What's behind Israel's softer tone on Iran?

Wary of being entirely left out of the conversation on Iran's nuclear program, Israel seems newly willing to give diplomatic efforts a chance to succeed.

Ariel Schalit/AP
Israel's President Shimon Peres (r.) listens to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speech during the opening session of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Monday, Oct. 14, 2013.

As Iran meets with world powers today for the first round of nuclear talks since the US-Iran thaw began last month, Israel has softened its opposition to diplomacy with Iran.

With a compromise looking increasingly likely, Israel is still insisting on maintaining sanctions on Iran, but now as an essential tool of international diplomacy rather than Step 1 in preventing the Islamic Republic from wiping out the Jewish state.

“It would be a historic mistake to relax the pressure on Iran now, a moment before the sanctions achieve their goal. There can be no giving in at this time and the pressure must be continued,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the opening of the Knesset’s winter session yesterday. “Easing the pressure will not strengthen moderate trends in Iran. On the contrary, it will strengthen the uncompromising views of the real ruler of Iran, the Ayatollah Khamenei, and will be seen as a significant victory by him.”

Yesterday the security cabinet unanimously adopted a statement affirming Israel’s support for a diplomatic solution if Iran were to take the following actions:

  • Cease all nuclear enrichment.
  • Remove from its territory all the stockpiles of enriched uranium.
  • Dismantle the underground facilities near Qom and Natanz, including the centrifuges inside them.
  • Stop all work on the plutonium-producing heavy water reactor in Arak.

Both the United States and the European Union, whose sanctions have severely affected Iran’s economy, seem keen for an agreement with Tehran and appear unlikely to uphold Israel’s full demands.

Perhaps in recognition of that, Mr. Netanyahu’s address as well as the security cabinet statement appeared to mark a shift in rhetoric from Israel’s initial blanket rejection of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s overtures. Rather than taking a tone of existential crisis, with allusions to the Holocaust, they emphasized the international nature of the threat posed by Iran and underscored Israeli support for a diplomatic solution, so long as Tehran proves its goodwill with concrete action.

“The tone [of the statement] is more diplomatic, saying if this will work, we will support it,” says Alon Liel, former director-general of the Israeli foreign ministry. “But I don’t think that anyone in this security cabinet started believing that the Iranians are going to fulfill all these demands.”

The security cabinet statement strongly emphasized the relevant UN Security Council resolutions and Tehran’s violations of them, despite widespread Israeli disdain for the UN, which many see as biased against Israel. David Ben-Gurion, the founder of Israel, famously belittled the international body with the phrase “um-shmoom” – roughly translated, the UN is nonsense.

In striving to shore up broad support, Netanyahu drew a parallel with Syria’s use of chemical weapons, which nearly prompted the US and some European nations to launch a military strike against the Assad regime.

“I would like to ask you what the international reaction would be if Syria were to offer to dismantle only 20 percent of its chemical weapons and retain the rest? This is exactly what Iran is proposing,” said the prime minister in his address yesterday. “Just as it must be ensured that Syria does not lead the international community astray, and completely dismantles its chemical weapons, so too must Iran not be allowed to continue its military nuclear program and retain its ability to break through to nuclear weapons."

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