Iran’s controversial nuclear program remains Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s "overarching concern," says CFR’s Robert Danin, and his address this week at the UN struck "a cautionary tone" about new president Hassan Rouhani and the thaw in Tehran’s relations with Washington. At home, Danin says that Netanyahu may face mounting political opposition from members of his own conservative Likud party as he works toward a final peace accord with Palestinians. "If Netanyahu is really close to coming to an agreement with the Palestinians, he may have to really upend his coalition in order to be able to proceed politically," he says.
In Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the UN General Assembly, he attacked Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s speech offering a negotiated end to the nuclear standoff, saying he was a "wolf in sheep’s clothing." And one day after having his own meeting in the White House, he was in effect critical of Obama for being too soft on the Iranians. What did you make of his views on Iran?
Netanyahu is extremely serious about the Iran issue. This is his overriding concern, so much so that he clearly orchestrated his visit to the United States around the issue of Iran. He came and he was the last speaker on the UN’s list, and he clearly wanted to wait and see how developments unfolded, and wanted to see the president on Monday before he spoke at the General Assembly on Tuesday.
So, from that, I think we can deduce a few things. One is he clearly is trying to fit within a framework that has been established, which is a new U.S.-Iranian negotiation that I think Netanyahu wants to affect. His speech was designed to strike a cautionary tone about who Rouhani is, what this Iranian regime is about, and what is necessary for any diplomacy to be at all acceptable or worthy for the international efforts that Netanyahu sees as having succeeded in pressuring the Iranians to the negotiating table.
Netanyahu hardly talked about Syria, did he? The Israelis have kept pretty quiet about Syria.
First of all, events have moved so fast that the agreement on Syrian chemical weapons that was reached in the UN Security Council was quickly eclipsed by developments on Iran. But they are both quite significant. On Syria, I’d say there are greater convergences between the United States and Israel. Both countries have placed a primacy on the issue of chemical weapons, and both have essentially not seen a clear solution before them in terms of how to deal with the civil war. The civil war is seen as something that needs to be managed, not solved, at this time. Meanwhile, the overriding concern both for Israel and the United States has been Syria’s chemical weapons capacity. And here Israel has been very concerned, so much so that it is believed to have struck Syria a number of times, warning the Syrians not to transfer any chemical weapon capabilities.
Israel’s big concern is the Syrian government losing control or transferring control of those weapons or their capabilities to an outside country or party, such as Hezbollah. And there, clearly Obama has put a primacy on nonproliferation of Syria’s chemical weapons. While skeptical perhaps of the resolution that was reached with Syria, the Israelis also see a very important principle that was established here, which is [that] the UN has now reached agreement that Syria should relinquish its chemical weapon arsenal and capabilities. For Israel, this is huge. They welcome it.
Netanyahu did talk about the negotiations with the Palestinians. Again, he said he’s willing to have an historic agreement with the Palestinians. What is it he wants from the Palestinians that they won’t give him?
Right now the Israeli-Palestinian issue is something that has been the initiative of the United States, and Prime Minister Netanyahu has publicly embraced it and embraced direct negotiations. The United States brought the parties back to the negotiating table, and Netanyahu was able to claim that he neither acceded to a settlement freeze or the 1967 lines [division of territory before the 1967 war between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, and Syria] as the basis for negotiations. So, in one sense, Netanyahu and Israel entered these negotiations without prejudicing or giving up much in terms of their negotiating position.
What they did agree to, although they’ve tried to downplay the importance of this, was the release of over 100 of the most longstanding, quite dangerous, Palestinian prisoners. And this has been quite politically costly for Netanyahu, who has been accused of paying for negotiations. What Netanyahu’s done is say, we’ll agree to the release of these prisoners, but we’ll do so in four tranches over the upcoming period. That’s designed in essence to keep the Palestinians in the negotiating process.
