Why is Israel silent on the looming Iran deal? - opinion - The Jewish Voice
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Thursday, November 30, 2023

Why is Israel silent on the looming Iran deal? – opinion

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Yaakov Katz

Israel can sometimes be a strange country, but one thing it knows how to do is make noise. Ask any tourist who has walked these streets or any visitor to an army base who has seen how soldiers argue with commanders without fear of retribution.

We are a loud people and we are proud of it. It is part of the culture, the beauty of this land and part of what makes this country tick.

Which is why it is strange when we are suddenly quiet. It breaks from custom, from habits, and from the national character.

Take as an example, the fiasco this week after Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s meeting in Rome with his Libyan counterpart, Najla Mangoush. On the one hand, it would have made sense to keep the meeting secret. Libya is still considered an enemy state and Cohen was making some of the first inroads toward what Jerusalem hoped would lead one day to normalization.

Keeping it quiet though would have been out of character. That is why, while it is natural to be disappointed with the way it was managed, it was not out of character that the Israeli side leaked the story. Israelis don’t excel at keeping secrets. That is the simply not the way of this country and its politicians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, 30 July 2023. (credit: Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, 30 July 2023. (credit: Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS)
Which is all why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s silence on Iran’s nuclear program since he returned to office in January is so deafening.

Why is Netanyahu silent on the Iran deal?
All indications are that the United States under President Joe Biden is close to reaching an interim deal – or at the very least some sort of unwritten understanding – with Iran that would see Tehran scale back its uranium enrichment in exchange for billions of dollars.

US prisoners held in Iran have been released, Iran has reportedly slowed down enrichment and even diluted some of its stockpiles, and still Netanyahu is quiet. Yes, his office put out a statement a couple of weeks ago after the prisoner release was announced, but it was a written statement and was nothing compared to the way the prime minister used to speak about Iran in the past.

Just go back to 2015. Then, Netanyahu flew to Washington and spoke before Congress against the sitting president to try and convince members to torpedo the JCPOA. And while the White House then protested and Democratic members warned Netanyahu that speaking before Congress would undermine ties, he plowed ahead, explaining that when it comes to existential matters for the State of Israel, he has an obligation to speak out, no matter the price.

WHICH IS why the silence now is so strange. On the one hand, there is an argument to make that Netanyahu needs to speak out even more today than he did eight years ago. Then, Iran had uranium enriched to just 20%; today it has enriched to 60%, just a jump from military grade. After the 2015 deal went into effect, Iran was left with just 300 kg. of enriched uranium; today it is said to have around 4,000 kg.

And if in 2015, it was believed that it would take Iran several months to produce what is referred to as an SQ – significant quantity – of high-enriched uranium needed for a bomb, today it is believed to be a matter of just a couple of weeks.

With that being the case, why is Netanyahu silent? Why is he not fighting the deal?

There are three answers. The first is that Netanyahu might not be as opposed to an interim deal or a new understanding between Iran and the US as he was once in the past. There is no doubt that he does not want Iran to obtain nuclear weapons and if he learns they are building a bomb, he will likely take immediate action, but he also understands that Israel’s options here are not great. Getting Iran to stop its enrichment even in a flimsy deal might not be the worst option right now on the table.

The second reason is because of Netanyahu’s political situation. It is no secret that his standing in Washington is not what is used to be and as of Thursday, he was still waiting to hear if he would be meeting Biden on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month. Netanyahu’s ability to influence what the Americans are doing is more limited today than it was in 2015 and as a result, he has to choose his battles very carefully.

The third reason is because of Saudi Arabia. Netanyahu needs Biden to close a normalization deal with the Kingdom and if he starts fighting with the president over Iran, that could turn the president off from wanting to help advance Israel’s ties in the Middle East.

What is interesting is that also on the Saudi deal, Netanyahu is mostly quiet. He has yet to say much about the Saudi request that it be allowed domestic uranium enrichment, and when asked, his closest diplomatic advisers default to the Americans and say that if the US provides guarantees, Israel could potentially live with Saudi enrichment.

IT IS safe to assume that if it was not Saudi Arabia, Netanyahu would be doing everything he could to deny an Arab Islamic country from have its own enrichment capability. The United Arab Emirates has, for example, a nuclear energy program but decided to forgo domestic enrichment and reprocessing of nuclear fuel as a way of illustrating its commitment to nonproliferation.

If the Saudis are allowed domestic enrichment then why not the UAE or Egypt, Turkey, and others? This is without even getting into the debate over the future stability of Saudi Arabia and what could happen one day if radical elements take over the country like sadly happened in Iran.

While the desire to achieve normalization with Saudi Arabia is unanimous within Israel, the governing coalition needs to make clear to the Americans that domestic enrichment is a red line.

The problem is that instead of negotiating with Washington about the enrichment, the government is busy trying to convince the Americans to not force Jerusalem to make concessions to the Palestinians as part of the package for a simple reason: this government cannot make concessions to the Palestinians because of its composition and including that demand in the deal would mean either no government or no normalization.

With an Iran deal on the table and Saudi enrichment also a possibility, Israel has a full plate when it comes to the issues it needs to work on with the Americans. This is without even mentioning the tension with Hezbollah and other regular issues like arms deals, intelligence collection, and more.

As a result, Israel is in a position now that it has to pick its battles which is just another reason why the judicial overhaul needs to come to an end, and Itamar Ben-Gvir and his party need to stop their racist comments that only reinforce the global sentiment that Israel is slipping away.

Iran remains Israel’s greatest challenge, and while normalization with Saudi Arabia is an historic opportunity, we cannot dismiss the risks looming on the horizon. We need a strong relationship with Washington to work through these issues, something Israel, unfortunately, does not have at the moment.

The writer is the immediate past editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.

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