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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Israeli Officials Wary of U.S. Shift on Iran

Peter Crail

With the incoming U.S. administration of President-elect Barack Obama pledging to pursue a policy of "tough diplomacy" with Iran, including opening the possibility of direct talks with Tehran, Israeli leaders appear to be warily bracing for the expected shift in the U.S. approach to one of Israel's most serious security concerns. Israeli officials have frequently expressed support for a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue but have focused on strengthening international efforts to place economic and political pressure on Tehran. The rising concern comes as Israel is undergoing its own political transition, with general elections scheduled for this February.

A number of Israeli officials have questioned the utility of U.S. dialogue with Iran. At a Nov. 7 press conference following a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak doubted Iran's willingness to engage in dialogue in good faith, stating that "Iran continues to try to obtain a nuclear weapon and continues to cheat everybody by holding negotiations on the control of such weapons."

In particular, Israeli officials appear wary that a shift in policy toward engagement may weaken the current sanctions efforts aimed at Tehran. Israeli Foreign Minister and potential prime minister Tzipi Livni urged caution about the timing of direct talks, telling Israel Radio Nov. 6 that "premature dialogue at a time where Iran thinks that the world has given up on sanctions may be problematic," adding that such dialogue may be construed as "weakness." When asked if she supported U.S. dialogue with Iran, Livni responded, "[T]he answer is no."

In recognition that U.S. and Israeli aims regarding Iran may diverge, part of Israel's security establishment also appears to fear that a U.S.-Iranian dialogue may be successful in addressing U.S. concerns, but not those of Israel. The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported Nov. 23 that a draft Israeli National Security Council annual situation assessment, which is to be presented to the Israeli cabinet in December, "recommends close cooperation with the U.S. to prevent a deal between Washington and Tehran that would undermine Israel's interests."

One key Israeli official, however, suggested a potential benefit from U.S. talks with Iran: the likelihood that such dialogue will be a route to stiffer sanctions. Amos Yadlin, the head of Israeli Military Intelligence, said in a Nov. 17 lecture in Tel Aviv that he is not opposed to U.S.-Iranian talks, highlighting that if such talks should fail, "there could be a greater realization that sanctions and the diplomatic campaign against Iran should be stepped up." He added that Iran is "very susceptible" to economic pressure at present due to the global economic crisis.

Israeli officials have frequently called for strengthened punitive measures to place pressure on Iran. In a Nov. 17 speech to Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called for "greater force" to confront Iran, stating that Washington must lead an international effort to make it "more costly to Iran to pursue nuclear weapons than to give it up."

In addition to being open to direct talks with Iran, Obama has called for expanding sanctions against Tehran to apply pressure on the regime. During a June 4 campaign speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Obama said that the United States and its allies should "find every avenue outside the UN to isolate the Iranian regime," including imposing additional financial sanctions and cutting off refined petroleum exports to Iran.

In the general elections scheduled for Feb. 10, 2009, the leading contenders to replace Olmert as prime minister are Livni, who is also the Kadima party's head, and Likud party leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Although the issue of Iran looms large in Israeli foreign and security policy, it has not been the subject of significant attention during the Israeli elections. A former Israel Defense Forces official told Arms Control Today Sept. 25 that "the nuclearization of Iran is not a partisan issue in Israel. There are hawks and doves in each party."

The issue was on the agenda of the final meeting between the current leaders of the two countries when Olmert visited President George W. Bush in Washington Nov. 24. Olmert told reporters following the meeting that there was a "deep understanding about the Iranian threat and the need to act in order to remove [the] threat." He also rejected the notion that the United States sought to pressure Israel against taking military action against Iran.

Former U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations John Bolton suggested in June that the "optimal window" for Israel to strike Iran would be after the U.S. elections and prior to the inauguration of the new president Jan. 20, noting particularly that "an Obama victory would rule out military action."

Israel has said that it reserves the option to take such an action. In a Nov. 18 Der Spiegel interview, Commander in Chief of the Israeli Air Force Ido Nehushtan said that the air force is "ready to do whatever is demanded of us" to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but that such an action "is a political decision."

In recent months, however, senior Israeli political officials have voiced opposition to military action. In a Sept. 7 interview with the Sunday Times of London, Israeli President Shimon Peres asserted that "the military way will not solve the problem," adding that "such an attack can trigger a bigger war."

Israeli Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, a former contender in the Kadima party leadership elections, spoke out in even stronger terms against an Israeli strike against Iran. Ha'aretz quoted Sheetrit Sept. 21 stating that "Israel must on no account attack Iran, speak of attacking Iran, or even think about it."