US leaders, up to and including President Barack Obama, are merely “paying lip service” when they talk of the military option against Iran, said Tzachi Hanegbi, a leading Likud Knesset member who is one of Prime Minister Benjamin Nentayahu’s closest confidants.
When Netanyahu threatens the use of force if all else fails to stop Iran, said Hanegbi, “he’s not making empty threats.” By contrast, “When the speaker is [Secretary of State] Kerry or the White House spokesperson, or even the president and other people, you see that they’re just paying lip service.”
The Americans are full of “good intentions,” they have military systems prepared and deployed for tackling the Iranian nuclear program, and it’s clear that Obama understands that the way Iran’s rogue nuclear program is handled will be central to his legacy, Hanegbi told The Times of Israel. Nonetheless, he said, that did not guarantee that the US would show the necessary decisiveness in negotiations with the Iranians.
Hanegbi, 56, who sits on the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, has served in the past as the chairman of that committee and as minister of intelligence and nuclear affairs.
In an extensive interview in his Knesset office last week, during which he noted that “I am very close to Netanyahu,” he said he had no doubt that, if all else fails, Israel is militarily capable of setting back the Iranian program, and that nobody credible “doubts Israel’s ability” to do so.
He elaborated: “People have doubts about the outcome [of Israeli military intervention], how long [its effects] will last and what the Iranian response will be… There are many variables and unknowns that I cannot foresee either… [But] none of these considerations is powerful enough for me to be willing to live under the threat of a nuclear Iran… The weight of all of these considerations combined, of all of the possible negative developments, does not even come close to [the cost of] accepting Iran as a nuclear power.”
Asked repeatedly whether he thought the time had come to attack, Hanegbi was politely evasive. “There are things that one can think but not say aloud,” he offered, then added later, “I’m lucky, because I don’t make the decision.”
He said the Iranians “generally believe that America is their problem, not Israel… They belittle Israel and do not believe that Israel has the power, the courage or the ability” to confront them. In fact, though, said Hanegbi, “nothing will prevent Netanyahu from doing what he believes is right. And he considers this to be the greatest historical mission that he has been given… to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.”
Addressing reports that the prime minister had wanted to strike Iran in the recent past, Hanegbi said nothing would have stopped him — not pressure from the US, from Israel’s security chiefs, or from anywhere else. “If he had thought that military action was crucial at the time, he would have acted. He most likely decided not to because there are great advantages to waiting until Israel comes as close as possible to the limits of its tolerance,” Hanegbi said.
Hanegbi, 56, a long-time Likud MK, who left the party to join Kadima and then returned to Likud ahead of January’s elections, acknowledged Israel does not have the means to prevent a deal being done in the US-led negotiations with Tehran that would see sanctions eased while the centrifuges keep on spinning. What Israel is doing, he said, is making plain that it could not be reconciled to such an arrangement.
New Iranian President Hassan Rouhani “is trying to undo the damage that [his predecessor Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad did over the past eight years, and to create a type of openness. All this has a purpose, one that he has stated — to remove the sanctions while the centrifuges continue to spin,” Hanegbi said. “Israel does not have the ability to prevent Iran from reaching those goals [at the negotiating table]; it’s just trying to make it clear that these goals are unacceptable to us.”
Hanegbi said he was certain that Rouhani’s election victory in June had come as a surprise to Supreme Leader Ayatolah Khamenei. “Khamenei let him run, but assumed that one of the candidates closer to his approach would be elected,” he said. But Khamenei chose not to intervene because he and the regime “recognized that there was constructive potential, so long as Rouhani was loyal to the central positions.”
Iran’s leaders “know how to intervene if they want to,” Hanegbi said dryly. “Evidently they decided the price of intervention was not worth paying; that things would work out. Although the original plan didn’t work out, they recognized that this was also a positive result and they allowed [Rouhani] to lead what we call his charm offensive. They see it’s effective, so they are certainly happy.”
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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