Wednesday, April 8, 2015
Israel on Wednesday flatly rejected Obama administration explanations and clarifications of the president’s remarks a day earlier, in which he appeared to acknowledge that Iran would be able to break out to the bomb almost immediately when key provisions of the new nuclear deal expire in 13-15 years.
A senior official in Jerusalem told The Times of Israel that “we share his assessment.”
And the director general of Israel’s Ministry of Intelligence praised the president for telling “the truth” about “a very bad deal.”
In an interview with NPR, Obama, whose top priority at the moment is to sell the framework deal to critics, was pushing back on the charge that the deal being negotiated by US-led world powers fails to eliminate the risk of Tehran breaking out to the bomb, because it allows Iran to keep enriching uranium. He told NPR that Iran will be capped for a decade at 300 kilograms of enriched uranium — not enough to convert to a stockpile of weapons-grade material. He then added: “What is a more relevant fear would be that in Year 13, 14, 15, they have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point, the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.”
According to State Department acting spokesperson Marie Harf, Obama “was referring to a scenario in which there was no deal. And if you go back and look at the transcript — I know it’s a little confusing, I spoke to the folks at the White House and read it a few times — it’s my understanding he was referring to — even though it was a little muddled in the words — a scenario in which there was no deal.”
In a briefing Tuesday, Harf noted that some of the restrictions that would be in place during those years have not yet been negotiated. “Part of the negotiations remains what happens to some of those pieces in those further-on years. I don’t have a specific breakout time to put on to those years at this point, but obviously we want as long of a breakout time for as long as possible. So it would not be zero,” Harf said.
Israel, however, rejected this attempt at clarification, with the senior official saying that Israel understood the president to be acknowledging the problematics of the accord.
The official noted, furthermore, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — a relentless opponent of the US-backed terms — had highlighted precisely the problem that Obama cited when he addressed both houses of Congress last month.
In that address on March 3, Netanyahu warned: “Iran could get to the bomb by keeping the deal. Because virtually all the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program will automatically expire in about a decade… Iran would then be free to build a huge nuclear capacity that could produce many, many nuclear bombs. Iran’s Supreme Leader says that openly. He says Iran plans to have 190,000 centrifuges, not 6,000 or even the 19,000 that Iran has today… With this massive capacity, Iran could make the fuel for an entire nuclear arsenal in a matter of weeks… My long-time friend, John Kerry, the secretary of state, confirmed last week that Iran could legitimately possess that massive centrifuge capacity when the deal expires… The foremost sponsor of global terrorism could be weeks away from having enough enriched uranium for an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons, and this with full international legitimacy.”
Ram Ben-Barak, a former senior Mossad official who now heads Israel’s Ministry of Intelligence, furthermore, praised Obama for his candor in highlighting aspects of what Ben-Barak called “a very bad deal.
“Barack Obama is evidently an honest man, who clearly is incapable of telling a lie. And therefore he told the truth,” Ben-Barak told Army Radio.
“Ask any American or European official who has been involved in the negotiations, ask him if he thinks that at the end of the process Iran wants nuclear weapons,” Ben-Barak went on. “Ask him in a one-on-one conversation, and he’ll tell you yes, that’s for sure.”
Tuesday, April 7, 2015
A top Israeli minister on Tuesday brushed aside President Barack Obama’s pledges to stand by Israel and ensure it is not weakened, saying such promises will be worthless if Iran is allowed to get the bomb.
Obama said Sunday that he would consider it a “fundamental failure” of his presidency if Israel emerges weakened as a consequence of the nuclear agreement with Iran, and promised to “stand by” Israel if it is attacked by any state actor.
Obama’s statements of support “are pleasant-sounding,” Israel’s Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz retorted in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 TV. But, he continued, “no assistance and no backing will help if Iran acquires nuclear weapons.”
Iran openly seeks the annihilation of Israel. A senior Iranian military chief declared, even as the talks on a framework deal continued last week, that Israel’s destruction is nonnegotiable.
Steinitz, a confidant and Likud party colleague of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on Monday presented a list of Israeli demandsaimed at improving the terms of the world powers’ deal with Iran in the weeks ahead of its scheduled completion by June 30.
The changes proposed by Steinitz include the following: barring further Iranian R&D on advanced centrifuges; significantly reducing the number of centrifuges Iran would have available to reactivate if it violates the deal; shuttering the Fordo underground enrichment facility; requiring Iran’s compliance in detailing previous nuclear activities with possible military dimensions; shipping its stockpile of lower-enriched uranium out of the country; and ensuring “anywhere, anytime” inspections of Iran’s facilities. Such changes, said Steinitz, would render a final deal “more reasonable.”
