Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a handover ceremony at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, in which the new Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Gadi Eizenkot replaced outgoing Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, February 16, 2015. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
Opinion writer

The public rift between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Iranian nuclear issue is often described as a personality dispute. But a senior Israeli official argued this week that the break has been building for more than two years and reflects a deep disagreement about how best to limit the threat of a rising Iran.

Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of intelligence, outlined his government’s view in an interview Wednesday. He said that the nuclear agreement contemplated by Obama would ratify Iran as a threshold nuclear-weapons state, and that the one-year breakout time sought by Washington wasn’t adequate. And he stressed that these views aren’t new.

“From the very beginning, we made it clear we had reservations about the goal of the negotiations,” he explained. “We thought the goal should be to get rid of the Iranian nuclear threat, not verify or inspect it.”

Steinitz, who helps oversee Iran strategy for Netanyahu, said he understands the United States wants to tie Iran’s hands for a decade until a new generation takes power there. But he warns: “You’re saying, okay, in 10 or 12 years Iran might be a different country.” This is “dangerous” because it ignores that Iran is “thinking like an old-fashioned superpower.”

Netanyahu’s skepticism reached a tipping point last month when he concluded that the United States had offered so many concessions to Iran that any deal reached would be bad for Israel. He broke with Obama, first in a private phone call Jan. 12, and then in his public acceptance of an offer by GOP House Speaker John Boehner to address Congress on March 3 and, in effect, lobby against the deal.

The administration argues that the pact taking shape, although imperfect, is preferable to any realistic alternative. It would limit the Iranian program and allow careful monitoring of its actions. Angered by what it sees as Netanyahu’s efforts to sabotage the agreement, the administration decided in early February to limit the information it shared with Israel about its bargaining with Iran.

The discord goes back to 2012, when the Obama administration began secret contacts with Iran through Oman. The Israelis were angry that they weren’t informed and insulted that the United States would think they wouldn’t find out through their intelligence channels. Netanyahu denounced the interim agreement, reached in November 2013, because it formally accepted that Iran could enrich uranium.

Despite Netanyahu’s view that it was a “great mistake” to accept any Iranian enrichment, Steinitz said that “we got the impression that it might be symbolic. The initial figure [discussed by the United States and its negotiating partners] was ‘a few hundred centrifuges.’ ” Now, he said, the United States is contemplating “thousands.” According to Israeli press reports, the United States has offered to allow Iran to operate at least 6,500 centrifuges.

Steinitz didn’t dispute the U.S. argument that what matters is a package that includes the number and performance levels of the permitted centrifuges, the extent of dismantlement of non-permitted centrifuges and the size of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium. “Breakout time is an equation with four variables,” he said.

“The temptation [for Iran] is not now but in two or three or four years, when the West is preoccupied with other crises,” he added. Steinitz said that if Iran chose to “sneak out” at such a moment, it would take the United States and its allies months to determine the pact had been violated, and another six months to form a coalition for sanctions or other decisive action. By then, it might be too late.

Steinitz said the Israeli government understands the U.S. goal of a 10- to 15-year duration for the agreement, which would constrain Iran into what’s likely to be the next generation after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is 75. But here again, he dissented.

“I understand the logic, but I disagree,” Steinitz said. What the United States is saying to Iran, in effect, is “if you agree to freeze for 10 years, that’s enough for us.” But that won’t work for Israel. “To believe that in the next decade there will be a democratic change in leadership and that Iran won’t threaten the U.S. or Israel anymore, I think this is too speculative.”

Steinitz concluded the conversation with an emphatic warning: “Iran is part of the problem and not part of the solution — unless you think Iran dominating the Middle East is the solution.” People who think that a nuclear deal with Iran is desirable, as I do, need to be able to answer Steinitz’s critique.

Read more from David Ignatius’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.