As has been publicly unmistakable for the past 10 days, Israel and its key ally the United States are deeply at odds over the terms of an interim deal that may well be concluded shortly between the P5+1 countries and Iran. As talks on that deal resume in Geneva on Wednesday, the following are 10 pointers and insights on Israel’s assessments, positions, and possible actions.
1. Israel always knew the Obama Administration was all about “engagement” and that it would keep open the door to a diplomatic arrangement with Iran almost indefinitely. But there were those in Jerusalem who did not rule out an American resort to force, under certain circumstances, until the Syrian chemical weapons crisis over the summer. At that juncture, the horrified American public and Congressional reaction to the prospect of imminent conflict with Syria further hardened the Administration’s determination to do whatever it could to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis without resorting to force. And, since then, Israel has broadly concluded that — while the US insists it is not bluffing, and while it has made preparations for military action — there is no credible American military option.
2. Israel assumed that there were various back channel negotiations taking place between the US and Iran. Despite American pledges to fully coordinate with Israel in grappling with the rogue Iranian nuclear program, Jerusalem was not kept informed of all such contacts.
3. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was aware of the US game-plan for an interim deal en route to a more permanent arrangement. The news 10 days ago that this interim deal, as presented in Geneva by the P5+1 nations, would enable Iran to continue enrichment to 3.5% was deeply discomfiting but no great surprise; the news that Iran would be allowed — in the initial formulations of the deal — to continue work at the Arak heavy water facility, by contrast, was unexpected and profoundly troubling for Jerusalem. That facility, if work continues, will go live sometime next year, and then becomes deeply problematic to target in any military intervention.
4. Israel regards Secretary of State John Kerry’s interactions on the Iran negotiations in recent weeks as illogical, inconsistent and problematic. There is a fundamental contradiction between the secretary’s assurances that Israel has been kept fully updated and his insistence that Israel should not critique a deal about which it is less than fully informed. His assertion that Israel should not criticize the deal before it is done is regarded as risible, since once a deal is done, any criticism would be rendered irrelevant.
5. If, as seems highly likely, an interim deal is reached in Geneva this week or soon afterward, Israel is likely to publicly hold to its position that it reserves the right to defend itself and its people, and is not beholden to any agreement signed between the P5+1 nations and Iran.
6. History would suggest that Israel is entirely capable of defying the international community to act militarily if it regards itself to be facing an existential threat. It has defied the international community in the past, notably in 1948, 1956 and 1967. The Sinai 1956 circumstances make for interesting consideration: Israel believed it had some six months in which to act before the Egyptian army would have absorbed Soviet weaponry for which Israel felt it had no answer. And it acted.
7. Israeli-US tensions over Iran have now emphatically reached the level of a major crisis, involving a fundamental clash of interests. Much of this stems from structural differences: The US is a big country, war wary, a long way from Iran, and not threatened with annihilation. Israel is a small country, relatively close to Iran, potentially threatened with annihilation and with different military capabilities.
8. There is not absolute certainty in Jerusalem that the United States would have Israel’s back in the event that it did resort to force.
9. If Israel’s leaders find themselves faced with the following equation: on the one hand, the imperative to protect eight million Israelis and the existence of the state and, on the other, the danger of enraging the international community, the choice would actually be quite straightforward.
10. Those in the know in Israel are convinced that, against Iran’s nuclear program, Israel has formidable capabilities. This is not to suggest that the Israeli Air Force would be scrambling on the day after a deal is signed with Iran. But the option to strike would be there.