Some in Israel question Netanyahu’s strategy on rejecting Iran accord

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned again on Friday that Israel would not accept the terms of a framework agreement reached with Iran to curb its nuclear program.

But Netanyahu’s defiance on a deal that was generally getting good marks from nuclear experts around the world was also raising concerns in Israel that his unremitting rejection of any accommodation with Iran had merely left him with no way to influence the agreement’s final form.

At the State Department in Washington, spokeswoman Marie Harf made clear that Netanyahu’s insistence that the accord include Iran’s recognition of Israel wasn’t a position that the United States would take when negotiations resume to hammer out the agreement’s final form.

“This is an agreement that is only about the nuclear issue,” Harf said at her daily briefing, adding that the framework didn’t deal with other regional issues “nor should it.”

It seems unlikely as well that the deal would back away from Netanyahu’s other complaint, that by allowing Iran to keep some uranium enrichment capabilities, though greatly reduced, it “paves Iran’s path to the bomb” when the limitations expire. Those restrictions were hard won by the U.S. and its allies, persuading Iran to give up two-thirds of its centrifuges for processing uranium and agreeing to have just one site where enrichment could take place.

The reduced program allowed Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to argue to Iran’s hardliners that Iran had not given up its right to process uranium, even as nuclear experts said the concession would make it exceedingly difficult for Iran to develop a weapons capability without the world knowing.

How Netanyahu might get his points across now remains to be seen. By the account of his office, Netanyahu lectured President Barack Obama about what he perceived as the deal’s inadequacies during a phone call Thursday – the second time in two weeks that the two leaders have had an acrimonious telephone exchange. Obama had lectured Netanyahu on Palestinian relations during his congratulatory call after Netanyahu won re-election last month.

The White House said that Obama promised that no deal would put Israel’s security at risk, but no Washington visit has been set for Netanyahu to discuss the accord. In contrast, the White House announced that the leaders of the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain – would visit Camp David this spring to discuss the deal. Those countries, too, are on record as opposed.

In the wake of Thursday’s announcement in Lausanne, Switzerland, Netanyahu’s strategic affairs minister, Yuval Steinitz, promised that Israel “will continue in our efforts to explain and persuade the world in the hope of preventing a bad agreement, or at least to insert corrections and improvements.”

But whether Netanyahu’s influence with Republicans and some Democrats would translate into influence at the White House remained an unknown. Steinitz’s own visits to France to lobby against the deal did not prevent the French government, one of the participants in the nuclear talks, from endorsing the tentative accord.

In Israel, analysts questioned whether Netanyahu’s shrill opposition to the accord had backfired. Some asked whether the country should reassess its strategy in view of the changed diplomatic landscape.

Giora Eiland, a retired general and former head of Israel’s national security council, said that Israel’s ability to influence the international stance toward Iran had eroded in recent years because Netanyahu’s position has not changed, while the views of the United States and other powers had evolved.

“We ended up holding an extreme position which over time became less and less relevant,” Eiland told Israel Radio. “Actually, people stopped listening to us.”

Eiland argued that Israel should now take a fallback position, adopt a more conciliatory stance toward Washington and offer to discuss the details of the final deal, in the hope of helping shape them.

Nahum Barnea, a prominent columnist in the mass-circulation daily Yediot Ahronot, argued that the Israeli military option against Iran had become obsolete, and the new accord amounted to a defeat of Israeli diplomacy.

“The truth should be told,” he wrote. “This was a resounding failure for Israel. As the confrontation between Netanyahu and Obama over Iran worsened, Israel’s influence over the course of the negotiations and its outcome diminished.”

Barak Ravid, diplomatic correspondent for the liberal Haaretz newspaper, wrote that despite the “Pavlovian” Israeli response to the accord, “this is not a bad deal at all,” and “a closer look at the details shows that the agreement has many positive points that serve Israel’s security interest and address the concerns in Jerusalem.”

If Netanyahu heard any of those positions, his public stance Friday showed no change.

“I want to make clear to all,” Netanyahu said after a meeting of his security cabinet. “The survival of Israel is non-negotiable. Israel will not accept an agreement that allows a country that vows to annihilate us to develop nuclear weapons, period.”

Lesley Clark and Hannah Allam in Washington contributed to this report.

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