Hours later, however, Obama adviser Ben Rhodes ruled out significant changes that would make the deal more stringent for Iran. The deal as it now stands meets the US’s “core objectives,” Rhodes said in Israeli TV interviews. “We believe that this is the best deal that can emerge from these negotiations.”
Netanyahu has been a caustic and relentless critic of the framework deal announced last Thursday, and his personal ties with Obama have been strained by his public opposition to the US negotiating strategy for months.
In a Sunday interview with The New York Times, Obama said he would be willing “to make the kinds of commitments that would give everybody in the neighborhood, including Iran, a clarity that if Israel were to be attacked by any state, that we would stand by them. And that, I think, should be … sufficient to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see whether or not we can at least take the nuclear issue off the table.”
He also said that accusations that his administration is not doing all it can to ensure Israel’s security have made recent months a “hard period” for him personally. “It has been personally difficult for me to hear… expressions that somehow… this administration has not done everything it could to look out for Israel’s interest — and the suggestion that when we have very serious policy differences, that that’s not in the context of a deep and abiding friendship and concern and understanding of the threats that the Jewish people have faced historically and continue to face.”
Netanyahu has insisted that he respects the president, and said in US TV interviews on Sunday that the disagreement between them was not personal. “I trust the president is doing what he thinks is good for the United States. But I think we can have a legitimate difference of opinion on this,” Netanyahu told CNN.
The prime minister gave three US TV interviews on Sunday in which he savaged the framework agreement with Iran as paving the way to an Iranian nuclear arsenal.
The Times of Israel has learned that Netanyahu intends to continue his push for “a better deal” in further US media appearances, since he regards American public opinion as the most potential important area in pressing for terms that would thwart Iran’s nuclear drive. Notably, Netanyahu has not invested similar efforts in reaching out to the media of other P5+1 countries.
Israeli officials are also expected to engage in extensive dialogue with their American counterparts, in order to argue for changes in the deal, in the weeks leading up to June 30.
While Rhodes claimed in his Israeli TV interviews on Monday night that “Iran will never be permitted to build a nuclear weapon,” Obama acknowledged in an NPR interview on Monday that, as restrictions in the deal expire, it would leave Iran with a near-zero breakout time to the bomb after 13 years.
Israel is concerned that the deal both legitimizes Iran’s ongoing nuclear drive, and that Iran will outwit the international community, and could potentially break out to the bomb at short notice.
Monday, April 6, 2015
Paper distributed by senior Likud minister queries immediate sanctions relief, failure to secure ‘anytime, anywhere’ inspections, and other alleged central flaws in Lausanne framework agreement
BY TIMES OF ISRAEL STAFF April 6, 2015, 3:33 pm | The Times of Israel|
Israel on Monday posed 10 questions to the US-led negotiators with Iran that it said underlined “the extent of the irresponsible concessions given to Iran” in the framework agreement reached last Thursday, and made clear “how dangerous the framework is for Israel, the region and the world.”
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The questions were listed in a document distributed by Israel’s Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, a Likud party member and confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The document (see accompanying PDF here) reiterated Netanyahu’s assertion that “a better deal” can and must be reached. It protested that the framework agreement reached in Lausanne, Switzerland, and hailed by President Barack Obama as “historic,” “ignores the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program to Israel.” By contrast, it charged, “great consideration” was given to Iran, “an enemy of the Unites States, whose regime, even during the negotiations, continued to conduct aggression in the region and to call for the destruction of Israel.”
It charged that “the framework deal does not block Iran’s path to the bomb. By removing the sanctions and lifting the main restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in about a decade, this framework paves Iran’s path to a bomb.”
Echoing criticisms leveled by Netanyahu since the deal was reached, the document further protested that “not a single nuclear facility will be shut down. Iran will be permitted to continue its advanced centrifuge R&D, and [the issue of] its intercontinental ballistic missile program remains unaddressed.”
Apart from what it called “the significant differences in the parties’ interpretations of the framework – reflected in the conflicting statements and ‘fact sheets’ they issued” — the Israeli document posed the following 10 questions:
1. Why are sanctions that took years to put in place being removed immediately (as the Iranians claim)? This would take away the international community’s primary leverage at the outset of the agreement and make Iranian compliance less likely.
2. Given Iran’s track record of concealing illicit nuclear activities, why does the framework not explicitly require Iran to accept inspections of all installations where suspected nuclear weapons development has been conducted? Why can’t inspectors conduct inspections anywhere, anytime?
