Thursday, December 5, 2013

Agree to Disagree

by Zalman Shoval

My friend Uri Elitzur, while summarizing the negotiations in Geneva, wrote that U.S. President Barack Obama had "really messed up" and that he was "taking nonsensical steps." 

This is indeed one way to analyze things, but a different analysis, more disconcerting, is that what was agreed upon there is actually what the American administration sought to achieve from the onset: the first stage of a new comprehensive deal between Iran and the U.S., which deviates from the issue of Iran's nuclear program. In subsequent stages, Washington will be prepared to grant Tehran special status in the Middle East, even at the expense of the "special relations" it has with its long-standing partners, Saudi Arabia, the oil emirates and Jordan. 

While Israel's situation is different in many ways, it cannot, of course, calmly come to terms with the possibility of a geopolitical and strategic reshuffling of this sort. One cannot ignore the possibility that the sanction relief offered to Iran, as it pertains to its uranium enrichment as well, testifies to America's intention to establish a wider set of understandings with Tehran. As Mark Landler recently wrote in The New York Times: "'Regime change,' in Iran or even Syria, is out; cutting deals with former adversaries is in."

Had Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not expressed his criticism of the deal with the appropriate clarity and toughness, he would almost certainly be receiving more support from the public and in the media. And by the way, if at first the majority of the American press supported the deal, in recent days more reticent voices are being heard. 

The main line adopted by the administration to justify its moves is "we prevented a war," and "diplomacy is preferable to war." There is no one debating this, obviously, in Israel as well. The question is what exactly was the goal of Washington's diplomatic maneuvers, including the recently revealed secret channel: Was it to block, once and for all, Iran's path toward a nuclear weapon or just to try and slow it down, and while doing so also reaching diplomatic achievements in other areas? 

While the administration adamantly claims that this is a deal to prevent a clear and defined security threat, and nothing more, many commentators believe this is an American push to strike a partnership with Iran that pertains to broader matters, including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and so on. The Iranians are not signaling that they are not overly thrilled at this stage to accept the American courtship, but this attitude could change if the costs and benefits suit them. 

In any case, writes Roger Cohen of The New York Times, Washington is prepared to "redraw the strategic map of the Middle East," a map on which Iran will claim an agreed upon place. It is an exaggeration to speak of a real alliance between America and a terror state such as Iran, but one cannot completely discount the possibility that specific understandings could emerge.

It appears, therefore, that Israel could find itself in the coming years in a new and worrying geopolitical situation, one that it must be prepared for on more than one level, and our special relations with the U.S. is one of the main elements in this regard. Israel's ability to influence the administration's steps, considering where the winds in the White House are blowing today, is not great, but it is not hopeless either. From our perspective there is no replacement for the U.S. and surely no one is "declaring war on it," but this special relationship we share is precisely what allows us to occasionally deviate, to agree to disagree and even to try persuade in different ways, including through the Congress, media and public opinion. We will not always see eye to eye, and sometimes we will also have to compromise on our position, but this is the nature of an alliance.

Zalman Shoval


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