Analysis: In Israel’s View of Iran, Timing Is Everything

Photo Courtesy of UN-Photo/Marco Castro

This past weekend hinted at a potential shift in the Iranian nuclear program dispute. For months, Israel and the United States have danced around a complex desire to present a unified position on Iran while realizing their perceptions on what to do next are becoming more and more disparate. And now it is appearing more and more likely that the patched-together image is coming apart. From Israel’s perspective, time is really running out.

I don’t pretend to know the minds of Israel’s leaders and have no inside information that can predict what will happen or when. But the announcement of little to nothing that came from Saturday’s meeting between Iran and the international community, aside from a meeting more than a month from now, cracked Israel’s patience. The West’s excitement about what appears to be a non-discussion with Iran—that even Iran claimed was “positive”—was just too much for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Israeli leader held little back in his blunt statement in response to Saturday’s meeting between Iran and the P5+1. Netanyahu had been giving hints that there was potential for negotiating an end to the crisis. His comments heading into the latest meeting, though forceful, listed a set of demands by Israel—implying diplomacy can work.

But after the US and Europe optimistically talked about a vague seriousness by Iran to discuss their nuclear program and plans to regroup on May 23, Netanyahu said Iran had been given a “freebie.” In comments released by his office, he said of Iran, “It has got five weeks to continue enrichment without any limitation, any inhibition.” While he reiterated his diplomatic demands on Sunday too, his overall sentiment was sharp disappointment.

That such comments were shared by Netanyahu is not the entire picture. This wasn’t a statement just published by his office. This wasn’t a minor note buried at the end of comments on the violence in Syria or the weekend’s pro-Palestinian protest effort.

No, it was made in a meeting with US Sen. Joe Lieberman. While Lieberman is only a quasi-ally to Obama’s political party and certainly no friend to the US President, Netanyahu made a point of rebuking the world—which includes the US—in front of American-focused media members. And with a long-standing member of the US government in his presence, no less.

That’s not a sign of impropriety or arrogance on the part of the prime minister. Rather it’s a sign of growing frustration and perhaps just a hint of desperation that the American effort to not move too fast on Iran may result in action too little, too late.

Deadly Serious

Remember, the Israeli perspective on Iran is that a nuclear-armed Tehran is an existential threat. Iran has repeatedly talked about their belief in Israel’s eventual removal from the region and has sponsored multiple terror groups who aim to cause just that.

Netanyahu has repeatedly warned against the danger of letting Iran, a sponsor of global terrorism, have the world’s most dangerous weapons.

Israeli worries are about more than the chance Iran really is crazy enough to use nukes and invite mutual destruction. Netanyahu, in comments with the Italian defense minister in mid-March, linked that month’s rocket assault on Israel from Gaza terrorists to the threat posed by a nuclear Iran.

“These terrorist attacks, by Islamic Jihad for example, underscore the magnitude of the danger that would be created if—Heaven forbid—a nuclear Iran would stand behind them. The world must be united in the face of the Iranian threat.”

Israel is very concerned about Tehran giving its terror proxies in Gaza and Lebanon a “nuclear umbrella”—the backing of a nuclear-armed ally that can, at the opening of  a missile silo, end any significant retribution for terrorism.

The theory goes that Hezbollah and Hamas will have less fear of an Israeli response if they know that Iran can threaten escalation if Israel doesn’t hold back. The international community would panic if nuclear war in the Middle East seemed even possible—and the pressure on Israel to moderate their response or do nothing would intensify dramatically. It is Israel’s nightmare scenario, because however likely or not it might be that Iran would take a suicide mission, it goes without saying that terrorism against Israel would continue.

Israel isn’t seeking military confrontation with Iran. Netanyahu has been the leader perhaps most concerned about Iran and he has waited three years for diplomacy and sanctions to work. Iran has, in that time, grown its nuclear enrichment effort, built an underground facility and repeatedly disappointed the international community’s diplomats.

Israel has had plenty of time to act, and they have shown they believe bombing Iran’s nuclear program is a worst-case course of action for them too. That’s probably why Netanyahu sounded so disappointed by Saturday’s meeting between the the P5+1—the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany—with Iran.

Other Hints

There are more lines to read between than just Netanayhu’s comments when considering what Israel is thinking next. It was interesting that the same day Netanyahu made his comments the office of Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced an upcoming meeting with US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

Panetta, you may recall, has been one of the US officials most concerned with the impact of an Israeli attack on Iran. And Barak, on the other hand, has been one of the most open at hinting an attack may be necessary soon.

It’s not like the visit was part of a major US trip for the Israeli official. Barak is set to be in Columbia—many miles from D.C.—and is essentially “stopping by” to chat with Panetta on the last day of a five-day trip. The press release from his office sounded almost over-detailed in specifying that “on the same day” as his meeting with Panetta, he will “leave for Israel.”

I have no idea what flight route Barak normally takes to South America. Perhaps a D.C. sidestop isn’t out of the way at all. But what feels like an awkwardly short visit to the U.S. sounds a lot like a much needed face-to-face on the Iranian issue.

That’s not to say Israel intends to convey its disappointment in Saturday’s result. Barak’s visit may have always been a game-planning session—regardless of what was to happen in the Turkey-hosted talks. But by announcing it the way it was—why not keep the trip secret?— Israel clearly wanted to highlight to the world that their top defense official is meeting with his US counterpart in a talk justifying an entire trip to the US simply for that purpose.

Whereas Netanyahu’s comments were timed intentionally with the end of the Iran-P5+1 meeting, this trip and announcement may not have been in response to the negotiation’s result. Such announcements are commonly made right around the time for travel, and Barak was set to leave that same day. But it is certainly part of a growing Israeli effort to zero-in the world on Iran.

The same day as Barak’s announcement and Netanyahu’s statement, Israel’s Channel 10 television news published a story on a hypothetical plan for striking Iran’s nuclear program. The Times of Israel website, in its coverage of the Channel 10 report, noted that the access and analysis in the report was “remarkable” considering Israel has a military censor to prevent sensitive security details from reaching the public. In other words, the publishing of the report was intentionally allowed by the Israeli military.

The interviews and effort that went into the story began long before the West met Iran in Turkey. But again, was its publishing on the same day as Netanyahu’s comments, as Barak’s travel announcement, just a coincidence?

Regardless, it again demonstrates that while Israel isn’t seeking military confrontation with Iran, they feel the decision time is coming soon. For Israel, time—and therefore their comfortability with waiting on the world to succeed in ending the crisis—is running out.

(By Joshua Spurlock,, April 16, 2012)