TEL AVIV — Mistrust between the Obama administration and Benjamin Netanyahu has widened even further in recent days because of U.S. suspicion that the Israeli prime minister has authorized leaks of details about the U.S. nuclear talks with Iran.
The decision to reduce the exchange of sensitive information about the Iran talks was prompted by concerns that Netanyahu’s office had given Israeli journalists sensitive details of the U.S. position, including a U.S. offer to allow Iran to enrich uranium with 6,500 or more centrifuges as part of a final deal.
Obama administration officials believed these reports were misleading because the centrifuge numbers are part of a package that includes the size of the Iranian nuclear stockpile and the type of centrifuges that are allowed to operate. A deal that allowed 500 advanced centrifuges and a large stockpile of enriched uranium might put Iran closer to making a bomb than one that permitted 10,000 older machines and a small stockpile, the administration argues.
An initial report Sunday by Israel’s Channel 2 news that the administration had cut all communications with Israel about the Iran talks was denied by White House spokesman Alistair Baskey. Sources here said that Philip Gordon, the Middle East director for President Obama’s National Security Council, would see Israeli national security adviser Yossi Cohen and other senior officials on Monday. The discussion would include Iran policy, but U.S. officials aren’t likely to share the latest information about U.S. strategy in the talks.
This latest breach in the U.S.-Israeli relationship began around Jan. 12 with a phone call from Netanyahu. Obama asked the Israeli leader to hold fire diplomatically for several more months while U.S. negotiators explored whether Iran might agree to a deal that, through its technical limits on centrifuges and stockpiles, extended the breakout period that Iran would need to build a bomb to more than a year. But Netanyahu is said to have responded that a year wasn’t enough and to have reverted to Israel’s hard-line insistence that Iran shouldn’t be allowed any centrifuges or enrichment.
Obama was concerned because the United States had shared with Israel its goal of a one-year breakout period since the beginning of the talks. The White House saw Netanyahu’s comment as a change, one that could potentially scuttle the negotiations. The Israeli response is that Netanyahu has always argued for “zero enrichment.”
Relations began to unravel quickly after the phone call. On Jan. 21, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) invited Netanyahu to address Congress and share his concerns about the talks. The invitation hadn’t been pre-negotiated with the White House, as is usually the case when foreign leaders are invited to address Congress.
Then came the alleged leaks about the nuclear talks. On Jan. 31, the Times of Israel reported that an unnamed senior Israeli official had told Channel 10 TV news that the United States was ready to allow more than 7,000 centrifuges and had “agreed to 80 percent of Iran’s demands.” Channel 2 reported that the U.S. offer was 6,500 centrifuges. U.S. officials believed that Netanyahu’s office was the source of these reports and concluded that they couldn’t be as transparent as before with the Israel leader about the secret talks.
Asked for comment, an official in Netanyahu’s office said: “The details of the last round of negotiations are known in Washington, Paris, London, Moscow, Beijing, Berlin and Tehran. It is perplexing that a decision would be made to try to keep those details a secret from Jerusalem when Israel is threatened by Iran with annihilation and its very survival could be threatened by a bad deal.”
The Iran issue will come to a head next month. Netanyahu’s speech to Congress is scheduled for March 3. Israeli elections, in which Netanyahu is running against a coalition of more moderate Israeli politicians, will take place March 17. The deadline for reaching a framework deal in the Iran negotiations is March 24. It’s a month that could shape the future of the Middle East, not to mention the U.S.-Israeli relationship, for years to come.
Iran policy isn’t the only short-circuit between Washington and Jerusalem. The administration also fears that Netanyahu is ignoring a potential new blowup with the Palestinians. U.S. intelligence reports indicate that the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank and has nominal authority now in Gaza, could run out of money as early as next month. If that happened, the United States fears that the civil service and security force in the West Bank could collapse, creating a new crisis for Israel and the region.
“This is a dangerous issue,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned Friday. “Israel is withholding our money and this means that the ‘State of Palestine’ will face a crisis.” The United States believes Abbas may simply dissolve his government if the money isn’t released.
The Israeli government dissents from this dire assessment. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said in comments Monday to a conference of the Institute for National Security Studies here that the Palestinians were making an empty threat. He cited an Israeli saying: “If they want to collapse, they’ll collapse. If they don’t, they won’t collapse.”
The money crunch stems from Israel’s decision to withhold tax revenue it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. This move was retaliation for the Palestinian decision last fall to pursue legal action against Israel in the International Criminal Court.
The Obama administration is considering various options to show Israelis and Arabs alike that it is still serious about pursuing a Palestinian peace agreement, despite the impasse reached last year in U.S.-brokered talks.
One option under active consideration is to make public the framework that Secretary of State John Kerry developed during the talks to deal with such key issues as Israeli security, the status of Jerusalem and the rights of refugees. This might simply be announced publicly or introduced as a U.N. Security Council resolution updating Resolutions 242 and 338, which for decades have been the benchmarks for negotiations.
The “perfect storm” metaphor is overused. But one may be developing in the Middle East as Israeli, American, Palestinian and Iranian interests collide in a vortex.