Friday, November 8, 2013

On Iran, Netanyahu Can Only Fume

JERUSALEM — Incensed by the prospect of an interim deal that would ease some sanctions against Iran during negotiations over its nuclear program, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is doing what he is best known for, and perhaps best at: He is speaking out, in strident tones, despite the inevitable discomfort for a high-profile guest from Washington.

In four strong statements over 24 hours on Thursday and Friday — to world Jewish leaders, to visiting members of Congress and before and after a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry in Tel Aviv — Mr. Netanyahu condemned the agreement being negotiated in Geneva. He ratcheted up his criticism each time, finally calling the agreement "the deal of the century" for Iran and "a very dangerous and bad deal" for the international community.

The remarks highlighted the growing gulf and heightened tensions between the United States and Israel over the nuclear talks and other issues in the Middle East. But they also hinted at the limited tools left for Mr. Netanyahu, who is sidelined in the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, which he views as an existential threat to his country and has long made his primary focus.

As Washington and its Western allies increasingly show willingness to make some concessions to engage Iran in the negotiations, Mr. Netanyahu has few options beyond serving as the hawkish scold in hopes of applying pressure on Israel's allies. "I don't see any magic wand he can really produce at this moment," said Dan Gillerman, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. "This is a very difficult and trying time for the Israeli prime minister."

Although Mr. Netanyahu's declaration on Friday that Israel is not "obliged" by any agreement made in Geneva raised anew the specter of an Israeli military strike on Tehran, experts here say such an attack is all but impossible to imagine while negotiations proceed — and without American support.

Mr. Netanyahu could use Israel's clout in Congress to push for new sanctions, or to foment discontent over President Obama's foreign policy, but taking his case directly to Capitol Hill poisoned his relationship with the White House early on and could be too risky with the fate of Iran's nuclear ambitions in the balance.

Perhaps the most potent possibility lies in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which Mr. Kerry engineered and came here this week in hopes of pushing forward amid swelling signs of crisis. After a clearly frustrated Mr. Kerry criticized Israel for continued construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Mr. Netanyahu declared on Friday that "pressure has to be put where it belongs, that is, on the Palestinians who refuse to budge." He made clear he was in no mood to compromise.

"The more he's unhappy about Iran, the less likely he is to move on the Palestinians, because it's one of the leverages he has," said Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States. "There has always been some sort of potential linkage between the Iranian issue and the Palestinian issue," Mr. Rabinovich said. "Sort of saying, 'O.K., I'm not happy with what I hear about Geneva, and I definitely am not going to please you by giving you, the secretary, or you, the president, the deal on the Palestinians you so much want.' "

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee, denounced Mr. Netanyahu's statements on Iran as "arrogant," "childish" and "an insult" to Mr. Kerry, and said they reflected a relentless focus on Israel's security that has prevented progress in the peace talks.

"His temper tantrum response to an Iran agreement is just an extension of that mentality," Ms. Ashrawi said. "I want to do what I want to do, I want to get away with everything, and I want to dictate to everyone, including the U.S., how they should behave regarding Israel's security the way Israel exclusively defines it."

Mr. Netanyahu contends that like a tiny hole in a tire, even a limited lifting of sanctions against Iran threatens to unravel the entire package. Most Israeli analysts say that this fear is sincere, but that Mr. Netanyahu also has a track record of using such hard-line stances to force the West's hand on Iran. Some saw his statements on Friday as an overreaction to what Mr. Kerry and others have made clear they see as only a small, first diplomatic step.
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