As Iran and the West Make Progress in Geneva, Israel Grumbles From the Sidelines

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Gali Tibbon / Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a ceremony for late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the Mount Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem on Oct. 16, 2013

On Tuesday night, about the time U.S. diplomats prepared to sit down alone with their Iranian counterparts in Geneva, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in the Golan Heights. The contrast was not incidental. The talk among would-be peacemakers in Switzerland, that famed neutral ground, may have heralded the start of fresh talks on Iran’s nuclear program as “meaningful” and “very useful.” But the Golan is a battleground, territory that Israeli troops fought to take from Syria three times in the space of six years and, in the gloaming, Netanyahu watched as Merkava tanks roared across broken ground in an exercise that demonstrated Israel’s military readiness.

“We can’t surrender the option of a preventive strike,” Netanyahu warned in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, a few hours earlier. “It is not necessary in every situation, and it must be weighed carefully and seriously. But there are situations in which paying heed to the international price of such a step is outweighed by the price in blood we will pay if we absorb a strategic strike that will demand a response later on, and perhaps too late.”

Netanyahu framed his remarks as a lesson of the October War of 1973, when Israel was taken by surprise by Egypt and Syria, and for a time lost territories it had taken six years earlier — by striking first, in the Six-Day War. But Israeli reports said the Prime Minister’s staff made clear the remarks were intended as a reality check on the diplomatic hopes blossoming in Geneva. Netanyahu says he fears that the momentum for a negotiated solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions might produce a hasty compromise that leaves its enemy with a residual capacity to create atomic weapons that would threaten the Jewish state.

“I think that it would be a historic mistake to ease up on Iran without it dismantling the nuclear capabilities it is developing,” Netanyahu added when he reached the Golan. “Iran is now on the ropes, and it is possible to employ sanctions at their fullest in order to achieve the desired result. I hope that the international community will do this, and I call upon it to do so.”

(MORE: Signs of Optimism at Iran Nuclear Talks in Geneva)

In Geneva, talks continued for a second day on Wednesday. Iran appeared intent on building on the sense of a fresh start that followed the public relations success of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s U.N. visit, which was capped by a telephone conversation with President Obama. The substance of Iran’s proposal remained unclear, but European diplomats, at least, welcomed it for a level of detail not seen in earlier negotiations. And the tenor of the session remained upbeat with the next round of talks now scheduled for early November. Israelis were surprised when a Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, took a question from Israel Radio — a departure for any Iranian official, let alone the lead nuclear negotiator in the room at Geneva.

“Any agreement will open new horizons in relations with all states,” Araghchi told the reporter, whose ID clearly identified him as Israeli. The diplomat replied “Yes” when asked if Israel could live with any agreement that might come out of the Geneva talks.

“That’s the key question to this negotiation,” says Gary Samore, who held the title of President Obama’s top adviser on weapons of mass destruction for four years, and now heads a group called United Against Nuclear Iran. “I would put it in terms of time. How much time do you want to have in terms of advance warning that Iran has decided to pursue nuclear weapons by producing weapons-grade uranium?”

Currently, Samore told reporters in a conference call on Tuesday night, Western intelligence agencies estimate that Iran would need about two months to spin enough uranium to the 90% enrichment required for a weapon, if it decided to “break out” of its atoms-for-peace posture. The interval will grow shorter, Samore adds, as Iran brings more sophisticated centrifuges online. Given that trajectory, he describes the goal of the negotiations as to “put time back on the clock,” meaning gain more time for IAEA inspectors to notice and report any move toward the bomb. That time would also allow Washington or Israel to prepare air strikes aimed at knocking out Iran’s nuclear facilities before it’s too late.

“Obviously I’d feel much more comfortable if we had a year’s notice, or even nine months’ notice,” Samore says. “That would give us a lot more time to detect and then respond. And I think from Israel’s standpoint if there was that amount of warning time and the Israelis had confidence the U.S. was willing to act once ‘breakout’ was detected, that should give them some comfort as well.”

(MORE: Four Good Reasons Iran Resents the U.S.)

Israel’s leadership has struggled a bit to hit the right note since Rouhani was elected Iranian President earlier this year. The dynamic in the international campaign to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions has shifted from scolding rhetoric backed by military threat to diplomatic politesse, with hopes now that a negotiated solution can emerge. At the U.N. General Assembly last month, Netanyahu tried to mine Rouhani’s professional history in Iran’s theocratic regime in an effort to hollow out the Iranian’s charm offensive. But he may have made more headlines for his subsequent interview with BBC Persian, energetically mocked by the Iranians Netanyahu was trying to persuade when he suggested the hip youth of Tehran were not allowed to wear jeans. He had extended his stay in New York City for days in order to give interview after interview, intent on showing a steel that one analyst, at least, says is in fact mostly show. “If Iran and the Western countries agree … will Israel agree too?” asked Amos Harel in the daily Haaretz on Wednesday. “The answer, though Israel will not admit it officially, is yes.”

That’s certainly not what Netanyahu has been suggesting relentlessly in public. At the U.N., Netanyahu made a show of taking the gloves off, offering a more explicit threat of military action against Iran’s nuclear program — “Israel will stand alone if it needs to” — than the veiled sorts that had done so much to drive attention to the issue in the previous two years. Those threats sounded even more direct at the opening of the Knesset’s winter session on Tuesday, framed by the 40th anniversary of the October War, the trauma of which still reverberates in Israel.

“A preventive war, even a preventive strike, is among the most difficult decisions a government can take, because it will never be able to prove what would have happened if it had not acted,” Netanyahu said. “But the key difference between the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War lies first of all in the fact that in the Six-Day War we launched a preventive strike that broke the chokehold our enemies had placed on us, and on Yom Kippur the government decided, despite all warnings, to absorb the full force of an enemy attack.”