Four Israeli Experts Discuss Bibi, Iran And The Nuclear Negotiations

04/10/2015 08:17 am ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has emerged as one of the fiercest critics of the international effort to reach an agreement with Iran over the country's controversial nuclear program.

Diplomats from Iran and the so-called P5+1 countries -- the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany -- announced a framework last week for a final deal to limit Iran's nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief. Netanyahu has warned that the deal "would pose a grave danger to the region and to the world and would threaten the very survival of the state of Israel."

Not everyone in Israel, though, agrees with Netanyahu's response. For instance, Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, criticized the prime minister this week for trying to thwart the nuclear deal.

The WorldPost spoke with four Israeli experts who study Iran about the framework agreement and how it plays into the broader relationship between Iran and Israel.

Meir Javedanfar

Javedanfar lectures on contemporary Iranian Politics at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, and is the editor of the Iran–Israel Observer.

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How did Israel and Iran's relationship get so bad?

The core of the problem is that since the Iranian revolution in 1979, the Iranian regime has been calling for the elimination of Israel and has been supporting Israel’s enemies. The relationship took a psychological dive when Iran denied the Holocaust. Israelis saw red. One of the worst things for victims of trauma is someone denying what you went through.

I personally believe this could be a good agreement. But it’s becoming harder to convince the people of Israel. For example, when Iran holds a Holocaust cartoon contest, this only makes my job more difficult. Israelis do not trust the Iranian regime.

Did the "framework" for a deal that was agreed last week address any of Israel's concerns?

Yes. The conversion of the heavy water reactor at Arak addresses a major concern. The plutonium extracted will not be nearly enough to make weapons. The reduction of centrifuges is also helpful. More importantly, 97 percent of Iran’s enriched uranium will be removed. This is amazing.

Even so, other concerns are not addressed. It’s not a perfect draft, but it's a good start.

Is Netanyahu helping or hurting a good outcome for Israel?

Even if Mahatma Gandhi was prime minister of Israel, they would be cautious of the current Iranian regime, which has called for Israel’s destruction and sponsored terrorism.

Yet I completely disagree with the way Netanyahu is going about his opposition. He has defined a good deal as one in which Iran recognizes the state of Israel. Asking the Iranian regime to recognize Israel is like asking [the Islamic State] to stop killing. It's not going to happen. He has put an impossible condition, which suggests Netanyahu doesn’t want a deal.

He has also been picking fights with the U.S. president, which hurts Israel. It makes us look like a country that doesn’t want a deal at any cost. It make us look like we are disrespecting our greatest ally. His ‘end is nigh’ rhetoric is completely exaggerated.

"Even if Mahatma Gandhi was prime minister of Israel, they would be cautious of the current Iranian regime."

How do most Israelis feel about where the talks are going?

A lot of people are very concerned. Most Israelis are very mistrustful of Iran. A military official in Iran recently said the destruction of Israel is not up for debate. Can you imagine if such comments were made in the middle of the Good Friday agreement? But we are willing to be pleasantly surprised. And the recent election suggests that Iran is not the number one issue in Israel, compared to the economy and other topics.

Do you see any opportunities to improve relations between Iran and Israel in the future?

With the current Iranian regime this would be very difficult. The people of Iran don’t have a problem with Israel, but the regime does. The Iranian public are more pro-Western and less anti-Semitic, comparatively speaking. They are critical of Israeli policy in the West Bank -- but Israelis are also critical of Israeli policy in the West Bank. They don’t want to wipe out Israel. This is the regime.

There is a lot of ignorance on both sides ... People in Israel are shocked when I tell them that Iranians have parties and drink alcohol. Meanwhile, some Iranians I know on Twitter genuinely believe Zionists control the world economy. If that was the case, how come we have 20 percent poverty in Israel?

I hope for a miracle -- that the Iranian regime will change its attitude towards Israel. It would be like the ninth day of Hanukkah.

