Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and United States Secretary of State John Kerry met in Rome on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013 to discuss Iran's nuclear weapons talks and the progress of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, as well as the troubles with Egypt and Syria. Both leaders expressed similar views about the terms of any agreement with Iran. While Netanyahu reiterated that any peace agreement with the Palestinians must include recognition of Israel as the Jewish state, and Israel's security and continual right to defend itself. Meanwhile, Netanyahu is facing increased opposition from members of conservative parties over the peace talks and their conditions of releasing 104 Palestinians convicted terrorists, as the talks proceed.
Prime Minister Netanyahu and Secretary Kerry met for a marathon seven-hour meeting in Rome, at Villa Taverna, the residence of the Italian ambassador to discuss Israel's two most pressing concerns shared by the United States; Iran and the continuing peace talks, where Kerry updated Netanyahu on the first stage of the talks with Iran. Netanyahu had stated in his remarks prior their meeting that the Israeli Prime Minister speaks with Kerry almost every day about both issues.
Very few details emerged from the discussions; the only glimpse from their meeting's agenda was their introductory remarks before entering into their private discussions. Their remarks reflected the topics there were discussed, and are the most pressing and in common for both the U.S. and Israel, Iran's nuclear weapons and the peace talks.
Netanyahu major message was warning against lifting sanctions against Iran before they completely dismantle their nuclear weapons programs, which includes Iran's entire uranium enrichment program. Netanyahu declared; "The foremost security problem that we face as you said is Iran's quest for nuclear weapons. Preventing that is a goal I share with you and President Obama, and you have said, I think wisely, that Iran must not have a nuclear weapons capability, which means that they shouldn't have centrifuges or enrichment. They shouldn't have a plutonium heavy water plant, which is used only for nuclear weapons. They should get rid of the advanced fissile material and they shouldn't have underground nuclear facilities, underground for one reason - for military purposes."
Secretary of State Kerry is in charge of the talks with Iran to dismantle their nuclear weapons program. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was elected in June and took over Iranian leadership in August. Rouhani has expressed a more moderate approach than his predecessor, with diplomatic overtures, and a willingness to curb the country's nuclear weapons program, which he stated in his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September.
There has also been a cautious rapprochement between the United States and Iran. After Housani took office, President Barack Obama exchanged letters with him, which was the first step in the thaw, then there was the overtures in Rouhani's UN speech, followed by the meeting between Kerry and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the UNGA, and the historic call between Obama and Rouhani.
With the current talks with Iran, Rouhani had made it clear he would not agree to any "final status deal" that involved totally dismantling their uranium enrichment; he wants to keep it at 20 percent. The United States did not indicate if they would demand total dismantling or give in to Rouhani's demands.
Still there has some vehemently anti-Israel rhetoric coming the new Iranian regime, especially in their staunch Palestinian support. Netanyahu still views Iran as a threat to Israel, and is insisting on the need for a total dismantling of every aspect of their program, as a result. Netanyahu wants the international community to keep the tough economic sanctions on Iran until their nuclear program is completely dismantled. Netanyahu has been insisting on that message in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, in every meeting with foreign leaders, and in every address relating to foreign policy and Israel's national security.
Kerry speaking to Netanyahu expressed that the United States appreciates that Iran is open to nuclear weapons talks, but promised Netanyahu the U.S. would remain cautious. Kerry reassured Netanyahu; "We will pursue a diplomatic initiative with eyes wide open, aware it will be vital for Iran to live up to those standards other nations that have nuclear programs live up to as they prove those programs are indeed peaceful." The Secretary of State also assured Netanyahu that both he and President Obama concur "No deal is better than a bad deal."
Netanyahu agreed with Kerry expressing; "I think you're right. I think no deal is better than a bad deal. I think a partial deal that leaves Iran with these capabilities is a bad deal….You were right. In the case of Iran, it is essential that it be made to live up to Security Council resolutions that demand an end to enrichment and enrichment capability and an end to plutonium heavy water capability toward fissile material for nuclear weapons."
Netanyahu expressed how important it is to not make any partial agreements, using Syria as an example, and stating how disastrous it would have been had the international community agreed to one. Netanyahu pointed out; "You wisely insisted there wouldn't be a partial deal with Syria. You were right. If (Syrian President Bashar) Assad had said, 'I'd like to keep 20 percent, 50 percent, or 80 percent of my chemical weapons capability,' you would have refused - and correctly so."
In order to avoid the label of a hawk looking instead to start a war with Iran, Netanyahu made it clear as he did in his UN address that an end to Iran's nuclear weapons programs should be done through negotiations. The Prime Minister clarified; "And I agree with you that the goal is get it peacefully - peacefully. The best way to get it peacefully is to maintain the pressure on Iran."
At this point, there has already been one round of meetings between the P5+1 nations; Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.S and Iran over their nuclear program held in the Oct. 16 and 17, with a second round of meetings scheduled for Nov. 7 and 8 also in Geneva, Switzerland.
