Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not told in advance about a statement issued Friday by the Defense Ministry that compared the year-old US-backed Iran nuclear deal with the 1938 Munich Agreement, and his office was forced to call US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro later on Friday to try to play down a war of words with Washington over the deal, sources in the Prime Minister’s Office were quoted saying Saturday.
Hebrew media reports Saturday also said it was not clear who had drafted the incendiary Defense Ministry statement, but that it had been approved by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, and had been issued by the ministry, rather than the minister, because it came in response to President Barack Obama’s assertion Thursday that Israeli security officials now back the Iran deal.
Apart from the PMO’s call to Shapiro, Netanyahu on Friday hurriedly issued a statement soon after the Defense Ministry had sent out its harsh comments in which, while the prime minister stressed that Israel’s stance on the Iran deal had not changed, he emphasized the centrality to Israel of its vital relationship with the United States.
The row over the year-old deal, and the Defense Ministry’s bitter comparison with the Munich Agreement, flared as IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot is visiting the US, and as a senior Israeli official is also there to finalize a critical 10-year US military aid package for Israel.
Opposition politicians on Saturday castigated the Defense Ministry for its comments, with Meretz leader Zehava Galon charging that Liberman was “intent on destroying” Israel’s ties with the US.
Obama had said Thursday that Israeli defense officials are now behind the deal signed by world powers and Iran, and that they recognize the efficacy of the accord. The “Israeli military and security community … acknowledges this has been a game changer,” Obama said. “The country that was most opposed to the deal.”
In the statement issued Friday by his office in response, Netanyahu stressed, by contrast, that Israel’s position on the Iran nuclear deal “remains unchanged,” but also noted that Israel “has no greater ally than the United States.”
What mattered most now, Netanyahu went on, was to ensure that supporters and opponents of the deal alike work together for three goals: “Keep Iran’s feet to the fire to ensure that it doesn’t violate the deal; confront Iran’s regional aggression; and dismantle Iran’s global terror network.”
Netanyahu said he “looks forward to translating those goals into a common policy, and to further strengthening the alliance between Israel and the United States, with President Obama, and with the next US administration.”
The Defense Ministry had used highly emotive language Friday to contradict Obama.
“The Israeli defense establishment believes that agreements have value only if they are based on the existing reality, but they have no value if the facts on the ground are the complete opposite of those the deal is based upon,” the Ministry said in the statement.
When the deal was signed last summer between Iran and world powers, Yisrael Beytenu party leader and current Defense Minister Liberman compared it to the 1938 Munich Agreement, calling the deal with Tehran “total capitulation to unrestrained terrorism and violence in the international arena.”
The Defense Ministry employed similar language in Friday’s rejection of Obama’s claim.
“The Munich Agreement didn’t prevent the Second World War and the Holocaust precisely because its basis, according to which Nazi Germany could be a partner for some sort of agreement, was flawed, and because the leaders of the world then ignored the explicit statements of [Adolf] Hitler and the rest of Nazi Germany’s leaders,” the ministry said.
“These things are also true about Iran, which also clearly states openly that its aim is to destroy the state of Israel,” it said, pointing to a recent State Department report that determined that Iran is the number one state sponsor of terrorism worldwide.
The Defense Ministry further said the deal reached “only damages the uncompromising struggle we must make against terrorist states like Iran.”
Some high-level former and current Israeli defense figures have spoken out in sometimes conditional defense of the nuclear deal. Chief of Staff Eisenkot said warily in January that it could present “opportunities” in the future but also raised concerns at the “challenges” it poses. But lawmakers from the ruling coalition have continued to criticize the agreement, citing continued ballistic missile tests banned under an attendant UN agreement, and pointing to Tehran’s continued anti-Israel rhetoric and support for terror groups.
A top minister close to Netanyahu, meanwhile, also directly contradicted Obama’s assertion that Israeli security officials now back the accord. “I don’t know to which Israelis he (Obama) spoke recently. But I can promise you that the position of the prime minister, the defense minister and of most senior officials in the defense establishment has not changed,” Tzachi Hanegbi told The Times of Israel on Friday.
“The opposite is the case. The time that has elapsed since the deal was signed proved all our worries that, regrettably, we were justified before the deal was made,” said Hanegbi, a minister who works in the Prime Minister’s Office and who until recently chaired the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
Netanyahu remains openly critical of the agreement, which he says paves Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal.
The nuclear agreement “removes the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program based on dates certain, rather than on changes in Iran’s aggressive behavior, including its support for terrorism around the world,” a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel two weeks ago. “The deal doesn’t solve the Iranian nuclear problem, but rather delays and intensifies it.”
The accord, which began its formal implementation in January, will expire in 15 years.
Obama also said Thursday that those who had been most critical of the deal should make mea culpas and admit they were wrong.
“What I’m interested in is if there’s some news to be made, why not have some of these folks who were predicting disaster come out and say, ‘This thing actually worked.’ Now that would be a shock,” he said.
“That would be impressive. If some of these folks who said the sky is falling suddenly said, ‘You know what? We were wrong and we are glad that Iran no longer has the capacity to break out in the short term and develop a nuclear weapon.’ But that wasn’t going to happen.”