U.S.-Israel Tension a Liability in Iran Talks

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Pete Souza / White House

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel talk before their bilateral meeting in the Oval Office, March 5, 2012, in Washington.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his annual pilgrimage to Washington last year it was an unmitigated disaster. President Obama felt Netanyahu was lecturing him during the press appearance at the end of their meeting and that patronizing tone took center stage in Netanyahu’s subsequent address to a joint session of Congress. His March 2012 visit went much better. The leaders seemed to be on the same page and their tones were calm and confident. But the lecturing, it seems, could only stay bottled up for so long.

On Saturday, as U.S. negotiators–together with their European, Russian and Chinese counterparts–formally wrapped up the first round of successful nuclear talks with the Iranians in more than two years, Netanyahu was panning the summit. He lamented that the next round of talks, scheduled for May 23 in Baghdad, afford Iran a five-week “freebie” to “continue enrichment without any limitation, any inhibition.”

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Obama responded on Sunday at a press conference with Colombia President Juan Miguel Santos, arguing that Iran got nothing out of the talks and is still living under the harshest economic sanctions in history. Indeed, according to Laura Rozen, Tehran seemed desperate to delay or avoid completely the next round of sanctions, which take effect on July 1 and include a European Union embargo of Iranian oil. Until this year, Europe was the largest buyer of Iranian crude.

But the slight progress seems to have left the Israelis unimpressed. If Netanyahu’s lecturing wasn’t enough, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak added fuel to the fire on Monday when he told Israel’s Army Radio that Israel never pledged to hold off from attacking Iran while these talks were taking place. What Barak said:

“We are not committing to anything… The dialogue with the Americans is both direct and open.”

“We regret the time being lost. This is precious time.”

“It requires a few direct meetings where all the demands are put on the table. There you can see if the other side is playing for time, drawing it out through the year, or if indeed the other side is genuinely striving to find a solution,” he said. “In this light, any ‘time-outs,’ especially when they are this long, do not serve our interests.”

“Unfortunately, we maintain the view that this will probably not have an impact or bring the Iranians to cease their nuclear program. Of course we will be happy to be proven wrong.”

This seems at odds with what Netanyahu said during his March visit: that there is “no space” between the Israeli and U.S. positions. Obama has long said that, like his European, Chinese and Russian counterparts, he prefers to wait and see if the matter can be resolved diplomatically.

Of course, Israel has long played bad cop to Washington’s good cop on the Iran issue. Without that hawkishness, few believe the current sanctions and coalition would be in place. That said, there’s a point in every cop flick movie when the bad cop goes a little too far. With even Haaretz writing Tuesday that the biggest threat to the Iran talks is now the disintegrating relationship between the U.S. and Israel, that moment seems to be rapidly approaching.

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