Meir Litvak

Litvak is associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University, and director of the university's Alliance Center for Iranian Studies.

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How did Israel and Iran's relationship get so bad?

There are several causes – Israel was an ally of the Shah [of Iran], and those who hated the shah associated Israel with him. They saw him as a servant of the U.S. and Israel.

More importantly, Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, held very strong anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist views. He saw the Jews as implacable enemies of Islam from [the regime's] inception. He saw Zionism as the culmination of a centuries-long Western assault on Islam and Iran in particular. Khomeini's ideas serve as the basis of Iran's official ideology against Zionism and Israel -- since the 1979 revolution, Iran has consistently called for the elimination of the state of Israel. Most recently, Supreme Leader Khamenei declared that the only solution to the Middle East crisis is the elimination of Israel.

Since the early 1980s, Iran has also supported organizations such as Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas, which have fought Israel and called for its elimination.

Did the "framework" for a deal that was agreed last week address any of Israel's concerns?

It addressed some of Israel's concerns in temporarily halting Iran's advance towards nuclear capabilities for about a ten-year period, assuming that Iran adheres to the agreement. The major Israeli fear is that Iran will be able to cheat on the deal. Equally problematic is that after the ten-year period expires, Iran will be able to advance much quicker towards a bomb should it decide to do so.

What would be a good deal for Israel?

Israel wanted a reversal of the Iranian project, not just to halt it for a period of time.

This would include Iran being prohibited from enriching uranium, the Fordo underground bunker being shut down completely and all uranium [being] removed from Iran. Further, Iran would be banned from research and development on more advanced centrifuges and on various technological aspects related to the weaponization issue, such as experiments building warheads. Something would be done about Iran's long-range missiles and continued support for terrorism against Israel.

You may think that these demands are totally unrealistic, but I am talking about a desired deal.

Is Netanyahu's outspoken opposition helping or harming prospects for a better deal?

I think that Netanyahu's current policy is very harmful to Israeli interests. Because of the way he conducted himself in recent months, no one listens to Israel's serious question marks on the agreement.

In addition, I fear a long-term harm to Israel's relations with the U.S. Democratic Party, and that Israel's relations with the Obama administration will suffer. I believe that preserving Israel's relations with the U.S. is of utmost strategic importance for Israel both in the short and long run, and that Netanyahu is harming these relations.

"Israel wanted a reversal of the Iranian project, not just to halt it for a period of time."

How do most Israelis feel about where the talks are going?

Most Israelis feel that the U.S. had given the Iranians too much, and they fear that the U.S. will make more concessions in the upcoming negotiations.

Do you see any opportunities to improve relations between Iran and Israel in the future?

I am afraid that only a major change in Iran, be it Iranians forcing regime change or a major policy shift, would bring an improvement. As long as the current regime is in power, the likelihood is very small.

Haggai Ram

Ram is head of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

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How did Israel and Iran's relationship get so bad?

There was a very close relationship between Iran and Israel during the time of the shah. It was described as a wonderful love affair.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution shuffled the cards. But the breakup did not prevent both doing business with each other, politically and economically, under the radar -- for example in the Iran-Contra Affair.

But for the most part, the countries are bitter rivals. This has snowballed since the 1990s after Iran’s nuclear program was restarted.

What would be a good deal for Israel?

I’m afraid that for Israel the only acceptable solution is that the Iranian regime falls. Nothing less will satisfy Israeli leaders and Israeli society at large.

One of the reasons Netanyahu won the election was because of his campaign to instill fear in society vis a vis a nuclear Iran. There is a phobia of Iran that is very deep in Israeli society, fueled by government officials.

What do you think of Netanyahu’s reaction to the nuclear talks?

I think he fears the bogeyman dying out. Across the Israeli political spectrum, the bogeyman is useful as it allows officials to avoid the real problem, which does pose an existential threat: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This is not just Netanyahu. Each successive Israeli government has done the same since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the early 1990s.

"Many Israeli Jews feel they have once again been left alone to deal with an existential threat."

