Israel hates the Iran nuclear deal. So why's it being so quiet?


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.


Dan Balilty

JERUSALEM — Just months ago Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the interim deal being worked up between Iran and Western powers "made the world a much more dangerous place" and would prove to be "a historic mistake."

Anticipating more Israeli objections, a senior US team is on its way to Jerusalem to explain the implementation of the agreement.

But since Monday, when the deal went into effect, Netanyahu's government has not had a word to say.

Has there been a sudden change of heart?

Not exactly. Israeli experts are resorting to linguistic acrobatics in their efforts to describe the uncharted waters.

"This is a huge prenup the two sides are signing, and, you know, they're going to need very good lawyers and much flexibility," says Iran expert Meir Javedanfar, of the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya. "But the longer the current sanctions continue against Iran, the more the Iranians will become flexible, and the more they are flexible, the more difficult it will be for the West to adopt a line that Iran has to give everything up."

That “line” — which holds that Iran must reduce its nuclear activity to zero — is currently Israel’s line, and the line of some American politicians as well. Last month, the US appeared to make a major concession when President Obama said he could envision an Iran with a "modest enrichment capability."

Uzi Rubin, a veteran military analyst associated with Bar Ilan University, told GlobalPost Obama's statement amounts to "kosher certification" legitimizing Iran's continued uranium enrichment. While the Israeli government keeps its own counsel, Rubin assesses that the interim deal amounts to "a big victory," for Iran, with "sanctions dead and them giving very little in return."

But the lack of official Israeli reaction may also be due to the fact that the political and the military echelons don’t seem to agree when it comes to this deal.

An Israeli military intelligence source told GlobalPost the agreement is "not bad. Not perfect — but not bad."

The interim deal, he said, "gives us some breathing room. It does not harm us in any way."

In the past year, Netanyahu has been burned by unprecedented public criticism of his position on Iran by former intelligence chiefs, and he may be reluctant to expose himself to further attacks at a crucial juncture in his always bumpy relations with Obama.

Last week, Netanyahu was forced to explain his defense minister's characterization of Secretary of State John Kerry's peace efforts as "messianic" and "obsessive."

"I don't think Netanyahu thinks it's worth it to open another front against Obama on Iran," Javedanfar reflected. "He has enough headaches to go around with the peace process and he's picking his fights. It won't do anything to scupper the interim deal. This is just the end of the beginning, nothing more."

Then too, it’s entirely possible that Iran will be playing nice in the immediate future. Alex Vatanka, an expert on Iran and military affairs at Washington's Middle East Institute, says that a major Iranian demand was met by Obama's statement. “Iran has always wanted the right to have a complete nuclear cycle on Iranian soil and this was granted." Now, having achieved that, "Why would they jeopardize the achievement?"

Israel, too, has reason to be realistic. "Israel knows the reality of Iran's nuclear capability," he points out. "Iran has the technology. They’ve got all the fixings in place

"It is clear,” Vatanka says, “that if the Israelis could have a stiff cold drink and make a wish — they would wish for the ayatollahs to turn around and completely change their attitude towards Israel" — something that won’t be happening anytime soon. But for now, Vatanka says, the best hope is to stave off "the nightmare scenario" in which Iran weaponizes its nuclear capability and other regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey follow suit.

But the optimism embodied in the deal, in Vatanka’s view, is not entirely misplaced. Real hostility between Israel and Iran is a matter "of the current regime in Iran," not a deeply-held hatred.

"If the Iranians could find it in themselves to bring Israel into the equation, to stop their belligerence, I think the Israelis by and large would find a 'virtual' nuclear Iran” — in other words an Iran with limited nuclear capacities for energy purposes only — “to be a very different, less scary thing."