3. Will Iran ever be forced to come clean about its past nuclear weaponization activity?
4. What will be the fate of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium?
5. Why will Iran be allowed to continue R&D on centrifuges far more advanced than those currently in its possession?
6. Why does the framework not address Iran’s intercontinental ballistic missile program, whose sole purpose is to carry nuclear payloads?
7. Following Iranian violations of the framework, how effective will be the mechanism to reinstitute sanctions?
8. What message does the framework send to states in the region and around the world when it gives such far-reaching concessions to a regime that for years has defied UNSC resolutions? Why would this not encourage nuclear proliferation?
9. The framework agreement appears to have much in common with the nuclear agreement reached with North Korea. How will this deal differ from the North Korean case?
10. Why is the lifting of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in about a decade not linked to a change in Iran’s behavior? According to the framework, Iran could remain the world’s foremost sponsor of terror and still have all the restrictions removed. Instead, the removal of those restrictions should be linked to a cessation of Iran’s aggression in the Middle East, its terrorism around the world and its threats to annihilate Israel.”
The document ended with the assertion that “the alternative to this framework is a better deal, one that will significantly dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, bring about a cessation of its aggression in the region and terrorist activities around the world, as well as end its efforts to destroy Israel. The framework deal does not block Iran’s path to the bomb. By removing the sanctions and lifting the main restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in about a decade, this framework paves Iran’s path to a bomb. The result will be a dramatic increase in the risks of nuclear proliferation and an increase in the chances of a terrible war.”
Friday, April 3, 2015
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a special weekend meeting of the cabinet to discuss the nuclear deal reached Thursday between Iran and world powers.
The meeting Friday will include the heads of Israel’s security and intelligence agencies, according to reports.
The nuclear deal reached in Switzerland between Tehran and the P5+1 group of world powers “threatens the survival of the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said on Thursday in a phone call with US President Barack Obama.
Obama phoned Netanyahu hours after the framework was struck. Netanyahu has been strongly opposed to the emerging deal, arguing that it does not have the necessary safeguards and will pave the way to a nuclear Iran.
“A deal based on this framework would threaten the survival of Israel. Just two days ago, Iran said that “the destruction of Israel is nonnegotiable,” and in these fateful days Iran is accelerating the arming of its terror proxies to attack Israel. This deal would legitimize Iran’s nuclear program, bolster Iran’s economy, and increase Iran’s aggression and terror throughout the Middle East and beyond,” Netanyahu told Obama during the call.
“Such a deal would not block Iran’s path to the bomb. It would pave it. It would increase the risks of nuclear proliferation in the region and the risks of a horrific war. The alternative is standing firm and increasing the pressure on Iran until a better deal is achieved,” he added.
Obama, calling from aboard Air Force One, said the deal “represents significant progress towards a lasting, comprehensive solution that cuts off all of Iran’s pathways to a bomb and verifiably ensures the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program going forward,” according to a read-out released by the White House.
Obama said the deal “in no way diminishes our concerns with respect to Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and threats towards Israel and emphasized that the United States remains steadfast in our commitment to the security of Israel,” the White House said.
The US president told Netanyahu that he instructed his security team to “increase consultations with the new Israeli government about how we can further strengthen our long-term security cooperation with Israel and remain vigilant in countering Iran’s threats.”
Earlier, immediately after the deal was announced, an Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, castigated the framework agreement as a dangerous capitulation to Tehran that would result in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear armament.
“This is a bad framework that will lead to a bad and dangerous deal,” he said. “If an agreement is reached based on the guidelines of this framework, that would be a historic mistake that will transform the world into a much more dangerous place.”
Those comments came shortly after Obama had welcomed the deal as making the world “a safer place.” Netanyahu had tweeted earlier in the evening that the deal would need to “significantly” roll back the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
Obama, in his speech following the accord, openly acknowledged that he and Netanyahu “don’t agree” on how to stop Iran, and charged that Netanyahu did not want the US to move “forward to a peaceful resolution,” while telling Netanyahu that the new deal was “the most effective” and “best option.”
Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog said in a statement published on Facebook that the crux of the understandings reached between Iran and world powers was still to be finalized, and that “we must ensure that the final agreement, which will be formulated now, will roll back Iran’s nuclear program in a manner that prevents it from [obtaining] a nuclear weapon, and will protect the security interests of Israel.”
