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Israel Joins Debate Over Nuclear Talks With Iran


Iran was able to strike a deal on its nuclear program yesterday, though not the one many people hoped for. Tehran will allow broader U.N. inspections of its nuclear sites, which the Iranians say exists for peaceful purposes. Talks are hold until next week on the major issues: Western efforts to ensure Iran's nuclear program is peaceful and Iran's desire for sanctions relief. When those talks fell apart over the weekend, no one appeared as relieved as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg View and The Atlantic says Netanyahu's opposition is out of real fear that the Obama administration will make a deal that will not work for Israel.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: I'm a little bit surprised at the ferocity of Netanyahu's response. I think he also senses Obama's domestic political weakness and believes that if he pushes this very hard, the Republicans in Congress will push hard against the president and against any sort of deal, so I think he's also exploiting a moment. But they don't get along. They don't trust each other, and this is now a return to the natural state of affairs between the two of them.

WERTHEIMER: Netanyahu has, on occasion, just gone straight past the president and to the Congress. He has many friends whose politics matches his own in the United States Congress. If the president wants to make some sort of deal with Iran, does he absolutely have to have Netanyahu in order to get it past the American Congress?

GOLDBERG: I think it's complicated because A) I don't think the president understood where France was on this. Maybe that's the byproduct of not having the NSA listen to European leaders anymore. I don't know. B) He also has tremendous Arab opposition. But Netanyahu is a formidable foe and he definitely needs to neutralize Netanyahu's opposition if he's going to move this through Congress.

His big fear, Obama's big fear, is that Congress is going to layer on new sanctions while this process is taking place. The White House fears that the Iranians will then say, a-ha, you guys aren't really interested in compromise, so we're just going to go back to building our nuclear program. Obviously the Israelis and the Arabs and maybe the French at this point believe that the Iranians are at the table because of sanctions, so putting more sanctions on the Iranians only motivates them more to make a compromise.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in a conversation with you suggested that the pressure from Israel is what has brought Iran to the table, that Israel and the United States appear to be, from what he said, working a sort of good-cop bad-cop thing on this.

GOLDBERG: The interesting thing there is that they didn't plan it that way because I don't think Obama and Netanyahu really trust each other enough to say, okay, you play this role and I'll play that role. But, in fact, over the past couple of years it's been very, very useful for President Obama to be able to point at Netanyahu and say, hey, look, everyone, if you don't go with sanctions the way I want, this guy's a little bit crazy and he might do something.

But at a certain point, you know, he doesn't want Netanyahu to play the bad cop. He wants him to just stop talking for a little bit, and that's where Netanyahu goes off the script that he never agreed to play in the first place.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that bottom line it's possible to do a deal without Israel's support?

GOLDBERG: Yes. I think one of the reasons Netanyahu is making so much noise at this moment is that he understands that he's actually impotent, that Obama has succeeded in putting him in a box. Netanyahu has threatened for years to use military action unilaterally against Iran's nuclear facilities if Iran breached(ph) a certain point.

If Iran, of course, is sitting in Geneva with the United States and with the other European powers and having productive conversations, Israel can't really attack. It would turn itself into a pariah state if it upended these negotiations by attacking these facilities. Netanyahu knows he's in a box. That's why he's frustrated. That's why he's yelling so much.

WERTHEIMER: Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View and he is a national correspondent to The Atlantic. Thank you very much for coming in.

GOLDBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.