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Behind the Growing U.S.-Israeli Rift

Interviewee: Gerald M. Steinberg, Professor of Political Studies, Bar-Ilan University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 19, 2013

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Most Israelis back their leadership in the escalating feud with the United States over negotiations to limit Iran's nuclear production for six months, says Gerald M. Steinberg, an American-born professor at Bar-Ilan University outside of Tel Aviv. He says Israelis, who believe the United States won't deliver on its pledge to prevent a nuclear-weaponized Iran, fear a scenario similar to the Cuban missile crisis "without any of the communications links that existed between Washington and Moscow to forestall a doomsday crisis." Though the United States maintains it is not backing away from confrontation, Israelis are worried that might not be the case, says Steinberg.

Obama and Netanyahu U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo: Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters)

Tensions have mounted between the United States and Israel over negotiations between the so-called P5+1 nations [the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany] and Iran. These have been exacerbated by contentious public statements by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Secretary of State John Kerry, and President Barack Obama. Are Netanyahu's hawkish views widely supported in Israel?

Polls taken over the last week or so since this crisis broke out—just as Kerry was leaving for Geneva after meeting with Netanyahu and having a very public argument—consistently show broad support for Netanyahu. The ratings that the Israeli public gives to the Obama administration, particularly to Kerry and to a lesser degree Obama, are probably as low as they've ever been in terms of the commitments to act on the promise that Obama delivered back in May, that "Israel [is] not alone." There's a broad sense in Israel across the political spectrum and the media that the Obama administration is really not living up to its pledges on these critical issues.

Is there fear that the United States is acquiescing to Iran developing a nuclear weapon?

Yes, either that the United States is drawing down its willingness to commit force—and its prestige and power—in the Middle East, or that the United States is not going to be able to deliver on the pledge of preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons, and that the six-month freeze now being negotiated will turn out to be the peak. And then, as Iran has done in the past—particularly under President Hassan Rouhani when he was nuclear negotiator in 2003–2005—Iran will continue to move towards nuclear weapons, and this will be the first agreement and it'll be the last agreement.

Israel is aware that several U.S. allies in the Middle East, notably Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, are irritated with the United States' failure to use force against Syria in particular and have chastised the Obama administration for weakness. Is this factored in as well?

To some degree. Israeli leaders and the Israeli general population are aware that the United States has basically withdrawn—disengaged, I should say—from what's going on in Egypt. There was that question about whether the United States is able to act on its pledges on Syria, whether Syria will be disarmed of chemical weapons, and whether the United States would even play a significant role in creating some stability out of the chaos in Syria. There's more commonality of interests than at any time in the past between Israel and the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia. The United States, as the guarantor of security and stability in the region, does not seem to be playing the role that it's played for so many decades.

There have been periods of friction between the United States and Israel before. Back in the 1970s, for example, tensions surrounded Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's efforts to negotiate disengagement agreements between Egypt and Israel, and U.S. aid was held up. In the 1980s, there were tensions between President Reagan and Prime Minister Menachem Begin over sales of AWAC reconnaissance planes to Saudi Arabia.

"Here we are at the absolute, most important point of this process, where the Iranian leadership wants to see a reduction in sanctions and is vulnerable to pressure, and the sense here is [that] the United States may be just incapable of delivering."

And of course the Israeli bombing in 1981 of the Iraqi nuclear reactor. There have been differences, on the strategic level. But Iran is in a different category. We're talking about nuclear weapons and the very real sense of the threat to Israel's existence that would be perceived if the Islamic republic in Tehran—which supports Hezbollah and Hamas terrorist organizations—would have a nuclear weapon. [Israel fears] a scenario in which there's another war with Lebanon, in which Iran [would] intervene and nuclear threats [would be] exchanged. In the Israeli mind, that would be a Cuban missile crisis in the Middle East without any of the communications links that existed between Washington and Moscow to forestall a doomsday crisis.

The concern about Iran developing nuclear weapons and the repeated American pledges go back at least twenty years. Now here we are at the absolute, most important point of this process, where the Iranian leadership wants to see a reduction in sanctions and is vulnerable to pressure, and the sense here is [that] the United States may be just incapable of delivering.

Is the Israeli defense establishment behind Netanyahu? I've seen reports that some people say it's okay to go ahead with this first part reduction.