Centrist Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid noted: “On the Iranian nuclear issue, there is no opposition and coalition. We are all concerned that the Iranians will circumvent the deal and Israel must protect its own security interests. The ayatollah’s regime has been peddling fraud and deception for years and progressing with its nuclear program. They will try, from day one, to cheat the international community as they have done in the past.”
Added Lapid: There is no basis to the determination that today Iran was prevented from attaining a nuclear weapon. Israel needs to work with the United States and the international community to ensure there is no Iranian fraud, something that would threaten Israel’s security and that of the world.”
Thursday, April 2, 2015
BY AFP AND TIMES OF ISRAEL STAFF April 2, 2015, 2:06 pm| The Times of Israel|
Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said Thursday that all options including military action were on the table in the face of the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Speaking to Israel Radio as crunch talks on Iran’s nuclear program continued in Switzerland, Steinitz said Israel would seek to counter any threat through diplomacy and intelligence but “if we have no choice we have no choice… the military option is on the table.”
Asked about possible US objections to Israeli military action, Steinitz pointed to Israel’s unilateral attack against the Osirak nuclear reactor in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1981.
“That operation was not carried out in agreement with the United States,” he said.
Steinitz, a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the Israeli leader had left no doubt as to the country’s response to nuclear-armed Iran.
“The prime minister has said clearly that Israel will not allow Iran to become a nuclear power,” Steinitz said.
In Lausanne, Switzerland, weary negotiators hoped to see the light at the end of the tunnel Thursday after talking until dawn, but cautioned they were still haggling over the last details to clinch a ground-breaking Iran nuclear deal.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif talked through the night, going line by line over their differences in a bid to seal the outlines of a framework accord to cut back Iran’s nuclear ambitions, diplomats close to the talks said.
They made “significant progress,” but there is no “final result yet,” Zarif told reporters at the luxury lakeside Lausanne hotel hosting the marathon negotiations for the past eight days.
The six powers “have to examine among themselves the results of the negotiations. We don’t know yet the result of those discussions.”
But a Western diplomat cautioned “the conclusion is far from being imminent.”
And German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier canceled a planned trip to the Baltics to stay at the talks in Switzerland.
In a sign that eight days of negotiations may be drawing to a close, Zarif said he and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini would make a “joint declaration” to the press if everyone was in agreement.
“But the text still has to be worked on,” he said.
After 18 months of intense negotiations, the six world powers and Iran are hoping to pin down the main contours of a deal to put a nuclear bomb out of Iran’s reach.
The aim is to turn this into a comprehensive accord backed by specific technical commitments by June 30 when an interim deal struck in November 2013 expires.
After just a few hours’ sleep, the six world powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — were back at the negotiating table.
The stakes were very high, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said, adding that at issue was the question of non-proliferation, and “Iran’s reintegration into the international community.”
Under the interim 2013 accord, which has been extended twice and which expires on June 30, Iran froze certain nuclear activities in return for minor sanctions relief.
Success in Lausanne would end a 12-year-old standoff. Failure may set the United States and Israel on a road to military action to thwart Iran’s nuclear drive.
The White House said the talks were still “productive” and progress was being made.
“But if we are in a situation where we sense that the talks have stalled then yes, the United States and the international community is prepared to walk away,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
Iran’s chief negotiator Abbas Arqghchi had said there were two main sticking points — a mechanism for lifting crippling sanctions against the Islamic republic, and the country’s research and development of new nuclear machinery.
Global powers want Iran to scale down its nuclear program to extend the “breakout” time needed to assemble enough nuclear material to make a bomb, which Iran has always denied seeking.
But Iranian negotiators are under pressure from domestic hardliners not to give too much away — while also delivering on President Hassan Rouhani’s promise to win the lifting of sanctions.
Global powers have refused an immediate end to all sanctions, preferring instead a phased suspension to enable them to be put back in place if Iran violates the deal.
The issue of suspending UN sanctions is particularly tricky — Iran is also subject to US and EU ones — with discord among the powers about the mechanism for a “snap-back” mechanism if needed.
US President Barack Obama also needs a deal which he can sell to hostile Republicans in Congress, who remain skeptical of Iran’s pledges and are threatening to push for new sanctions from April 14.
Republicans and US allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia fear that if too much of Iran’s nuclear program is left intact, it will still have the ability to obtain a nuclear bomb.
Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday excoriated world powers over their dogged pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, pointing to recent statements by officials in Tehran — notably their calls to eliminate Israel — as evidence of the Islamic Republic’s unwillingness to compromise on its nuclear ambitions and campaign of “terror, subjugation and conquest.”
