By Jeffrey Goldberg
WASHINGTON: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is very upset with the P5+1 countries — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany — for agreeing, in principle, to the idea that Iran could be granted temporary sanctions relief in exchange for a temporary halt to its nuclear program.
These provisional concessions, in exchange for a provisional freeze, would theoretically buy time for negotiators to work out a permanent deal. Such a deal would — if the West negotiates wisely — prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. And that would make Israel and the Arab states very happy.
“Israel understands that there are proposals on the table in Geneva today that would ease the pressure on Iran for concessions that are not concessions at all. This proposal would allow Iran to retain the capabilities to make nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said last week. “This proposal will allow Iran to preserve its ability to build a nuclear weapon.”
The prime minister went on, “The sanctions regime brought the Iranian economy to the brink of the abyss, and the policies of the P5+1 can force Iran to completely dismantle its nuclear weapons program, and that means stopping all enrichment, and all work on the heavy water reactor and on plutonium.”
Netanyahu fears that the removal of even one brick from the wall of sanctions would cause the entire edifice to crumble. And he’s right: There are many countries, and certainly many multinational conglomerates, that are eager to go back to business as usual in Iran; any softening, even temporarily, in the sanctions program, could spur at least some of them to rush in.
We may be at a kind of “peak sanctions” moment right now. The nightmare for Israel and the Arabs is that the Iranians, who are in Geneva for only one reason — to gain sanctions relief — will get the relief they want without being forced to permanently mothball their nuclear facilities.
Netanyahu may be overreacting, but his fears aren’t absurd: Negotiators for the West seem a bit overeager to make a deal with Iran, and a bit too worried about offending Iranian regime sensibilities, especially when you consider that it is Iran, not the U.S., that should, in fact, be desperate for a deal.
So why are the prime minister’s complaints being ignored? Two reasons.
The first reason is that U.S. President Barack Obama has him boxed in. Netanyahu can’t launch a unilateral strike on Iran now that the U.S. is actively negotiating with its leaders. That would just be outre. So Netanyahu is in a time-out of sorts — and therefore semi-marginalized.
The second reason is one Netanyahu, so far at least, has refused to comprehend. His unwillingness to permanently freeze settlement growth on the West Bank, to make the sort of grand gesture toward the Palestinians that would advance the peace process, has caused even those in Washington and Europe who are sympathetic to his stance on Iran to write him off as generally immovable and irrational.
Of course, the growth of settlements has nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran is not seeking the capability to build a nuclear weapon in order to bring about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
Netanyahu argues that these are two separate issues, and he’s correct. Except that, in the world of international diplomacy, they are inextricably linked. The Obama administration hears Netanyahu’s demands for more action on Iran and tries — so far, fairly successfully — to meet that call for action. But when the Obama administration turns around and asks Netanyahu to make the sort of gestures that might advance the peace process, it more often than not gets stonewalled.
Listen to Secretary of State John Kerry speaking in Israel and ask yourself if this is a man who is particularly eager to listen to Netanyahu on Iran: “If we do not resolve the issues between Palestinians and Israelis, if we do not find a way to find peace, there will be an increasing isolation of Israel, there will be an increasing campaign of delegitimization of Israel that’s been taking place on an international basis.”
Kerry went on to say, “If we do not resolve the question of settlements, and the question of who lives where and how and what rights they have; if we don’t end the presence of Israeli soldiers perpetually within the West Bank, then there will be an increasing feeling that if we cannot get peace with a leadership that is committed to non-violence, you may wind up with leadership that is committed to violence.”
Kerry too would argue — as would most responsible leaders — that the work to prevent Iran from going nuclear is separate from the work of bringing about a two-state solution. But again, in reality, Netanyahu’s recalcitrance on the peace process is isolating him from the rest of the world, precisely at a moment when he needs the rest of the world to help him.
Netanyahu understands that a nuclear Iran poses an existential threat to the Jewish state. He also understands that the Palestinians do not pose an existential threat to the Jewish state. Quite the opposite. He has lately shown signs of understanding what Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and other ex-Likud leaders came to understand: Holding onto the West Bank in perpetuity could lead to the end of Israel as a Jewish democracy. There are excellent reasons for Netanyahu to freeze the growth of settlements. Getting the world on his side at a particularly hazardous moment is just one.
Golberg is a Bloomberg View columnist.