Skeptical Netanyahu knows he’s ‘spoiling the party’ on Iran
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Skeptical Netanyahu knows he’s ‘spoiling the party’ on Iran

PM doesn’t want anyone easing the pressure until there’s real change in Tehran’s nuclear program. But it’s a stance that isolating Israel, while Rouhani leads his country in from the cold

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a meeting with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, August 25, 2013 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a meeting with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, August 25, 2013 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers aren’t alone in their skepticism of Tehran’s newly friendly face. But Jerusalem’s refusal to consider giving the Iranians a chance to prove their sincerity, and to do as little as possible to acknowledge the ostensible goodwill gestures — as underlined by the Israeli delegation solo boycott of President Hasan Rouhani’s UN speech on Tuesday — threatens to isolate Israel rather than the Islamist foe it so mistrusts.

Jerusalem is well aware of this. Netanyahu knows he’s “spoiling the party,” an official told The Times of Israel with striking candor. But the prime minister, said the official, sees a “moral obligation” in insisting that Iran be measured by deeds not speeches, in urging the world not to be misled by empty rhetoric.

The Iranian charm offensive has been gathering momentum since Rouhani was elected in June. It has included ostensible respect for Jewish sensitivities, featuring Rosh Hashanah greetings from Rouhani or his Twitter managers. More substantively, it saw (quickly denied) reports last week that Iran might be prepared to close its underground enrichment facility in Fordo.

And on Tuesday, the outreach became an onslaught. In his first appearance at the United Nations General Assembly, Rouhani sought to woo the world with a brief, direct speech in which he used the word “peace” 19 times (and mentioned the Torah). Soon afterwards, in a CNN interview, he starkly separated himself still further from his easy-to-demonize predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, by acknowledging the Holocaust, though not its scope, and condemning it.

Much of the international community, though wary of Iran’s new outreach, is “tired of war” as Rouhani put it, and therefore willing to wait and see if Tehran will take actions to match its president’s new fine words. France’s president met with him on Tuesday; America’s would have done.

US President Barack Obama speaks during the 68th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013. (photo credit: AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
US President Barack Obama speaks during the 68th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013. (photo credit: AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

During his speech, before he had even heard Rouhani’s conciliatory address, indeed, President Barack Obama signalized readiness to engage with Rouhani’s government, speaking of the imperative to test the preferred diplomatic route to thwarting Iran’s nuclear weapons drive. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to meet his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on Thursday, the first meeting at that level in three decades.

But for all that readiness to engage, Obama also declared that Washington “will not tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction” and clarified that he is “determined to prevent [the Iranians] from developing a nuclear weapon.” The US is prepared “to use all elements of our power, including military force,” to secure its interests in the Middle East, he stressed.

Likewise, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who on Monday met Zarif, said that while London is “open to better relations” with Tehran, the Iranians’ ostensible change of heart must be tested. “The time is now right for those statements [from Iran’s leaders] to be matched by concrete steps by Iran to address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s intentions.”

Germany, too, plainly remains thoroughly cautious. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who met Rouhani in New York, said Berlin would use the upcoming nuclear negotiations with the Iranians “to test if recent statements are rhetorical or could lead to action.”

Only Israel has made up its mind, with Netanyahu adamant that Rouhani’s comments and tone are disingenuous, “hypocritical,” “cynical” — designed solely to buy time while Iran inches toward the bomb.

Before Rouhani had even spoken, Netanyahu was declaring that he wouldn’t be fooled by Iran’s “smokescreen” and urging the world not to be fooled either. In a video statement after Obama’s speech, the prime minister, quoting the US president, said he too would “welcome a genuine diplomatic solution that truly dismantles Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons.” His emphasis was on the words “genuine” and “truly,” and he uttered them in tones that bespoke his immense skepticism.

The decision to then order out the members of Israel’s UN delegation meant Netanyahu was dismissing Rouhani’s rhetoric before even hearing it. And he justified the move as soon as Rouhani had finished his address because, he said, for them to have stayed “would have given legitimacy to a regime that does not accept that the Holocaust happened and publicly declares its desire to wipe Israel off the map.” As Israel’s prime minister, Netanyahu said, “I won’t allow the Israeli delegation to be part of a cynical public relations charade by a regime that denies that Holocaust and calls for our destruction.”

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani speaks to the UN General Assembly on September 24. (screen capture: UN live stream)
Iranian President Hasan Rouhani speaks to the UN General Assembly on September 24. (screen capture: UN live stream)

As it turned out, from the UN podium, Rouhani vowed that “Iran poses absolutely no threat to the world or the region,” and spoke of ways to go about “ensuring the legitimate rights of all countries in the world, including in the Middle East.” And no sooner was he finished at the General Assembly than he was heading off to tell CNN that “any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis created towards the Jews, is reprehensible and condemnable.”

Some analysts had felt the Iranians’ refusal to acknowledge the Holocaust might be the last ace up Netanyahu’s sleeve, as ostensibly peace-loving Rouhani conquered the hearts and minds of the international community. Iran’s enriching uranium and sponsoring terrorism – these are issues that Western countries, especially those that believe they can remain unaffected, think they can live with. But Holocaust denial is a universal red flag.

Netanyahu did not immediately comment on Rouhani’s Holocaust remarks, but his loyal Minister of Intelligence, Yuval Steinitz, was reduced to complaining that Rouhani “didn’t condemn those who have denied” the Holocaust. Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin opined that just because the Iranian president recognized the Shoah, didn’t mean the Islamic Republic is “enlightened and cultivated,” since “Iranian spiritual leaders who have denied the Holocaust are still in place.” Is it Israel or Iran that looks small-minded after those comments? Who seems magnanimous and who petty?

Israel’s position was set out by Netanyahu before Rouhani went to New York and it evidently remains unchanged: unless or until Iran fulfills Israel’s four conditions — halting uranium enrichment, removing already enriched material, shutting down the Fordo facility and discontinuing the plutonium track – there should be no easing the pressure on the regime.

“The prime minister is aware that he’s spoiling the party,” the Israeli official told The Times of Israel, referring to Jerusalem’s insistent skepticism in face of the world’s cautious optimism. “Many people in the international community want to believe in Rouhani’s charm offensive. But the prime minister believes firmly that we haven’t seen change of substance. And he will make his case even if there are those who believe that he’s spoiling the party, even if he risks sounding like a broken record. He believes that’s his moral obligation.”

Maybe so. But so long as Jerusalem holds to that line, its isolation is likely to grow, and Iran’s supporters will be able to depict the Jewish state as the intransigent party.

As Obama showed on Tuesday, it is possible to welcome Iran’s overtures without compromising on core demands, and even without taking the military option off the table, in the likely case that Tehran fails to live up to the expectations its new president is raising.

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