In tones of moral outrage, he issued a brief, infuriated statement to camera, protesting that the talks were continuing in Lausanne even as Iran reiterated its insistent goal of destroying the Jewish state.
“Yesterday an Iranian general brazenly declared, and I quote, ‘Israel’s destruction is nonnegotiable,'” Netanyahu began, referring to astatement by Mohammad Reza Naqd, the commander of the Basij militia of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
“But evidently, giving Iran’s murderous regime a clear path to the bombis negotiable,” he said. “This is unconscionable.”
Netanyahu’s comments came as diplomats from Iran and a group of six world powers, led by the United States, resumed negotiations over the terms of a nuclear deal, hours after a deadline for such a deal elapsed.
He charged that Iran’s actions and ongoing “aggression” across the Middle East proved it did not intend to give up its nuclear and regional ambitions.
“I agree with those who have said that Iran’s claim that its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes doesn’t square with Iran’s insistence on keeping underground nuclear facilities, advanced centrifuges, and a heavy water reactor,” he said. “Nor does it square with Iran’s insistence on developing ICBMs [Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles], and its refusal to come clean with the International Atomic Energy Agency on its past weaponization efforts.
“At the same time, Iran is accelerating its campaign of terror, subjugation and conquest throughout the region, most recently in Yemen,” he continued.
Netanyahu’s reference to “those who have said” Iran does not require such capabilities marked the second time in two days that he has obliquely referred to comments made by President Barack Obama at the Saban Conference in December 2013, without citing Obama by name. The two leaders are bitterly at odds over strategies for thwarting Iran.
The prime minister claimed that “the concessions offered to Iran in Lausanne would ensure a bad deal that would endanger Israel, the Middle East and the peace of the world,” and called on the international community “to insist on a better deal… which would significantly roll back Iran’s nuclear infrastructure” and “link the eventual lifting of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program to a change in Iran’s behavior.”
He called on world powers to ensure that Iran “stop its aggression in the region, stop its terrorism throughout the world, and stop its threats to annihilate Israel.”
“That should be nonnegotiable. And that’s the deal that the world powers must insist upon,” he concluded.
The negotiators resumed talks in the Swiss resort town of Lausanne Wednesday, just hours after abandoning a March 31 deadline to reach the outline of a deal and agreeing to press on. However, as the discussions dragged on, three of the six foreign ministers involved left the talks, and prospects for agreement remained uncertain.
Claiming enough progress had been made to warrant an extension after six days of intense bartering, and eager to avoid a collapse in the discussions, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his British and German counterparts huddled in Lausanne to continue a marathon effort to bridge still significant gaps and hammer out details of a framework accord.
The foreign ministers of China, France and Russia all departed Lausanne overnight, although the significance of their absence, particularly when the broader group meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, was not clear.
If they succeed, those understandings would form the basis for a comprehensive detailed agreement to be reached by the end of June.
After the talks last broke in the early hours of Wednesday, Zarif said solutions to many of the problems had been found and that documents attesting to that would soon be drafted. Other officials were more skeptical.
Asked how high the chances of success were, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: “I cannot say.” And British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Iran might still not be ready to accept what is on the table.
“I’m optimistic that we will make further progress this morning but it does mean the Iranians being willing to meet us where there are still issues to deal with,” Hammond told British reporters. “Fingers crossed and we’ll hope to get there during the course of the day.”
Although the Chinese, French and Russian ministers left their deputies in charge, Kerry postponed his planned Tuesday departure to stay in Lausanne, and an Iranian negotiator said his team would stay “as long as necessary” to clear the remaining hurdles.
Officials say their intention is to produce a joint statement outlining general political commitments to resolving concerns about Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, and their intention to begin a new phase of negotiations to get to that point. In addition, they are trying to fashion other documents that would lay out in more detail the steps they must take by June 30 to meet those goals.
The additional documents would allow the sides to make the case that the next round of talks will not simply be a continuation of negotiations that have already been twice extended since an interim agreement between Iran, the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany was concluded in November 2013. President Barack Obama and other leaders, including Iran’s, have said they are not interested in a third extension.
But if the parties agree only to a broad framework that leaves key details unresolved, Obama can expect stiff opposition at home from members of Congress who want to move forward with new, stiffer Iran sanctions. Lawmakers had agreed to hold off on such a measure through March while the parties negotiated. The White House says new sanctions would scuttle further diplomatic efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear work and possibly lead Israel to act on threats to use military force to accomplish that goal.
And despite the progress that diplomats said merited the extension of talks into Wednesday, officials said the differences notably included issues over uranium enrichment, the status of Iran’s enriched uranium stockpiles, limits on Iran’s nuclear research and development, and the timing and scope of sanctions relief.