One major element of this was getting through the UN General Assembly meetings without the Palestinians creating a big confrontation there. President Mahmoud Abbas came to the General Assembly, addressed it, but did not seek any alteration in Palestine’s diplomatic status, which he could no doubt have done. So, by locking him into negotiations, Netanyahu has bought some time. But, in order to get it, he was willing to pay in the coin of releasing over one hundred of the most hardened Palestinian prisoners—clearly with blood on their hands, as the Israelis refer to them.
So when are they releasing these prisoners?
They’ve released one group. And they’re now poised to release another. So, it’s a way to ensure that the talks continue. As U.S. secretary [of state John] Kerry outlined, the negotiations are aimed at reaching a final status agreement over the course of nine months.
Have the talks really gotten anywhere yet?
Secretary Kerry has imposed a very strict media blackout. If negotiations are to succeed, they have to take place in darkness, outside of public scrutiny. So we don’t know if they’re making progress or not. It doesn’t look very encouraging so far, based on leaks that have found their way to the media. We don’t know of any meetings yet between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. All we know is that there have been about seven rounds of talks between negotiators. So, without high-level meetings between the two leaders or some sort of back channel that’s taking place outside normal negotiations, it’s hard to see how this process is going to make significant progress.
Tzipi Livni is the chief Israeli envoy, and Saeb Erekat is the envoy on the Palestinian side. And we now have a U.S. envoy, Martin Indyk, who is helping to facilitate talks, which were kicked off in Washington in late July. Since, they’ve been meeting in the region; in Jerusalem and they may have met in Amman and in Jericho.
And Netanyahu keeps talking about the Jewish State. This is a big thing for Israel.
It is, although right now that issue has been slightly superseded by the negotiations themselves. There was talk about what would be the terms of reference that would get them back into negotiations. The Palestinians were insisting that the talks be based on 1967 lines [prior to the Six-Day War] with mutually agreed-upon swaps. The Israelis were saying there had to be Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. And, in essence, they returned to the negotiations without agreement on these. So, now, both those issues for the time being are subsumed for the larger talks, which are about all the final status issues. What they’re trying to do is reach a comprehensive, end-of-claims agreement. President Abbas said at the UN that he would not agree to a partial or interim settlement. It has to be everything. This would include Jerusalem, refugees, borders, and all of the security arrangements.
And the last time we came close was when, 2000?
There are so many competing narratives. Some would dispute that they came close, even though, in 2000, President Clinton produced parameters for agreement. Some would suggest that they came close when [Israeli] prime minister Ehud Olmert offered his proposal in 2008 that was not answered by President Abbas—and was even more far-reaching from an Israeli standpoint. Clearly, they’ve not been close enough—that I think we can be certain about.
What are the politics like in Israel right now? Does the public want an agreement?
I’d take it at two levels. I’d say at the popular level, there’s largely indifference to the negotiations right now. People don’t take this all that seriously. When it comes to foreign policy issues, they see Iran, Syria, and Egypt as much more pressing. So, the expectations are quite low for the Palestinian [talks], and I would say that’s actually a good thing, because it means the negotiations can take place without much public pressure exerted on the negotiators.
But, at the same time, there’s a great deal of restiveness within Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own party, the Likud; and I’d say increasingly he looks like he very well might lose his own party if these negotiations proceed and he makes real progress.
Prior to his leaving for the United States, Netanyahu received a letter from seven of his ministers from his coalition. These were people from his own party and from coalition partners basically calling on him not to release more Palestinian prisoners unless the Palestinians were more forthcoming. The problem is his own base. His government is not challenged, but his political standing within his own party is being challenged, like many Israeli prime ministers before, especially on the right, who [have moved] forward, be it Ariel Sharon or Olmert—both of whom wound up leaving the Likud Party in order to pursue peace with the Palestinians. If Netanyahu is really close to coming to an agreement with the Palestinians, he may have to really upend his coalition in order to be able to proceed politically. But we’re not at that point.