Yet no security or intelligence agency has found a smoking gun. No one really knows [whether Iran has ever had a nuclear weapons program]. Iran has a full right to develop nuclear facilities for civilian purposes. Iran feels, perhaps with some justification, that what is happening is a continuation of Western powers' attempts to resist their development, starting with the British Empire through the Russians and U.S. in the 20th century.

How do most Israelis feel about where the talks are going?

The majority believe Netanyahu is doing the right thing, showing Israel is strong and will fight to the bitter end. Many Israeli Jews feel they have once again been left alone to deal with an existential threat. The discourse is quite monolithic and un-nuanced.

David Menashri

Menashri is founding director of the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University and a visiting fellow at Princeton University.

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How did Israel and Iran's relationship get so bad?

During the shah’s rule, there were very good economic, military and strategic relations. After the Islamic Revolution, friends turned into enemies.

Ideologically, the regime could not tolerate the very existence of the state of Israel. The U.S. became a major enemy and Israel was regarded as an agent of Western imperialism in the Middle East.

Why has this radicalism not been moderated over time? The reason is that Iran has no reason to change its attitude. Iran had to become pragmatic about relations with neighboring countries, but Israel is farther away and an easier enemy ... And if your country is having problems, you can blame them on Israel. If Israel didn’t exist, the Islamic Republic would have to invent it.

There is a pragmatist wing in Iranian politics, but they have enough problems to deal with. If they want to negotiate with the Americans, they can’t touch the issue of Israel.

Yet there are so many common interests between Iran and the U.S. and Israel. When Israel was established, it did not have good relations with its neighbors, so it tried to develop relations with the neighbors of its neighbors, including Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia. Iran is a big country with great economic potential. There have never been any wars between the two countries. And Jews cherish the ancient Persian king Cyrus the Great -- the Israeli postal service just dedicated stamps to Cyrus with Persian script.

Did the "framework" deal agreed last week address any of Israel's concerns?

Israel’s concerns are real. The possibility of a country with such a radical ideology having nuclear arms is something very, very difficult to live with. We did a study at Tel Aviv University five years ago, when Bibi started warning about the existential threat of Iranian nuclear arms. The results were frightening. One-quarter of people surveyed said they would consider leaving Israel if Iran gets the bomb.

How do you assess Netanyahu's response?

People are concerned that Israel has marginalized itself. We have not been shrewd.

If Netanyahu had praised the deal, he would have allowed it to be destroyed. The Iranian hard-liners praised the deal specifically because Netanyahu was upset.

If Iran was really an existential threat, Israel would have headed to Saudi Arabia and solved the Palestinian issue. The first thing you should do to block Iran is make a deal with the Palestinians. Instead, the Israeli government has no policy.

All we can do now is pressure the parties to make it a better deal. This is the first moment that both sides want a deal at the same time, and there is little Israel can do about it.

"If Netanyahu had praised the deal, he would have allowed it to be destroyed."

How do most Israelis feel about where the talks are going?

Something changed in Israel since Netanyahu spoke before the U.S. Congress. People started to criticize the politicization of the issue, and are asking their leaders to stop harping on about Iran and address other problems.

But there is concern that the U.S. is disengaging from the Middle East, and some Israelis feel abandoned. It seems the rest of the world has moved on, and Israel is not on the train.

What would be a good deal for Israel?

There is no "good" deal, because no deal would stop Iran’s nuclear program. Even a military strike would only delay the program. The scientific knowledge is there ... [But] in my view, no deal would be worse than a bad deal.

Do you see any opportunities to improve relations between Iran and Israel in the future?

The Iranian regime has specified that it is negotiating over the nuclear program, not over better relations with the West. But the scenes of people celebrating in the streets show that it may have unintended consequences.

Israel may not be a party to the talks, but it is good for Israel if Iran improves relations with the West.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated incorrectly that Ben-Gurion University is in Jerusalem. It is in the Negev.

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