Benjamin Netanyahu will take his hardline view on Iran’s nuclear programme to the White House and the UN this week on a visit seen as crucial for Israel’s relationship with its biggest ally.
Ahead of a meeting with President Barack Obama on Monday, the Israeli prime minister vowed to “tell the truth” in the face of what he called the “sweet-talk and the onslaught of smiles” from Iran.
“One must talk facts and one must tell the truth,” Mr Netanyahu said as he left Israel on Saturday. “Telling the truth today is vital for the security and peace of the world and, of course, it is vital for the security of the state of Israel.”
A year ago at the UN, Mr Netanyahu warned of “red lines” he said Iran must not cross in pursuit of nuclear weapons. This time, he faces a more difficult challenge in New York amid a US-Iranian diplomatic rapprochement that saw Mr Obama and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani speak by phone on Friday, raising hopes of a negotiated solution to the nuclear issue.
An Israeli official said Mr Netanyahu’s address would contain new information on Iran’s nuclear programme. The Israeli leader, who calls stopping Iran developing nuclear bombs the defining issue of his premiership, wants the country to stop all uranium enrichment, close the enrichment facility at Qom, remove all enriched uranium, and halt its development of plutonium.
“We are worried Obama is looking for a way out,” a senior Israeli official said on Sunday. “He said part of it right: ‘We are looking for actions, not words’ – but it wasn’t the same forceful language he used in the past.”
Last week Yair Lapid, Israel’s finance minister, said that the decision by Israel’s UN delegation to walk out of Mr Rouhani’s speech was a mistake, saying that it made Israel look like a “serial objector to negotiations”. Some Israeli media have said Mr Netanyahu’s tough line risked making him look like a “party pooper” in New York.
The Obama administration is very conscious of the fact that Israeli views on Iran have a large influence on opinions in the US Congress, whose support the White House would need if it were to ease sanctions on Iran as part of a nuclear deal.
“The Israeli government has every right to be sceptical of the Iranian government, given the . . . threats towards Israel’s existence, a senior administration official said on Friday, anticipating some of the likely criticisms from Israel. “I think it is entirely understandable and appropriate for the Israeli government to be deeply sceptical.”
However, he added that it was in both the US and Israel’s interests to secure “a resolution that involves Iran coming in line with its obligations, not developing a nuclear weapon.”
US officials said that the White House informed the Israeli government shortly after Mr Obama spoke with the Iranian president on Friday.
In a taste of the pressure that Mr Obama is likely face from Congress, Republican Senator Ted Cruz filed a resolution on Saturday demanding that there be no further communications between the president and Mr Rouhani until Iran recognises Israel.
“It will come down to the details of any deal,” said Colin Kahl, a former senior Pentagon official dealing with the Middle East. If Iran signed a “significant” agreement that included substantial limitations on enrichment, uranium stockpiles, the number of centrifuges and inspections, he said. “Then it might be possible to win over some of the more hawkish members of Congress and Israel.”
Separately, Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service disclosed on Sunday that it had arrested an Iranian-born Belgian man last month on suspicion of having used companies in Israel to “conceal intensive intelligence and terror activities” for Iran. Shin Bet said that Ali Mansouri posed as a Belgian businessman under the name Alex Mans, and was found with photographs “of interest to the Iranian intelligence elements”, including of the building of the US embassy in Tel Aviv.