At the same time, Netanyahu was meeting with Kerry Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon spoke about Iran to Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee reiterating the same message. In regards to the sanctions, Ya'alon stated; "They're striving to keep their ability to independently enrich uranium; this is unacceptable from our perspective, as this is the way to mislead and hoodwink [the international community], as they've done in the past… We're trying to have an influence through open channels, not only with the Americans, but also with other members of the P5+1 members, so that there really will be an efficient utilization of economic sanctions, to really bring the Iranian regime to decide between having a bomb or the survival of the regime."
A report first published in Foreign Policy magazine indicated that in contradiction to what Kerry had been promising Netanyahu, the Obama White House is willing to lift some of the economic sanctions on Iran, as the talks progress to ease negotiations. Whereas Congress, especially Republicans in Congress want to do the opposite, Republican Senators do not trust Iran and agree with Netanyahu's philosophy to toughen sanctions forcing Iran to make a deal that would completely eradicate their nuclear program.
Last week, prior to the first meetings with Iran supposedly Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL drafted legislation for those additional sanctions on Iran's oil, stating; "No one should be impressed by what Iran appears to have brought to the table in Geneva. Tehran has broken its word far too many times to be trusted. Due to its complete disregard for previous international agreements, we must take a firm stand in all negotiations regarding the nuclear capabilities Iran is permitted to retain."
Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman however, testified to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that the Obama administration does not want the Senate to pass any additional sanctions. Sherman stated; "We do believe it would be helpful for you to at least allow this meeting to happen on the 15th and 16th of October before moving forward to consider these new sanctions."
The administration does not want Congress to be influenced by Netanyahu's onslaught of warnings against Iran, and unnamed source in Congress, explained; "Faced with a steady drumbeat of Israeli officials urging world leaders to hold the line on sanctions until Iran fully dismantles its illicit nuclear program, the White House has decided to put on a full court press to stop the Congress from taking Prime Minister Netanyahu's advice."
Both Netanyahu and Kerry also delved into discussing the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at their meeting. At this point there have been 13 rounds of meetings between Israel and the Palestinians, since the talks resumed at the end of July. Kerry announced earlier in the week that all topics were on the table to negotiate. On Monday, Oct. 21, 2013 during joint remarks with Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah in Paris, Kerry gave an update on the peace talks. Kerry announced; "The two parties have been engaged now in 13 meetings - serious meetings. They had three meetings in the last four days. All the core issues are on the table. And they have been meeting with increased intensity."
Netanyahu emphasized to Kerry at their meeting in Rome, the most important and basic elements to any peace deal with the Palestinians; "That peace is premised on mutual recognition of two states for two peoples - the Palestinian state for the Palestinian people mirrored by the Jewish state for the Jewish people. I think that's fundamental for any peace, but equally it must be a peace that - as President Obama has said - a peace that Israel can defend by itself, for itself against any conceivable threat. I think these are the two twin pillars of peace."
On the home front Netanyahu is facing fierce opposition from the more conservative wing of his cabinet. Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the religious and conservative Bayit Yehudi Party is insisting on a cabinet vote for a bill passed in the Knesset Ministerial Committee for Legislation with a 5 to 4 vote. The bill would require 66 percent, 80 of the 120 Knesset members to vote in favor of giving any part Jerusalem in any peace deal with the Palestinians. This new bill would be on top of the referendum bill going through the Knesset, which will have the public vote on any potential withdrawals and land exchanges in a future peace agreement. Both Netanyahu and chief peace talks negotiator and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni oppose the bill.
After returning from Rome, Netanyahu announced on Thursday, Oct. 24 that he would keep the date of the next prisoner release on Oct. 29, but at the same time pledged that there would additional building projects in the settlements, some previous planned construction that would be accelerated in Judea, Samaria and East Jerusalem. Netanyahu intends to release the names of the next 32 prisoners to be released at Sunday's cabinet meeting.
Bennett, who is usually a proponent of building in the settlements, would rather there not be any building and that instead the prisoner release would not continue. Bennett stated; "The attempt to combine construction with freeing murderers is cynical and morally wrong. It would be better for the prime minister not to free murderers and not to build." The leader of the Bayit Yehudi Party also intends to introduce legislation at the next cabinet meeting preventing further prisoner releases; the bill has support from Bennett's party, members of Netanyahu's Likud Party and the conservative religious, United Torah Judaism party. The opposition to the prisoner release comes after weeks of increased violence by Palestinians towards Jews living in the settlements.
Although the Israeli Prime Minister and the U.S. Secretary of State seem to agree on both Iran and the peace talks, there seems to be a lot of dissension on the ranks of either country on both issues. In the U.S., lawmakers are concerned over Iran's intentions on dismantling their nuclear program, while in Israel, Knesset members are skeptical over the peace talks. With it still early on in the negotiations on both issues, and amid such skepticism it remains to be seen if either of the discussions will amount any agreements in the end.
- US Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Remarks Before Their Rome Meeting, Oct. 23, 2013
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.