The US and its negotiating partners are demanding curbs on Iranian nuclear activities that could be used to make weapons, and they say any agreement must extend the time Tehran would need to produce a weapon from the present several months to at least a year. The Iranians deny such military intentions, but they are negotiating with the aim that a deal will end sanctions on their economy.
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
WASHINGTON — As reports proliferate that the US administration is considering stripping Israel of the protective diplomatic umbrella with which it has historically provided the Jewish state in the international arena — including its vetoing of UN resolutions damaging to Jerusalem — a bipartisan group of US senators urged President Barack Obama in a letter Monday to avoid threatening Israel with such punitive measures and to reassert Washington’s support for the state.
The letter obtained by the Times of Israel was signed by two Democrats and two Republicans who did not directly criticize the president’s policies, but did warn that “using the United Nations to push Israel and the Palestinians to accept terms defined by others will only ensure that the parties themselves are not committed to observing these provisions.”
Democratic Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Mark Warner (D-VA) joined with Republican Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) in signing the missive, which stated their opposition to “efforts to bypass direct negotiations and impose peace terms on Israel at the UN and other international bodies.”
The senators reminded the president that America’s “longstanding commitment to Israel transcends any one leader or government” — a not particularly veiled reference to the personal acrimony between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Relations between the two leaders have hit a new low in recent weeks, after Netanyahu appeared before Congress to warn against an impending deal with Iran which the Obama administration has been working on since 2013. The negotiations toward a political framework for a comprehensive deal are expected to conclude by Tuesday and Netanyahu has continued to warn that the deal is one that will endanger Israel’s security.
The tension only increased following Netanyahu’s reelection two weeks after his Congressional address. The Obama administration complained about statements made by Netanyahu in the final days of the campaign, during which he warned that Arab voters were turning out “in droves” to vote against them and said that no Palestinian state would be created during his premiership.
In reaction, the administration indicated that it would “evaluate” its actions toward achieving a two-state solution, hinting that it might not block — and might perhaps even draft — a UN resolution in support of Palestinian independence.
Netanyahu later walked back the latter statement, and apologized to Arab leaders for the former statement, but the Obama administration has continued its critical stance toward Netanyahu.
“We’ve made our point,” a White House official told Politico on Sunday. “The message has clearly been received. The next move is theirs, presumably after the new government has been formed.”
But the administration has been under increased pressure to moderate its stance. The same Politico article reported that a dozen Jewish Democrats in the House of Representatives — including some stalwart Obama allies — had told Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes that Obama needed to tone down his rhetoric regarding Israel.
On Saturday, the Washington Post published a scathing editorial in which the paper’s editorial board declared that “Mr. Obama’s efforts to promote a settlement [with the Palestinians], going back to 2009, ignored innumerable warnings (including from this page) that he was premising his diplomacy on breakthroughs that were not achievable. It is Mr. Obama who has long been pretending, and he compounds his mistake by claiming that the reality he now accepts was created 10 days ago by Mr. Netanyahu’s rhetoric.”
Monday’s letter echoed the same discontent with an administration that has posed challenges to Jewish Democrats who are at pains to emphasize that support for Israel is not just a Republican issue.
“For decades, both Democratic and Republican administrations have stood by Israel in opposing anti-Israel or one-sided resolutions at the UN Security Council and other UN agencies,” the senators noted, telling the president that “we must remain firm in opposing actions that are designed to circumvent direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Such actions, the senators warned, “will set back the opportunities for peace in the long term.”
“We must make clear our willingness to use our veto power to block such efforts at the UN Security Council and our continuing defense of Israel at the United Nations Human Rights Council and other agencies where Israel is under constant assault,” the senators emphasized.
The senators quoted Obama’s own 2011 address to the UN General Assembly in which he told the international body that “ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians — not us — who much reach agreement on the issues that divide them.”
Monday, March 30, 2015
As officials convene to hammer out a nuclear deal, prime minister vows to ‘continue to act against every threat’
BY AFP AND TIMES OF ISRAEL STAFF March 30, 2015, 4:55 pm | The Times of Israel|
Foreign ministers from major powers raced against the clock in the Swiss town of Lausanne Monday on the eve of a deadline to nail down the final pieces of a framework deal they hope will put any Iranian nuclear bomb out of reach.
Meanwhile in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Western powers that any agreement with Tehran would be seen as a reward for the country’s alleged “aggression” in Yemen.
