Amid protests in Iran, a new tone in Israel


In this Feb. 22, 2012 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem. Netanyahu, who has often questioned the impact of sanctions, is planning to meet with several European leaders and press them to stiffen theirs in the coming months (Bernat Armangue/AP)
October 5, 2012

As unrest over rising prices flares in Tehran, Israeli officials are urging additional sanctions against Iran and tempering for now suggestions of a possible Israeli military strike on Iranian nuclear sites this fall.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told a radio interviewer Thursday that he believed the economic crisis in Iran could spark a “Persian Spring,” and he encouraged the West to aid the Iranian opposition. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has often questioned the efficacy of sanctions, is planning to meet with several European leaders and press them to stiffen their punitive measures, according to an adviser in his office.

“We are closer now probably than we’ve ever been” to convincing Iran to alter its nuclear policies, an Israeli government official said, adding that still tougher sanctions are needed because “Iran will not adapt unless you put a new level on.”

The adviser and the official spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

Last week, in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Netanyahu emphasized the need to set a “red line” for military action against Iran before it enriches enough uranium to build a bomb. But he suggested that Iran would not reach that point until well into 2013, which many analysts said meant an Israeli strike is unlikely this year.

The speech capped weeks of escalating tensions between U.S. officials and Netanyahu over his demands for such an ultimatum from the Obama administration, a stance that had sparked criticism in both countries that he was interfering in the U.S. election.

The apparent shift in tone in Israel has eased those strains and reduced pressure on the Obama administration in the remaining weeks of the campaign. Some Israeli analysts said Netanyahu realized that he could not afford a public rift with Israel’s most important ally and with an American president who polls suggest is likely to be reelected.

The Tehran protests over price hikes and the devaluation of the Iranian rial, which analysts attribute to both tough international sanctions and domestic policies, have also played a role, said Meir Javedanfar, who teaches Iranian politics at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

“Until now, Netanyahu has said, ‘Sanctions are not working, so we must consider the military option.’ He can’t say that anymore,” Javedanfar said. “What’s happening with the rial is far more dangerous to the Iranian regime than Stuxnet,” he added, referring to a cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear program, which U.S. officials have said was a collaboration between Israeli and American experts.

This week, Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said the Iranian economy was “on the verge of collapse.” Moshe Yaalon, another top cabinet minister, called for harsher sanctions, which he said must be paired with a credible military threat to form an “integrated strategy” to pressure Iran. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Netanyahu plans to press for additional European sanctions when the Italian prime minister visits Israel later this month, and again during a trip to Germany and possibly other European countries in December, the Netanyahu adviser said.

“The economic sanctions on the regime in Tehran are having an effect on the Iranian economy — all the data points in that direction,” the adviser said. “But the point in the sanctions are not the sanctions themselves. The point of the sanctions are to get them to slow down their nuclear program.”

Israeli officials say the emphasis on sanctions does not represent a shift in policy. It is instead one phase of a strategy of applying unrelenting and intensifying pressure on various “pressure vectors,” including the threat of military action, in the belief that Iran will seek to exploit any softening by the international community, the government official said.

If Europe toughens sanctions, it could prompt other countries to do the same, the official said.

“When it looked like the sanctions were getting a lot better — and they have gotten a lot better since the beginning of 2012 — Netanyahu was emphasizing this other lever, the red line. . . . He’s now shifted to talking about sanctions,” said Emily Landau, an Iran expert at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “Iran still hasn’t come to the conclusion that it might be better to negotiate, although it looks like we might be getting to that point.”

Opinion surveys indicate most Israelis oppose attacking Iran without the backing of the United States, and many experts say Israel would not do so without coordinating with its American allies.

Adding to the sense that an Israeli attack is unlikely this year were reports this week of an explosive split between Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, political rivals who have spearheaded Israel’s aggressive stance against Iran.

Now, amid speculation that Netanyahu is likely to call an early election, perhaps in February, the news here is dominated by reports of backbiting and sniping between allies of the two.

Netanyahu, in one television report, was quoted accusing Barak — who publicly distanced himself from Netanyahu’s red-line demand — of undermining the prime minister during a recent U.S. trip.

Netanyahu heads the hawkish Likud party, which is expected to win the next elections. Barak leads the small centrist Independence party.

Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the apparent rift. Barak’s office released a statement saying he has worked at strengthening relations and “lowering tensions” with the United States.

Some analysts said Barak is seeking to differentiate himself from Netanyahu to appeal to voters but that they differ little on the Iran threat.

“On the Iranian thing — on the bomb, on the red lines — both have said that there’s actually no space between them,” said Zalman Shoval, a Netanyahu adviser and former ambassador to the United States. Of the dispute, Shoval said: “That’s Israeli politics.”

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