Nuke deal presents wrenching dilemma for Israel


The notion that the world is a safer place now that the United States and other powers have made a deal with Iran over its nuclear weapons program does not find a lot of believers in Israel, whose people live less than a thousand miles away from the Iranian capital and much closer than that from Tehran’s most militant friends.

The new president of Iran and his foreign minister have endeavored, with remarkable effectiveness, to change their country’s image in the world.

They have shown a new flexibility in negotiations; flexibility that has been thoroughly reciprocated with an agreement to loosen sanctions by the so-called P5+1 — European nations, the United States, China and Russia — in exchange for a partial freeze of nuclear activities by the Islamic Republic.

In a baffling development, the two sides say this interim deal, which is supposed to last for six months, has not yet gone into effect. Nobody knows precisely when to press the button to start the stopwatch, which means that other clock, the one marking time toward Tehran’s achievement of its nuclear goals, is still ticking.

If the agreement reached last month in Geneva has a chance of succeeding, it will require strict and vigilant enforcement by the U.S. government and its allies. So far, however, there is nothing to enforce, which is a reason for grave concern.

But even before U.S. acknowledgement that it didn’t know when Iran is supposed to start slowing down its progress toward a nuclear weapon under the deal, polls showed the Israeli public, including Israeli Arabs and Jews, are deeply skeptical that this agreement will truly stop what they and much of the world believe is Iran’s determined march toward a nuclear weapons capability.

The most recent edition of the Peace Index poll by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute showed the vast majority of Israelis, Israeli Jews and Arabs, don’t believe this new path will prevent a nuclear Iran.

It didn’t help that just as the deal was being made, the man who truly holds power in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, reiterated his view that Israel will be “annihilated,” describing the country as a “rabid dog.”

While President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javar Zarif show a new face to the world, their boss, Khamanei, is reassuring hardliners at home that they have nothing to worry about.

Israelis, on the other hand, now see themselves caught between two realities. While they see Iran as a threat that the world is failing to stop, they also see their fate closely tied to America’s actions.

More than 70 percent told pollsters that the United States is Israel’s most faithful ally. And almost 80 percent said Israel’s very “existence” depends on U.S. support.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reaction to the deal with Iran reflects the view of most (though not all) Israelis, that Iran is actively deceiving the international community. But his loud denunciations are not without controversy in a country that places such high value on the relationship with America.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert chastised Netanyahu, saying he should follow the policy of previous governments of working quietly behind the scenes with Washington. That was also the view of the newly elected leader of the opposition Labor Party, Isaac Herzog, who urged the prime minister to work at strengthening ties with Washington.

Netanyahu rejected Olmert’s calls for quiet diplomacy, vowing that when “Israel’s citizens are in danger, I will not be quiet.”

A number of knowledgeable Israelis have said the Geneva deal is not as bad as the prime minister claims, but their view is in the minority.

For Israelis, who value the relationship with the United States above anything, next to their own survival, the situation presents a wrenching dilemma. How best to persuade Washington to take a much stronger line in negotiations with Tehran without harming U.S. relations.

Netanyahu is betting that his vocal criticism and his vow to take action if America fails to prevent a nuclear Iran will not only guide U.S. negotiators, but will also strengthen America’s hand when dealing with Iran.

Israelis are not so sure that’s the best strategy, but they fervently hope it will succeed.

Read more Frida Ghitis stories from the Miami Herald

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