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US-Iran thaw: Netanyahu’s personal high noon

As the Israeli prime minister heads to Washington, this is the moment much of his career has led to.

JERUSALEM — Until Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rises to speak at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, silence is the order of the day in Israel.

Netanyahu is going to great lengths to avoid any stray reactions, however oblique, on the sudden rapprochement between Iran, its greatest nemesis, and the United States, its closest ally.

Hours before leaving for the United States, where Netanyahu will meet with President Barack Obama before heading to the UN, he instructed all Israeli officials to refrain from any public statementson the matter, which for Israel is fraught like none other.

A flurry of cancelled interviews ensued. Sunday’s usual cabinet communiqué was aborted.

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For Netanyahu, who has devoted much of the last decade to warning the world of the dangers posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions, this week in the United States is nothing less than a personal high noon.

As he navigates uncharted and volatile territory, this is also the moment much of his career has led to.

One reason for the muteness of official Jerusalem, according to journalists who accompanied Netanyahu on his flight, is that his UN speech will be recalibrated and rewritten down to the last minute — and substantial changes may be inserted following the meeting with Obama.

But Israel is not alone in its malaise.

For Persian Gulf monarchies, the well-coordinated Iranian overture to Washington has caused anxiety rivaling Israel’s.

The prospect that even a non-nuclear Iran, still their rival, could productively re-engage with the United States after a rupture of 34 years, and possibly benefit from the elimination of crippling economic sanctions, is provoking a hasty regional re-evaluation of the balance of power and historical allegiances.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported from the UN that during US Secretary of State John Kerry’s private meeting with Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, on Thursday, a Saudi diplomat turned to his Israeli counterpart and asked, “What’s going on here? What do you make of all this?” 

The possibility of major regional reshuffling was in the air Sunday morning when Israel’s former ambassador to the UN, Dan Gilerman, was asked about behind-the-scenes maneuverings in an interview on Israel Army Radio.

Refusing to precisely answer a question about the likelihood that Israeli diplomats may engage in unofficial tête-à-tête conversations with their Iranian colleagues, he admitted that “of course we talked with others. I’d meet the Pakistani ambassador in dingy bars.”

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On Sunday, Robin Wright, a scholar at the United States Institute of Peace and at the Wilson Center, published an analysis of newly imaginable regional configurations, including a map entitled “How 5 countries could become 14.” 

In a statement released by his office while he was en route, Netanyahu said, “I will represent the citizens of Israel, our national interests, our rights as a people, our determination to defend ourselves and our hope for peace. I will tell the truth in the face of the sweet-talk and the onslaught of smiles.”

Hours later, Israel’s security services lifted a gag order on the arrest, two weeks ago, of an Iranian-Belgian joint citizen who is suspected of spying on American assets in Israel on behalf of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

The man, travelling variously under the name Ali Mansouri and Alex Mans, confessed under questioning to having been promised $1 million to scout out American assets in Israel, and establish a shadow corporation to gather information with the final aim of enabling the Revolutionary Guards to perpetrate terror attacks in Israel.

Mansouri was caught in possession of pictures of the US embassy in Tel Aviv and other strategic sites.

While underscoring the operation’s ambition, Rony Daniel, a veteran Arab affairs analyst for Israel’s Channel 2, expressed skepticism about the odd timing of the gag order’s end, just as Netanyahu flew to make his case in Washington.

Israel’s apprehension in the face of Iran’s charm offensive has not been quieted by numerous American assurances that the United States will demand action, not words, proving Iran is not seeking the ability to build a nuclear bomb. 

Defying the prime minister — or, according to cynics, channeling his mind — Avigdor Liberman, the hard-line chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, referred to Iran’s new approach to the West as a “campaign of appeasement” and an “exercise in false information, just like North Korea has done.”

“While the world’s attention is focused on the new Iranian president’s attempts to portray himself as moderate and conciliatory,” Lieberman wrote, “it is worth mentioning that the Iranians have always behaved like this: tactics of promises, stalling, and false information that they provided time and again to the international community, when all the while they continued to advance toward the goal they set for themselves: obtaining nuclear weapons designed to threaten world peace.” 

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Netanyahu has also repeatedly compared the Iranian strategy with that of North Korea, another rogue state that developed nuclear bombs while assuring Western powers its nuclear facilities served only civilian purposes.

In a statement posted on the Israeli news website Walla, Netanyahu mocked Iran’s “soothing words and token actions,” and said that “like North Korea before it, Iran will try to remove sanctions by offering cosmetic concessions while preserving its ability to rapidly build a nuclear weapon in a time of its choosing.”  

Behind-the-scenes criticism of Washington’s détente with Tehran reached such decibels Sunday that President Shimon Peres, who rarely ventures into overtly political commentary, harshly condemned the chatter that had come to his attention.

In an interview with Israel Army Radio, he decried its “appalling tones.”

Referring to Israeli government officials, he said, “You can agree or disagree, but I don’t like this scornful tone. Other people have brains to think too, not just us. We should talk to them and try to influence them.” 

London’s Sunday Times reported that Netanyahu will present Obama with an intelligence dossier asserting that Iran has already accumulated enough enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon. 

In an interview last week, Hebrew University Iran expert Eldad Pardo told GlobalPost that “Iran is extremely close — very, very close, to the ability to produce a nuclear weapon.”

Last Friday, one Israeli daily, Ma’ariv, reported that Israeli government sources claim Iran already possesses at least one nuclear bomb. 

If confirmed, the news would put Obama’s contact with Rouhani in an entirely different and urgent context, in which a previously unimaginable shift in the regional power had already taken place.

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In February 2013, Iran’s then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Egyptian reporters thatIran had already crossed the nuclear threshold

In an interview with “This Week with George Stephanopoulous,” the Iranian foreign minister, Zarif, said that Iran is not developing a military nuclear program and has no desire for one. Israel, on the other hand, he claimed, has 200 warheads and is a “source of aggression, instability.”

For now, Netanyahu is being depicted as the party-pooper who went to Washington.

“As US celebrates diplomatic coups, Netanyahu comes to town as Debbie Downer,” writes Haaretz Columnist Chemi Shalev.