WASHINGTON — With only a day left before the nine months allotted the US-mediated Israeli Israeli-Palestinian peace process were set to run out, Israel’s representative in Washington told participants in an Anti-Defamation League summit that Iran’s nuclear program, not the Palestinians, “is by far the single most important issue facing Israel.”
“The single greatest challenge Israel faces is Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons,” Ambassador Ron Dermer told an audience of hundreds at the annual ADL event. “Our policy is simple: Let Iran have only a peaceful nuclear program and nothing more.”
Dermer warned, however, that Tehran was not truly interested in developing a nuclear program for peaceful purposes – nor did it need to do so. “The truth is that we know that Iran doesn’t need a peaceful nuclear program,” he said. “Iran is awash in oil and natural gas… If Iran stopped being a rogue terrorist regime they could take advantage of their natural resources to their heart’s delight.”
The ambassador said that a state interested in pursuing a program for peaceful purposes alone had no need to enrich its own uranium or to build underground facilities and heavy water plants, all things that Iran has done and seeks to retain as part of a final agreement with the P5+1 world powers. He also noted that Iran’s development of intercontinental ballistic missile technology could only be logically applied to the delivery of nuclear payloads.
“Their only purpose is to carry a nuclear warhead,” warned Dermer. “If Iran wants a peaceful nuclear program, it has no need at all for ICBMs.”
Dermer said that “Israel is very concerned about the current discussions with Iran because all signs point to the P5+1 accepting a deal that will leave Iran’s nuclear weapons capability intact” by allowing Iran to maintain its heavy water facility at Arak, its ICBM program, thousands of uranium-enriching centrifuges and stockpiles of enriched uranium. Israel and the P5+1 powers have had open disagreements throughout the past five months since an interim deal was reached with Iran regarding the language – and obligations – necessary to reach an end goal of preventing its nuclear armament.
Israel has long insisted that any final deal must seriously curtail Iran’s capability to produce a single nuclear warhead. Other Western powers have merely emphasized that Iran not be allowed to actually produce a nuclear weapon.
The difference, Dermer argued, was one of expanding the already-brief breakout time: the amount of time it would take Iran — if it decided to violate the interim agreement — to deploy a single nuclear device.
“The international community must not allow Iran to keep its nuclear weapons infrastructure,” he insisted. “The only deal that should be acceptable is the one that dismantles Iran’s nuclear weapons production capability.”
In a rare nod to the US administration on a topic that has frequently generated friction between Jerusalem and Washington, Dermer said that “Israel appreciates that the Obama regime is working hard to make sure that the sanctions regime doesn’t unravel,” but expressed concern that a final agreement would remove incentives from Iran for good behavior, even as the current interim agreement has impacted the sanctions regime more than initially estimated by Obama administration officials.
Only after his comments on Iran did Dermer redirect his speech to address the topic of the recent breakdown in talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Dermer began by explaining why Israel froze talks late last week after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced that Hamas would join a new technocratic Palestinian government.
“It is said you make peace with enemies,” Dermer said, invoking a famous quote by assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. “You make peace with enemies who want peace. Hamas does not want peace.”
Dermer said that if Hamas were to recognize Israel’s right to exist and renounce terrorism, Israel would be willing to negotiate with a government that included the organization, but then added that in that case “Hamas would not be Hamas.”
Reiterating statements made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on prominent US Sunday morning news talk shows this week, Dermer emphasized that Israel was unwilling to negotiate in a situation in which there are “technocrats” in the front office who support talks, while Hamas sits in the back office.
“Abbas has to choose – peace with Israel or a pact with Hamas,” Dermer continued. “He chose Hamas and so Israel suspended the talks.”
Dermer responded to a question from the audience regarding the role of continued construction in the West Bank, asserting that “the argument that because of settlements there is no peace is absurd. There was 50 years of conflict before there were settlements.”
According to the ambassador, “the heart of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is the refusal of the Palestinians to recognize a Jewish state in any borders.” Dermer said that Netanayhu recognized that fact, and it was why he placed Palestinian recognition of the “right of a Jewish people to a nation state” as a precondition for reaching a final agreement.
Although he described the question of settlements as a “sideshow” to the “true nature of the conflict,” Dermer acknowledged that Israel will eventually “have to resolve the issue of the settlements.”
“It is going to be part of the negotiations,” he continued. “It is going to require difficult decisions, but when we deal with an Arab leader who is ready to make peace, we have made such decisions in the past.”