Israel and the Iran Talks -- on Tactics and Strategy

10/17/2013 03:30 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Media spin as opposed to actual diplomatic progress have long been interconnected, and so is the case with the current round of the talks of the group of six, led by the US and Iran, with regard to the latter's nuclear program. The only formal decision taken in the first round of talks was to reconvene on 7 November. Not much, but still something. Yet the spin given by the US in particular was almost too good to believe. The level and amount of praise heaped on the Iranians was such that the question must be, is it for real, or just a sophisticated media game aimed already now at blaming the Iranians at a later stage for not delivering despite creating a good, positive impression? Time will tell, though this blog tends to accept that there is more than a grain of salt of genuine optimism, and this should come as a positive, encouraging development, though in the intricate world of the Iranian regime, everything should be taken with an extra large dose of skepticism.

In Jerusalem though, there is no doubt that it all looks bleak and menacing, surely in the eyes of ministers very close to PM Netanyahu, he himself and the media commentators who toe the line. They are nervous and suspicious, and for many good reasons, those which have to do with recent history, those which have to do with the Holocaust, and the legacy of so many years of Jewish history throughout the ages.

All this is right, but just up to a point. Collective neurosis cannot replace sound judgment and become a policy. It is one of these situations where the Netanyahu government finds it difficult, if not outright impossible, to distinguish between policy based on strategic considerations, and the explanation of it, what is called in Hebrew Hasbara. Netanyahu, in particular, is leading the charge, and he, of all people, should know the limits of the importance of words, of visibly demonstrable displays, such as the one he put in the UN General Assembly last year. This blog cautioned already then about the trepidations of the wolf syndrome, as well as the repeated and misconceived historic comparisons with the Holocaust and the Munich Agreement from September 1938.

To start with, 2013 is not 1938, the Iranians are not Nazi Germany, Obama is not Chamberlain, and on top of it all, Israel is not the ill-fated Czechoslovakia. The very comparison, while it fits into a well-established Israeli narrative, is doing damage to Israel in the first place, because it portrays Israel as a country totally dependent on others, mainly the US, even when dealing with issues most crucial to its very existence. Nothing is further than the truth, and on top of all that, this line of Hasbara was used so extensively and judging by Jerusalem's own current statements, has miserably failed. The talks which Israel so vehemently opposed to do take place, and may even produce results.

That fact in itself should serve notice to Netanyahu and his people that it may be time to change the disc. The PM though seems bent on the old line of Hasbara, and invokes the Churchillian image. Well, like some other historical comparisons made recently, also this one is ''somewhat exaggerated''... With a pharaphrase on what Lloyd Bentsen famously said to Dan Quayle, Bibi, you ain't Winston, and that is not to look down at Bibi Netanyahu, simply to put the record straight... Netanyahu is absolutely right in presenting a strategic goal for Israel, as well as for its allies, and this is that Iran should not be allowed to posses the ability to produce even one atomic bomb.

Clearly, a military option does exist, even for Israel to go it alone, and, just as clearly, Israel may have to use it. Making that decision will be BIBI'S moment of Churchillian grandeur, and it is doubtful whether he will live up to the challenge. At the moment though, he and his government should handle their tactics somewhat differently. So long as they develop and improve the military option, and so long as they maintain an effective intelligence supervision over Iran and its nuclear program, they should, for Israel's better interest, stream along with the current atmosphere of openness. Instead of resorting all too quickly to apocalyptic scenarios and comparisons, they should give a good, very thorough look at the failed American-North-Korean agreement from 21 October 1994, with the idea that the mistakes done then by another American administration will not repeat themselves, particularly as the stage of verification will come, and the time factor, i.e., the length of the period of monitoring and verification will matter.

The Israelis can contribute to the negotiations by coordinating with their American and Western friends the technical aspects of the talks, while making sure that their political friends in Washington and elsewhere, and they have many, will be required to be accountable to specific questions regarding the Iranian position, rather than bombarding them with false historic comparisons.

Netanyahu will not be wrong in claiming that the strict regime of sanctions, which came into being in the first place due to Israeli insistence and pressure, is the main reason for the talks, and the seeming softening of the Iranian position. So, if this is the case, he and his government should give the talks a chance and be patient. This is not weakness, this will be a sound policy, and one which will still keep Israel's option to unilaterally stop a deal which will not live up to the criteria described above. There still is time for that.