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Netanyahu Abhors the Iran Deal—And There's Little He Can Do About It

Pool/Getty Images News

On Friday morning, as Iran appeared to be on the verge of a preliminary deal over its nuclear program with the P5+1, John Kerry flew to Israel to brief Benjamin Netanyahu on the details of the talks. According to Ha’aretz, the two were both supposed to present statements to the media, but in light of the developing rift between Israel and the U.S. on the issue, Kerry decided to skip his. The prime minister went ahead. The 86-second video of his remarks is well worth watching. I have never seen Netanyahu this rattled.

“I understand the Iranians are walking around very satisfied in Geneva, as well they should be, because they got everything and paid nothing, everything they wanted” said the visibly shaken prime minister, his tie off-kilter, his words laced with anger. “They wanted relief of sanctions after years of a grueling sanctions regime. They got that. They’re paying nothing because they’re not reducing in any way their nuclear enrichment capability, so Iran got the deal of the century, and the international community got a bad deal. This is a very bad deal. And Israel utterly rejects it. And what I’m saying is shared by many, many in the region, whether or not they express it publicly. Israel is not obliged by this agreement, and Israel will do everything it needs to do to defend itself and to defend itself and to defend the security of its people.”

No deal was reached in Geneva, largely due to last-minute objections from the French—objections which were, by most accounts, more stringent than the U.S.’s. Under the terms of the developing deal, Iran would have suspended higher-grade enrichment for six months, though significantly, it would not have been required to ship any fissile material out of the country, to take any centrifuges offline, or to stop construction of its heavy-water reactor at Arak. In return, the U.S. would have relaxed some lighter sanctions, such as those on gold transactions, and unfrozen some Iranian assets. Netanyahu’s assertion that Iran “got everything and paid nothing” may have been hyperbole. But his tone underscored a very real fear here—by no means limited to Netanyahu—that the U.S. is being taken for a ride.

It’s often said that the worst thing one can be called in Israeli politics is not a liar, not a thief, but a freyer—a sucker. Netanyahu believes that by easing the sanctions before achieving a final deal, at a time when those very sanctions have finally forced Iran to the table, the Americans are being freyers. “President Obama and Secretary Kerry said clearly that the Iranians are coming to the table with some willingness to compromise only because of the sanctions, so everyone should accept this simple equation: The greater the pressure, the greater the chances,” Israeli strategic-affairs minister (and Netanyahu’s Iran point man) Yuval Steinitz, whom I profiled last week, told me. “If you accept the formula ‘the greater the pressure, the greater the chances,’ it also follows logically ‘the lesser the pressure, the lesser the chances,’ so don’t ease the pressure on Iran before you achieve your final satisfactory agreement, your final goal.”

Steinitz has tried reorienting Israel’s rhetoric away from opposing the talks, saying that Israel simply wanted to see an accord more similar to the successful 2003 one with Libya than to the failed 1994 one with North Korea. He repeated Netanyahu’s insistence that Iran be left with no enrichment capabilities, questioning why it needed them when most advanced countries produce nuclear energy without them. His claim was that any deal that didn’t fully dismantle Iran’s ability to make a break for the bomb would not stop the regional arms race that President Obama has warned against.

“Other countries in the vicinity like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, and maybe other players will say, ‘OK, if they remain so close to the bomb, we have to develop our own military nuclear projects,’” he told me. It is not an idle concern. According to a BBC report last week, Saudi Arabia may have already paid Pakistan for nukes.

Steinitz reiterated to me the Israeli cliché that “we have the right to defend ourselves, by ourselves, against any threat, all the more so against existential threats.” But despite his words and Netanyahu’s, one thing is abundantly clear: So long as the negotiations appear to be making progress, Israel will not even think about striking.  There remains disagreement in Israel’s political and security circles about the prospects for a satisfactory deal that would permanently end the Iranian nuclear threat. But the unanimous concern—as expressed to me recently by former Israeli defense-intelligence chief Amos Yadlin in a lengthy interview about Iran—is that a short-term deal would only buy time for the Iranians. Time to spin more centrifuges that would shorten the “breakout” time needed to enrich enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb—already down to as little as a month, according to the Institute for Science and International Security. And time to proceed with fortifying measures that would make an already-iffy Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities exponentially more difficult (Once operational, the Arak reactor—set to produce plutonium, an alternative bomb fuel—would essentially be off-limits to a strike due to the massive civilian casualties that would be caused by radiation leaks.

“We should let [Rouhani] enjoy the benefit of the doubt, that maybe something is different,” Yadlin told me at the time. “But we should not let him drag it out two years and then realize that he deceived us, and that we don’t have the military option on the table anymore.”

Yadlin is a moderate on the Iran issue. He was one of the security chiefs who convinced Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak not to strike Iran. He argued as late as September 2012 that there was “more time” to stop Iran via other measures before resorting to overt force. And unlike Netanyahu, he has said Israel could accept a deal allowing Iran symbolic enrichment capabilities provided it limits the number of centrifuges such that the breakout period is brought back to two years, leaving enough time for action if Iran violates it.

“For Israel, serious negotiations are a win-win situation because if a reasonable deal is reached, which is reliable and contains intrusive inspections and turns the nuclear clock backwards, it’s better than the dangerous options of the ‘bomb or the bombing,’” he told me. “And if negotiations fail, then there will be legitimacy to take preventive action to stop Iran.”

It is doubtful whether the prime minister agrees. Netanyahu has made stopping a nuclear Iran the central mission of his premiership, speaking often about preventing a second Holocaust. Contrary to popular belief, he has come very close to striking Iran least twice—once in the summer of 2010 and again before last year’s U.S. presidential election. At the critical moment, he backed down—partly due to the opposition of his security chiefs and other senior ministers in his government, partly due to a bright red light from the United States.

But if Netanyahu’s body language in that video is any indication, he must be wondering now whether he may have waited too long, whether the critical moment for Israeli action—when Ahmadinejad was the face of the regime, when the U.S. was distracted by elections—may have passed. For now, with the military option in deep freeze, he is doing all he can do: screaming at the top of his lungs, trying to stop a diplomatic train that may have already left the station.