“The agreement being formulated… sends a message that there is no price for aggression and, on the contrary, that Iran’s aggression is to be rewarded,” Netanyahu said, referring to Iranian support for Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen.
“The moderate and responsible countries in the region, especially Israel and also many other countries, will be the first to be hurt by this agreement,” said the prime minister, who has waged a campaign against the emerging nuclear deal with Tehran, arguing that it will pave the way “to an Iranian nuclear arsenal.
“One cannot understand that when forces supported by Iran continue to conquer more ground in Yemen, in Lausanne they are closing their eyes to this aggression,” Netanyahu said. “But we are not closing our eyes and we will continue to act against every threat in every generation, certainly in this generation.”
Adding to the drama, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was set to leave the crunch talks with Iran in Switzerland and will only return if there is a “realistic” chance of a deal, his spokeswoman said.
Lavrov and his counterparts from the United States, China, Britain, France and Germany met with the Iranians in a lakeside Lausanne hotel on Monday for their first full session since missing a previous November deadline.
They want Iran to scale back its nuclear program to give the world ample notice of any dash to make the bomb and end a crisis that has threatened to escalate dangerously for 12 years.
The diplomatically isolated Islamic Republic denies wanting nuclear weapons and is calling for the lifting of sanctions that have strangled its lifeblood oil exports and its access to the global financial system.
The threat of new US sanctions, and domestic pressure on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for his attempts at rapprochement with the West, all but rule out any further extension of the deadline.
A Western diplomat said Monday it was “yes or no” time, adding that the talks remained blocked on three major issues — the length of the accord; the lifting of UN sanctions; and a mechanism to ensure both sides stick to the deal.
Global powers have set a midnight Tuesday deadline to agree to the outlines of a deal that they will then try to finalize by June 30. Only then would Iran receive sanctions relief, diplomats said.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that after 18 months of negotiations, they were in the “endgame.”
Iran’s lead negotiator Abbas Araqchi said they were in the “final phase.”
But Araqchi also said the talks were “very difficult,” while Steinmeier cautioned that the “final meters are the most difficult.”
Even before a deal is sewn up, opponents have been lining up to criticize it, worrying it will not do enough to stop Iran getting the bomb.
“I just don’t understand why we would sign an agreement with a group of people who in my opinion have no intention of keeping their word,” US House Speaker John Boehner told CNN.
Israel is widely believed to be the sole, if undeclared, nuclear-armed power in the Middle East and has long been opposed to any Iran accord.
Saudi Arabia — leading an Arab coalition, which on Monday carried out a fifth straight night of airstrikes on Iran-backed rebels in Yemen — is also uneasy about any US-Iran thawing of ties.
Western diplomats say some areas in a highly complex jigsaw puzzle of an accord are tentatively agreed upon. But they caution there is a long way to go.
One said Sunday that Iran had “more or less” agreed to slash the number of its centrifuge enrichment machines from 20,000 to 6,000 and to ship abroad most of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium.
This would make it a much more lengthy process to further purify these stocks to weapons-grade.
Iranian officials dismissed the numbers as “speculation,” with Araqchi ruling out sending the stocks abroad, although he said “other options” were being examined.
This could include diluting low-enriched uranium or converting it to another form.
But, nevertheless, Iranian officials have expressed guarded optimism that a breakthrough may be at hand.
“Getting to an accord is doable. Solutions have been found for numerous questions. We are still working on two or three issues,” Araqchi said.
In addition to scaling down its nuclear program, the powers want Iran’s remaining facilities to be subject to an unprecedented level of inspections by the UN atomic watchdog.
Its underground facility at Fordo would also likely be barred from uranium enrichment, diplomats said, although it might be kept open for research purposes.
The US, EU and others are only prepared to suspend their sanctions, not terminate them, and in a phased manner in order to ensure that Iran does not violate the deal.
The issue of UN Security Council sanctions is particularly tricky.
Araqchi said Sunday there must be a “precise framework” for lifting sanctions. The duration of any deal — the US wants at least 10 and possibly up to 15 years — is also a point of contention.
Friday, March 27, 2015
By REUTERS \03/27/2015 16:59| The Jerusalem Post|
Major powers and Iran were pushing each other for concessions on Friday ahead of an end-March deadline for a preliminary nuclear deal, with Tehran demanding an immediate end to sanctions and freedom to continue sensitive atomic research, officials said.
Tehran and six major powers - the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China - are meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, to hammer out a political framework accord by the end of this month that would lay the foundations for a full deal by June 30.
