JERUSALEM — The Obama administration set up a choice for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday: He can allow the United States and other world powers some breathing room to achieve a satisfactory final deal with Iran, or he can dig in his heels against it.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry lobbied Netanyahu in their first face-to-face meeting since Kerry helped strike an interim deal with Iran last month that Netanyahu has called a dangerous blunder.
Kerry also began the delicate task of swaying the Israeli public toward supporting what is intended to result in a stronger, long-term agreement to limit the Iranian nuclear program to peaceful medical and energy needs — but likely without meeting Israel’s demand for the complete dismantling of Iran’s ability to enrich uranium.
In brief remarks after he and Netanyahu met for several hours here Thursday, Kerry assured Israel that core sanctions against Iran would continue to be enforced during the negotiations.
“The fundamental sanctions regime of oil and banking remains absolutely in place,” Kerry said. “And we will be stepping up our effort of enforcement through the Treasury Department and through the appropriate agencies of the United States.”
Kerry wants Netanyahu to back off his impassioned public opposition to give the United States and five other world powers time to strike a bargain with Iran, which Netanyahu claims is bent on building a nuclear weapon that could be used against Israel. Iran insists that its program is for peaceful purposes and that it neither wants nor needs nuclear weapons, which the country’s supreme leader has declared are prohibited by Islam.
“While there certainly is a disagreement over tactics, as we all know, the Israelis had supported an effort to have a comprehensive agreement,” a State Department official traveling with Kerry said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preview the secretary’s discussions.
The United States wants Netanyahu to signal to pro-Israel lawmakers in Congress that he is willing to give talks a chance. That may be unrealistic, because the congressional drive for more sanctions on Iran could strengthen Israel’s hand in demanding a stronger deal. Netanyahu also does not have control over powerful pro-Israel activists in the United States, who sometimes take a harder line than the Israeli government on security matters.
Kerry and other U.S. officials have made direct appeals to Congress not to impose new sanctions, which the administration claims would violate the terms and spirit of the fragile rapprochement with Iran. Iran signed a six-month agreement to begin curtailing its disputed program in exchange for limited relief from the current set of economic sanctions.
In his dual mission to the region, Kerry also pushed Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to revive flagging momentum for a peace settlement.
After meeting with Abbas at his West Bank headquarters, Kerry said Abbas deserves credit for sticking with the talks “despite difficulties that he and Palestinians have perceived in the process” — a reference to frustration expressed by Abbas and his team over continued announcements of new construction of Jewish settlements and what they describe as an Israeli fixation on security issues.
Kerry said security for both Israelis and Palestinians was the main topic Thursday, and he claimed “some progress in discussing some of the ideas that are on the table.”
Retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen, tasked by the Obama administration with sketching possible security arrangements for Israel if it withdraws from the occupied West Bank, presented ideas to Netanyahu on Thursday.
Netanyahu has come under criticism at home for his vocal campaign against the interim Iran accord. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert said that Netanyahu “lost his head” by “declaring war on the United States.”
In remarks at a defense institute earlier this week, Olmert accused Netanyahu of antagonizing the White House and trying to do an end run around the Obama administration by directly appealing to Israel’s allies in Congress.
The Israeli military and intelligence establishment appears to be of two minds these days — warning of dangers in allowing Iran to continue its nuclear program while also urging Israel’s leaders to work effectively to strengthen the final deal.
“We must remember that this is only an initial agreement, not a final one. The fact that Iran is on the threshold of nuclear capabilities is not the result of this agreement, but because the Iranians were hard at work on these capabilities for many years and no one has been able to stop them,” said Amos Yadlin, director of the Institute for National Security Studies, speaking earlier this week in Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu has continued to criticize the Iran deal, weeks after it was signed. “It is very easy to be silent,” he said in Rome this week. “It is very easy to receive a pat on the shoulder from the international community, to bow one’s head, but I am committed to the security of my people.”
He also repeated his earlier warning that Israel would act alone, if necessary, to stop Iran from possessing “military nuclear capability.”
“Netanyahu has made quite clear what he thinks” about the deal, said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University. “Kerry will try to convince him it’s only temporary and there is a possibility to change the final agreement. But I don’t think Netanyahu will buy that.”
A monthly poll carried out by the Israel Democracy Institute in Tel Aviv found that 77 percent of Israelis do not think the agreement will lead to the end of what Israel suspects is an Iranian nuclear weapons program.
In response to a question on who is Israel’s greatest ally, 71 percent said they think the United States is Israel’s most loyal and important ally.
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.