The general view is that the deal that was reportedly on the table in Geneva about a week and a half ago was a major climb down from what had been expected. If that's the deal—that Iran gets to keep all of its highly enriched uranium, up to 20 percent, and the sanctions built up with such great difficulty and slowly over the last ten years or so are going to be eased—then most of the Israeli security establishment says that's not what we were told. Under those circumstances it may be necessary for Israel to go at it alone. Today's [November 18] Israeli papers and media were filled with headlines and quotes from the recently retired head of the national security staff, Yaakov Amidror, saying that if necessary, Israel can go at it alone. We've heard similar statements from the minister of defense recently.

At this stage, the opponents of that [stance] are largely invisible. There really is a sense of letdown by the United States and the need to demonstrate that Israel will be able to take action. I want to add one other dimension to this: French president Francois Hollande is currently in Israel. He was greeted by the prime minister and across the board with enthusiasm, precisely because of the tough stand the French took in the recent Geneva talks that seemed to have stiffened the American position. So, at least temporarily, the French have replaced the United States as Israel's most trusted ally and guarantor of security.

Although when Hollande went out to the West Bank, he said he was against any further Israeli settlements.

"The perceived collapse—and it may be temporary—on Iran also colors the way in which Israelis see American's role in the peace process."

Let's talk about that aspect, because Kerry is also leading the negotiations with the Palestinians. The perceived collapse—and it may be temporary—on Iran also colors the way in which Israelis see America's role in the peace process. If the United States is unable to fulfill its promises and implement agreements on issues like Iran, then what role can it play in terms of the tough bargaining and difficult decision- making that needs to take place between Israelis and Palestinians? Kerry is criticized for constantly pressuring Israel—including a recent set of very critical statements on settlements—without any quid pro quo by the Palestinians. In contrast, when President Hollande went to Ramallah and said similar things about settlements, he also said to the Palestinians: You must change your claims about refugees flooding Israel and this concept of a "right of return." Israelis need to see that balance. They need to see something in return for the tough decisions Israel's being asked to make. Kerry has failed to make that link.

Have the Americans not said that the "right of return" should be dropped by the Palestinians?

They have not said it, at least not the way the Israelis have seen [Hollande do it], in Ramallah, to the Palestinian leadership, in a very public way. All the condemnations, all the criticisms of Israel did not [also] focus on Palestinian incitement and the mythology of Palestinian rights of return, which Israelis see as a direct negation of the legitimacy of the Jewish state. So the criticism of the United States is pretty strong. And the contrast with the French is also quite visible to Israelis. The United States is still a dominant power, there's going to have to be a reconciliation between Netanyahu and Obama, between the Israeli positions and the American positions.

Hollande did say, however, that the French are locked into this P5+1 proposal, which will be put to the Iranians again this week. If the Iranians accept it, that will be a deal. Will the Israelis be furious?

It depends on the details. If in this round there's a complete stop of all work on the plutonium reactor in Arak; if it includes the limitations on the use and transfer of 20 percent enriched uranium, which will lower the capability of Iran to move towards breakouts; and if the level of sanctions that are reduced does not signal a complete capitulation but rather force the Iranian leadership to negotiate seriously on a drawdown of its enriched uranium, then Israel will probably see that as a major improvement over what was on the table two weeks ago and the crisis will fade.

Otherwise it won't?

Again, these are very core issues. Netanyahu clearly has no interest in extending the fight with the U.S. government. Israelis read the political map of the United States pretty well. They know there really is not an alternative to Obama and Kerry, that the House of Representatives that the Republicans control is still not going to provide the type of commitment and cooperation that is essential to Israel's position. They want to repair the damage and make it beyond the symbolism of the Obama administration, make it more substantive.

Do Israelis want a deal with the Palestinians?

According to public opinion polls and voting behavior, over 60 percent of the Israel public want to see an agreement with the Palestinians. They want to see some sort of two-state framework ending the status quo. Netanyahu shows a lot of indications that he wants to move in that direction, but there's got to be enough of a benefit in terms of end of conflict, end of incitements, acceptance of Israel's legitimacy. Those are the points that keep coming back, and it seems that on those issues the United States has dropped the ball. If those issues of meeting Israel's requirements for stability and peace are met, then we could still see within the Obama-Netanyahu timeframe, in the next two years or so, a significant change and move towards peace. But it's got be more substantive than what's been put on the table up to now.

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