In DC, wary Ya’alon says he’s making his ‘opinions known’ on Iran

In DC, wary Ya’alon says he’s making his ‘opinions known’ on Iran

Defense minister stresses solidity of US-Israel ties, but doesn’t hide concern that a ‘bad deal’ on Tehran nuclear program may be looming

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) welcomes the arrival of Minister of Defense of Israel Moshe Ya'alon (R) during an honor cordon October 21, 2014 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) welcomes the arrival of Minister of Defense of Israel Moshe Ya'alon (R) during an honor cordon October 21, 2014 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

WASHINGTON — The formal motions of a 19-gun salute and a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Tuesday could not obscure the distance between Washington and Jerusalem when it comes to the terms of a nuclear deal with Iran.

“The Iranian question concerns us,” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon acknowledged, shortly after meeting here with US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. “The question of whether there will be an agreement and what that agreement is concerns us, and I spoke with them about this,” he said. “We are making our opinions known.”

The former IDF chief of general staff has had a tense relationship with the American administration, notably since he referred to US Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this year as “obsessive” and “messianic” when it comes to peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and privately rejected Kerry’s West Bank security proposals as unrealistic.

Evidently determined not to exacerbate those strains, Ya’alon did not harp on the diplomatic implications of the yawning gap between Israel’s hopes for a deal that will strip Iran of its capability to enrich uranium and Washington’s position that reduced enrichment and international monitoring will suffice. He carefully described his talks with Hagel and other security officials as “generally very good meetings which point to the excellent relations” between the two countries.

But Ya’alon also did not suggest that Israel and the US were any closer now to an agreed position regarding the terms of an acceptable Iran deal. The United States is one of six negotiating partners in the framework of the P5+1 talks with Iran, which face a looming November 24 deadline to either come to an agreement or hammer out terms for an extension.

Israeli officials – notably including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – have publicly stated repeatedly that Iran’s “military nuclear” capabilities must be dismantled. The US, by contrast, is reportedly willing to push a deal that would leave Iran with a proportion of its uranium-enriching centrifuges.

Asked whether he believes Israel could live with a centrifuge-equipped Iran following a nuclear deal, Ya’alon responded tellingly that “we have said along the way that sometimes it is better that there is no deal rather than a bad deal. “

“The question is what we are talking about – if we are talking about a number of centrifuges, why do we need to be talking about centrifuges at all? Are they talking about other aspects of the Iranian military nuclear project, such as missile technology which can carry a nuclear warhead? And what about other topics that lie outside the nuclear project, like terror?” Ya’alon added.

State Department officials involved in the negotiations have repeatedly reiterated that Iran’s other problematic policies – its support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as well as its own domestic human rights violations – are not on the table in the P5+1 negotiations. They have also said, however, that even if a nuclear deal is struck, Washington will still wait for changes regarding these other topics before normalizing relations with the Islamic Republic.

Ya’alon maintained Tuesday afternoon that “all of those topics are on the table as part of a larger vision, that we think at least, are common interests between us and the United States.”

When pressed, Ya’alon would not say that he felt at all satisfied by the US position on Iran. Instead, he emphasized that “we still haven’t concluded the visit, but it is an opportunity to express our position and our thoughts on any number of topics including those that are still being debated. There is an opportunity and a place and discussion.”

The Likud minister sought to downplay what have become frequent tit-for-tat exchanges between some Israeli ministers and the Obama administration.

Only last week, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett slammed Kerry for comments in which the secretary of state said it was imperative to restart stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks, since the conflict was helping the Islamic State recruit new members. “There wasn’t a leader I met with in the region who didn’t raise with me spontaneously the need to try to get peace between Israel and the Palestinians, because it was a cause of recruitment and of street anger and agitation that they felt –- and I see a lot of heads nodding –- they had to respond to,” Kerry said Thursday. “People need to understand the connection of that. And it has something to do with humiliation and denial and absence of dignity.”

Ya’alon, no stranger to such brawls, said that he “thought [the topic] is behind us,” but also acknowledged that “in general, there are disagreements, and we can’t always conceal them. It is better that they are carried out behind closed doors; on this visit there have been opportunities to discuss them.”

Speaking amidst rows of American war dead in Arlington National Cemetery, Ya’alon added that “we must not forget that the United States is really the State of Israel’s most important strategic ally. In every aspect, they are the leading power in the world, whether it is economically or militarily or diplomatically, and it is good that we have the opportunity to share our opinions.”

Ya’alon stressed that he believed that the core US-Israel relationship was sound. “I think that in general as I see on this visit, the relationships [are] so strong and well-based – both on shared values as well as shared interests – that I believe that we can weather these storms.”

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