When it comes to stopping Iran, it is now or never

Obama gave an optimistic speech at the U.N. Now it is Netanyahu’s turn to talk, and he wants to rein in the excitement over Iran’s conciliatory tone and say: Do not let Iran become North Korea; do not go for a deal at any cost.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in New York this week with the goal of unmasking new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani. He wants to drive home the notion that the winds of change blowing from Iran are a result of Western pressure. Nothing else could be attributed to that. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the one who calls the shots and serves as the driving force when it comes to the Islamic Revolution. His directives to go ahead with the nuclear program have not bee amended. Netanyahu knows that. That is why he has been unrelenting.

Contrary to what many people think, the prime minister is not against Western or U.S. diplomacy. If a military confrontation with Iran can be averted and if Iran can give up its military nuclear program through peaceful means, Netanyahu would prefer that course of action. But a quick review of recent history would suggest that Iran will only start talking seriously if a threatening sword is placed against its throat. A clear-cut schedule and a credible action-plan, not unlike what was deliberated on Syria, could bear fruit when it comes to Iran as well.

But, and this is a big but, Netanyahu believes that when it comes to a diplomatic solution, it is now or never. He believes that the expiration date for talks has come and gone. Talks have continued for the past eight years and the Iranians have been taking advantage of them to move ahead with their nuclear program.

Netanyahu will have two opportunities to make his case next week: the first, when he meets U.S. President Barack Obama, who is no longer willing to serve as the world’s policeman and who has exchanged letters with Iran’s leader and who has a problematic track record when it comes to the Middle East. The second opportunity is a much more public venue, when he delivers his address before the U.N. General Assembly.

Netanyahu will try to teach the Americans a history lesson involving a not so distant affair that culminated with another big con job: North Korea. The West held talks with that country as well. Promises were made. Then, one morning, the world woke up to a deafening roar of thunder: the regime had conducted a nuclear test. The North Koreans proved that a radical regime can fool the world. Do not create a new North Korean model, Netanyahu will say.

The premier will also show evidence indicating that the Iranians are already fooling the world. They say they do not want nuclear weapons, Netanyahu will warn. But the International Atomic Energy Agency has already looked into the matter and concluded that they were seeking such weapons, he will continue. He will also note that Iran is sponsoring global terrorism. He will pull no punches.

Determination will lead to action?

Netanyahu will depart for the U.S. on Saturday night. On Monday he will meet with Obama in Washington. Then he will go back to New York and at noon on the following day, Tuesday, he will address the General Assembly. Last year he drew a red line on a bomb diagram. Apparently the Iranians have been very careful not to reach the red lines he delineated. Rather than cross the lines, they fudged them. They developed a new program, a so called red-line detour path. It is based on plutonium reactors that would be active even as the uranium facilities go on with the enrichment activity. So Netanyahu updated his red lines. Instead of three lines there are now four: stopping all uranium enrichment activity; removing the enriched uranium from Iran; shutting down the nuclear facility in Qom; freezing the plutonium-based activity. Israel insists that only the combination of all four steps would effect a meaningful halt to Iran’s nuclear program. Until that happens, the pressure must increase, not decrease.

Behind closed doors Netanyahu has been saying that the events that have engulfed the region over the past several weeks have proven that his doubtful stance was warranted. A rogue nation that develops or acquires weapons of mass destruction might very well use them. Netanyahu insists that only a credible military threat could stop Iran’s nuclearization.

In a recent meeting on Iran, which included both civilian and military officials, the participants were briefed that Iran’s economy has lost some $100 billion over the past 18 months as a result of the Western sanctions. Considering the fact that the annual scope of Iran’s economic activity normally amount to about $450 billion, this is a crushing blow.

The U.S. zigzag — spearheaded by Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry — has generated consternation among officials in Jerusalem. But there is still a long way to go before the U.S. leaves Israel in the lurch, a scenario mentioned by Yedioth Ahronoth columnist Eitan Haber. Both U.S. and Israeli leaders have already made the same declarations, and the bottom line is that the U.S. will not let Iran have a nuclear weapon. This pledge binds both the president and the U.S. as a whole. However, as we all know, U.S. and Israeli clocks are not identical and they show different times. Israel’s proximity to Iran has made it more vulnerable and more anxious. If Israel feels there is an emerging danger, it would take steps to remove it. This is not a threat, it is a modus operandi. The Americans would not interfere nor would they stop Israel if it decides to act against Iran.

And what about Iran? Iran wants to offset the Western sanctions and to buy time, all the while cleverly advancing toward a bomb. Iran has been sweet-talking its way to that goal. Rouhani and the ayatollahs’ regime have been trying to approach the West using a softer diplomatic language, hoping to convince the world that they are seeking a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff.

