Israel Faces Up to Old Iran and New US

JERUSALEM – Israel does not object to talks between the West and Iran if the intent is to stop Iran’s nuclear program and as long as Iran does not take advantage of these talks, top-level Israeli government sources tell IPS. But the sources go on to reiterate that Israel still expects the international community to act firmly to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

The former head of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, Tzachi Hanegbi, was more blunt when speaking on Israeli television Sunday night: "We trust that President Obama’s overtures to Tehran are tactical – to justify an eventual tightening of sanctions against Iran, and even possibly military action, to prevent Iran going nuclear, not an illusory strategy that Iran can be talked into abandoning its nuclear quest."

The Israeli reaction to the ongoing shift in U.S. policy vis-à-vis Iran is definitely cautious. But there’s no mistaking the underlying concerns that, in contrast to what’s happening in Washington, Iran’s nuclear policy has not shifted at all. This was amply illustrated, say Israeli commentators, by the high-profile inauguration last week of the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasted on Iranian television that the Islamic Republic now controls the entire cycle for producing nuclear fuel.

Israel prides itself on its realism: officials regularly pour cold water on any prospects for resolving the Iranian nuclear issue diplomatically. Equally, however, they are realistic about Israel’s core interest in avoiding any policy clash with the U.S.

Even the liberal Tel Aviv daily Ha’aretz reflects clearly the dilemmas facing Israel’s new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu: "Israel is entitled to view Obama’s policy [toward Iran] with skepticism. … President Ahmadinejad’s statements about eradicating the ‘Zionist regime,’ his denial of the Holocaust, and his view that Israel should never have come into existence all make the Iranian nuclear threat an existential one," the paper writes.

But under the headline "Dialogue Is Preferable" the editorial goes on, "Yet, in examining its options, Israel cannot ensure than an attack would thwart Iran’s military program. Statements by the prime minister that Israel does not oppose Iranian-American dialogue signal he understands that. It behooves us to stand by the U.S. president and hope that he reroutes Iran on to a course that does not threaten Israel or any other country."

Before and since taking office Netanyahu has repeatedly listed "the Iranian threat – from Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and from Iran itself – as an existential challenge to Israel’s security." All roads lead to Tehran, is the suggestion.

Following the recent Obama visit to Turkey where he gave several hints as to his grand Middle East strategy in the making, the concern within Israeli policy-making circles is that the U.S. president means to hoist Israel on this Tehran petard: Rest assured, your security concerns about Iran remain our top priority, but the success of the new U.S. approach will depend on appropriate movement toward resolving your conflict with the Palestinians.

Officials in the new Israeli administration may not want to admit it openly, but they were clearly taken aback by the directness with which Obama spelled out his conception that the only way to reach the peace goal is via the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and by all parties following the parameters set at the Annapolis conference in November 2007. Prime Minister Netanyahu steadfastly refuses to line up publicly with the two-state solution, while his controversial Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman pointedly notes that, in his view, Israel is in no way obligated by the Annapolis process.

On Sunday, Netanyahu told Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas he intends to resume talks and cooperation to promote peace. This was their first contact since Netanyahu took office two weeks ago. Abbas initiated the telephone call, which Netanyahu’s office described as "friendly and warm."

The brewing clash with the U.S. over declared peace policy positions seems, however, to be the least of Netanyahu’s worries.

"It goes much deeper than stated commitments to this or that policy," said one well-placed official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The concern is that this administration might be determined to make it its policy to test whatever we do against the backdrop of the two-state solution – whether what we do is deemed to hamper progress toward a solution based on two states."

Analysts point out that previous U.S. administrations have always demanded a declaratory commitment from Israel to the two-state solution, but have never in effect held Israel to account for actions – like unchecked settlement building – which worked against such a solution.

In a similar vein, the analysts say, U.S. resolve with regard to Iran’s nuclear intentions might well be tested against U.S. resolve with regard to Israeli actions – whether they help or hinder the two-state solution.

In other words, if President Obama wants his Middle East initiatives to be taken seriously, for once the real test of intentions – including those of Iran, Israel, and of the U.S. itself – will be in terms of deeds, not words.

These strands could all come together soon. Netanyahu is due to visit Washington next month to address the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), though so far no invitation has been forthcoming for a formal meeting at the White House. On the other hand, there have been a slew of speculative reports that Obama will visit Israel and the West Bank early in June to emphasize active U.S. engagement in the region.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.