rouhani, even as Tehran continues to preach the elimination of the Jewish state. Last Wednesday, as representatives of Iran and the world’s six leading powers flew in for the Geneva talks, Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s Spiritual Leader who has the final say over nuclear policy, predicted that Israel will disappear, calling the “Zionist regime” the “sinister, unclean rabid dog of the region,” and saying that Israelis “cannot be called human beings.”
Secretary of State John Kerry said on several Sunday news shows that such sentiments are “unacceptable.” But the initial response from an unnamed “senior U.S. official” arriving in Geneva was that while Khamenei's statement made her “uncomfortable,” it may have resulted from “decades of mistrust” between America and Iran. “Many people in our society say difficult things about Iran and Iranians” she added.
In the Hanukkah holiday, starting Thursday, Jews commemorate an uprising in 160 BC against Antioch IV, who tried to destroy them. Israelis point to a long history in which generations of their enemies dehumanized and then tried to eliminate them. The Iranian regime is the latest link in that history, which explains why Israelis are so much more edgy that others over the possibility that Iran would obtain arms that could allow Khamenei's wish to come true. And to prevent that, Netanyahu has long said, Israel is keeping all its options open.
Follow Benny Avni on Twitter: @bennyavni