This conciliatory language is what led to Rouhani’s election in the first place, as he had promised to have the sanctions lifted through words. This approach lies in stark contrast to that of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Now, after Obama and Rouhani have exchanged letters, and after Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif, met and shook hands — when the two attended a meeting alongside the Russian, Chinese, French, German and British foreign ministers — everyone is thinking about their next move.

The U.S. has been trying to allay Israel’s fears: “We will not take Iran’s bait,” is a common refrain in the White House, the Pentagon, the House of Representatives and the Senate. They stress that another diplomatic attempt is being made to stop the nuclear madness.

The U.N. General Assembly has coincided with the a Palestinian Authority donors conference. The Quartet — comprising the EU, the U.N., the U.S. and Russia — is scheduled to convene this week to discuss the Middle East. Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni will also attend the conference, and both are expected to brief the gatherers on peace talks. U.S. special envoy Martin Indyk will deliver a speech at the upcoming J Street conference. So although the Iranian issue is front and center for the prime minister, the Palestinian issue will not be neglected.

Speaking of the Palestinian-Israeli talks, the Americans have set a deadline for a permanent peace accord: May 2014. The two sides are to discuss all the core issue, determine the new borders, decide on the future of the refugees and agree on the status of Jerusalem. This will be the negotiators’ eighth meeting since the talks were resumed. More deadly terrorists are expected to be released in October, pursuant to a government decision stipulating the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners who have been incarcerated since before the Oslo Accords.

The pressure on Israel has continued nevertheless, and it is still required to give some goodies to the Palestinians. This time the Gaza Strip is included.

So where is all this heading? Netanyahu may have answered that question in his recent speech at the state’s official Yom Kippur War memorial service: “It is incumbent upon the nation’s leadership to be sober, so that it does not get caught up in illusions and false hopes. It must have a complete view of the strategic landscape. It must always be ready. Sometimes, it must make a tough decision between what’s bad and what’s worse. And it must ensure the continued existence of the State of Israel.” His rhetoric suggests that an agreement is possible — if the Palestinians do the unthinkable and actually compromise.

Musical chairs

Those in Netanyahu’s inner circle are on their way out, but next week they will all stand next to him. National Security Council Director Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror is expected to leave at the end of October. Former Mossad Deputy Director Yossi Cohen is already being groomed for the job by Amidror at the Prime Minister’s Office. They will both accompany Netanyahu to the United Nations, but more importantly, they will be there at his side when he meets Obama. In Washington, Netanyahu will meet the outgoing Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, who will leave his post by the end of the month. He will also meet with his replacement, Ron Dermer, who used to be his close adviser on foreign policy. He is already preparing for his new job. Prime Minister’s Office Bureau Chief Gil Sheffer will also depart. Former Netanyahu adviser Ari Harow will replace him.

Netanyahu has a very centralized managerial style. He likes to micro-manage every detail. He has very good command of the Iranian issue and other foreign policy matters. When it comes to domestic politics, however, things are not so great, with some people expressing concern over the various pitfalls. He has recently had to deal with people being insulted, with turf and ego wars between the ministers and with party activists applying their own pressure.

The preoccupation with the peace process has resulted in a restless coalition. The recent murders of two soldiers — Tomer Hazan and Gal Kobi — has already prompted seven ministers from Habayit Hayehudi and Likud-Beytenu to sign a letter asking the prime minister to reconsider the upcoming prisoner release. Ministers Yisrael Katz, Naftali Bennett, Ori Orbach, Uri Ariel, Uzi Landau, Sofa Landver and Yair Shamir want to see the murders affect the talks between Livni and Erekat.

There is another letter, which is just as combative. It is signed by six deputy ministers — Zeev Elkin, Ofir Akunis, Danny Danon, Tzipi Hotovely (all from Likud), Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan and Avi Wortzman (Habayit Hayehudi) — and another 13 MK, including Coalition Chairman and Likud Faction Leader Yariv Levin and another six faction leaders and two deputy Knesset speakers. They want the prime minister to suspend the peace process. “You will soon depart on your way to a meeting with the U.S. president as the representative of Israel, and you will also speak on behalf of the country before the U.N. We call upon you to clarify Israel’s official stance — that the Jewish people have natural, historic and legal rights on their entire homeland and on their eternal capital Jerusalem. Twenty years after the terrible Oslo Accords, it is our belief that a return to the Oslo framework, including the relinquishing of territory to the Palestinian Authority, would be the wrong course of action.”

These letters represent a trend. Ministers and MKs are going out against the very position Netanyahu is advocating on the worlds stage. Danny Danon has done it in the most blatant way (in an op-ed in the New York Times and Haaretz). But he is not the only one. Other politicos and coalition MKs are expressing their views without any hindrances.

Hotovely told a group of Likud activists this week that the “Prime Minister must heed the requests of all the party segments [to nullify the decision to release terrorists]. The Likud Party has set red lines for every concession in the peace process. He who is the helm of the party cannot divorce himself from the what the overwhelming majority of the party wants.” Will Netanyahu listen? We will wait and find out very shortly.

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