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Miffed at Obama over Iran, Netanyahu cozies up to France’s Hollande

With the six powers set to seek an interim agreement with Iran this week on its nuclear program, Israel’s Netanyahu hailed Hollande as a lone voice opposing a ‘really bad’ deal.

Much as a jilted friend demonstrates his pique by publicly cultivating new relationships, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is showcasing his fury with President Obama and his policy on Iran by embracing French President – and Iran hardliner – Francois Hollande.

When Mr. Netanyahu declared to Mr. Hollande Sunday at the outset of the French leader’s three-day visit toIsrael that “Your support and your friendship is real, it’s sincere,” the words sounded as much like a message to Washington about the Israeli leader’s deep distrust of Mr. Obama’s pursuit of a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran as anything else.

But just in case the message wasn’t clear enough, Netanyahu added in his heaping of praise on Hollande that “You were one out of six” to stand firm last week against the conclusion of an interim deal with Iran over its nuclear program that Netanyahu said would have been “good for Iran” but “really bad for the rest of the world.”

The “six” Netanyahu was referring to are the half-dozen powers negotiating with Iran to curb its nuclear program and halt its march toward an ability to build a nuclear weapon – and of course includes the US. Thus in Netanyahu’s view the US was one five powers that were ready to sign a “really bad” deal with Iran.

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The six powers – the US, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany – return to Geneva later this week to sit down again with Iran to try to reach a partial agreement that would freeze parts of Iran’s nuclear program for six months. The idea would be to slow Iran’s program while a deal permanently and verifiably halting Iran’s nuclear development short of weapons capability could be worked out.

US officials acknowledge – both publicly and privately – the rough patch that US-Israeli relations have hit, over not just the Iran negotiations but also ongoing (but barely breathing) Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But administration officials express less dismay over the quarrels than their Israeli counterparts, who are sounding alarms over what they see as a crisis of confidence between the two allies.

Appearing repeatedly in Israeli media last week, US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro focused on one theme: Good friends might sometimes have disagreements, but the importance of the friendship to each and their common interests compel them to work things out – preferably in private.

“It would be preferable if our differences were addressed in private.” Mr. Shapiro said on Israeli radio, “but sometimes that’s not possible.” He also told a conference of North American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem that “the US and Israel share an identical agenda” when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program.

Shapiro also reminded the Jewish leaders – and Israelis more generally – that Obama “has made it crystal clear that he will not permit Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, period” and is “prepared to use all elements of [US] power” to stop Iran from obtaining the bomb.

None of which is reassuring to Netanyahu, who appears to have concluded that Obama is so anxious to reach a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran that he is ready to sign a “dangerous” deal. The Israeli leader says the interim agreement that is on the table in Geneva would give Iran too much in sanctions relief in exchange for very little. The result, he says, is that Iran would use the ensuing six months of negotiating a permanent deal to continue its uranium enrichment and other activities to reach the “breakout’ point for building a nuclear weapon.

Iran insists its nuclear program is for uniquely peaceful purposes, though its stockpiles of enriched uranium, thousands of spinning centrifuges, and array of nuclear facilities suggest otherwise to much of the international community.

Last week Netanyahu warned that a bad deal would actually make war with Iran more likely – the implication being that Israel would not hesitate to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, just as it took out Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities that it considered a threat, if it thought they were reaching a point of no return on weapons development.

And even though the Israeli leader has said he would not feel constrained by any deal between the six powers and Iran, some Washington analysts believe Netanyahu would grudgingly hold off on taking any action for the six months that those powers were negotiating with Iran for a permanent deal.

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Netanyahu figures some partial deal is coming, the US and some Israeli policy analysts say, so he is doing what he can – including embracing Hollande and France – to try to nudge the negotiations toward the best bad deal possible, and in particular by highlighting his distrust of Obama.

The proof that Netanyahu’s bear-hug of Hollande really has little to do with enthusiasm for the French position is that several significant gaps remain between France and Israel on Iran. Perhaps most important, Israel insists that Iran be denied all uranium enrichment activity, while Hollande said in Israel that any agreement should ban higher levels of enrichment (closer to bomb-grade uranium) but not all enrichment activity.

Hollande also used his trip on Monday to urge Israel to halt settlement construction in Palestinian territories and to call for Jerusalem to be the capital of both Israel and a Palestinian state – positions that are hardly music to Netanyahu’s ears.