Under a final settlement, Tehran would halt sensitive nuclear work for at least a decade and in exchange, international financial and oil sanctions on Iran would be lifted. This would aim to end the country's 12-year nuclear standoff with the West and reduce the risk of war in the Middle East.
While all sides agree they have been inching closer to a deal, there are major disagreements that have prevented a resolution.
Tehran insists on the freedom to continue research on advanced centrifuges, machines that purify uranium for use in nuclear power plants or, if very highly enriched, in weapons, at an underground facility, and the immediate lifting of all UN sanctions and the most severe US and European Union sanctions.
"There has been massive progress on all the issues," a senior Iranian official told Reuters. "There are still disputes over two issues - R&D (research and development) and UN sanctions."
A Western official close to the talks confirmed that from his side, centrifuge research and enrichment in general remained the most difficult unresolved issue: "The essential element for us is R&D, and enrichment."
The United States and European partners are reluctant to allow Iran to operate centrifuges at the Fordo enrichment site, Western officials said, adding that the issue was unresolved.
An Iranian government website said in November that Washington could let Iran keep some 6,000 early-generation centrifuges, down from nearly 10,000 now in operation out of under 20,000 installed.
After meeting US Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters outside the 19th century hotel on the banks of Lake Geneva where the talks are taking place that it was unclear if there would be a deal in the coming days.
"The negotiations are difficult and complicated and there are highs and lows," Zarif said. "We think an agreement is still possible but when is another story. Our feeling is that we certainly will be able to reach an agreement, but that will need political will on the other side."
Zarif added that the issue of the Saudi-led military operations against Yemen's Houthi fighters, which Tehran has backed, had come up on the sidelines, though the Lausanne talks were exclusively focused on the nuclear issue.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke with his French, Russian, British and Chinese counterparts on Thursday in an attempt to break the impasse. He also sent a letter to the leaders of all six powers, including US President Barack Obama, though officials said the letter did not suggest Tehran was ready to compromise.
Western officials said the main problem remains Tehran's refusal to offer serious concessions. Iranians say the same thing about the six and accuse the French of taking the hardest line.
They also said there was no guarantee a deal would be clinched by the deadline, but several foreign ministers are due to arrive in Lausanne this weekend.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, whose country has been making the most stringent demands on Iran according to negotiators, will arrive on Saturday. His British and Russian counterparts have also confirmed they will join the talks.
If there is a political framework agreement in the coming days, the US and European delegations want it to be as specific as possible, including figures for permissible numbers of centrifuges Tehran could operate, uranium stockpiles and other sensitive technical issues.
Further technical details would be included in annexes to be agreed before July 1.
"We are not messing about here," a Western diplomat said. "If there is a deal it won't be a vague understanding that collapses as soon as we leave. If there is a political framework agreement it will have the broad parameters of the issues even if, given the complexities surrounding these talks, it may mean that some issues are not explained in detail."
The six powers want the limits on the most sensitive aspects of Iran's nuclear program to be in place for at least a decade followed by years of intrusive inspections by the UN nuclear watchdog.
They also want to be certain Tehran would need at least one year to produce enough high enriched uranium for a weapon should the Iranians decide to produce one. Iran denies having any nuclear weapons ambitions.
Israel, Saudi Arabia, France and the US Congress have all raised concerns that the Obama administration might be willing to conclude a deal that would allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability in the future.
Thursday, March 26, 2015
03/24/2015 16:58| The Jerusalem Post|
Eight members of the House of Representatives announced the formation of a task-force Tuesday aimed with the challenge of combating anti-Semitism. The forming members will serve as co-chairs of the force and work to minimize the proliferation of anti-Semitic acts across the globe.
"Around the world, we are witnessing an alarming rise of anti-Semitism that is dangerous and complex. Over the past few years, Jewish schools, synagogues, and even homes and property have been targets of anti-Semitic violence. Jewish populations are facing increased levels of hatred, frequently under the guise of political differences or other alibis, but in reality it is solely because of their faith," the members said in a statement.
The committee, coined "The Bipartisan Taskforce for Combating anti-Semitism," will work to educate Congress members on this particular form of prejudice and will seek to share solutions that could minimize the phenomenon with the Executive Branch of the government, foreign leaders and civil society organizations.
The task-force hopes to integrate Congress into the fight against anti-Semitism and promote tolerance on an international level.
"It is the responsibility of everyone who believes in basic universal liberties and freedoms to condemn this trend and work together to root out the hatred which underlies anti-Semitism. We look forward to working with our colleagues in Congress to find innovative solutions that match the 21st century face of this age-old bigotry," their statement read.