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Written by Ramy Srour

Early on Sunday September 29, this article appeared on The Jerusalem Post:

http://www.jpost.com/Diplomacy-and-Politics/Analysis-Rouhani-drives-wedge-between-Netanyahu-Obama-on-Iran-issue-327388

The article is titled Rouhani drives wedge between Netanyahu, Obama on Iran issue. It discusses how Israel may react to Iran’s goodwill gestures of the past few weeks.

What the article does is to partially confirm what many have been suspecting over the past few days with regard to the recent diplomatic overtures by newly-elect Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Namely, that the path to a diplomatic solution may not be as smooth as most would hope. Or rather, the path to a diplomatic solution that would see all the concerned parties satisfied is not so smooth.

From Russia Today (rt.com)

For obvious reasons, Israel has kept a close watch on Iran’s nuclear odyssey since its discovery in the early 2000s. A country that is surrounded by openly (and some more covertly) hostile states, Israel has had to shape its foreign policy and its national security apparatus accordingly.

As history shows us, Israel has not hesitated to act, at times forcefully, and at times also preemptively, in order to secure its borders. The 1982 Lebanese war was the first large-scale example of a foreign policy according to which threats to its national security were deemed so high as to warrant Israel to conduct an invasion of another country.

Earlier in 1981, however, a surprise Israel Air Force attack had destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osiris. As late as 2006, Israel found itself once again embroiled in an operation in Lebanon, this time against the militants of Hezbollah.

But this is nothing new in international affairs. You choose how to define your national interest and the threats that may undermine it. Consequently, you choose what strategy will help you secure that interest and your borders. This is perhaps too Hobbesian a picture of the international system, but alas, it is one of those traits that have persisted since the early inception of the nation-state back in 1648.

Existential threats

Now, the core question that I suspect is hidden in every state’s top leaders is: What threats can we live with, and what threats are so existential that require a constant level of alertness on our part?

What the recent developments on Iran seem to suggest is that Israel sees Teheran’s nuclear program as a threat of the second kind, that is, an existential threat.

A threat is existential when its existence threatens the life itself of its target. Not some of its citizens, its interests, or its economy. Its life.

Now, there have been no clear statements by the Israeli leadership confirming that this is actually the case. But rumors in the media tend to point in this direction. For instance, while the Europeans together with the U.S. may agree to Iran enriching up to 3 or 5%, it seems that Israel’s condition will be that Iran should not be allowed to enrich at all.

In addition to creating some difficulties under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, if this position were to be truly brought forward, we may have to say goodbye to an actual deal between Iran and the West.

Trust

The delicate situation that has established itself with Rouhani’s election, his trip to the UN, and his phone call with Obama, rests on a mutual (albeit implicit) understanding that Iran does have the right to enrich uranium for energy purposes.

Israel’s concern, a very legitimate one, is the veracity of this understanding. What leaders in Jerusalem are asking is: Can we trust this agreement?

Obviously, this deep mistrust is not just caused by Iran’s past. It is also caused by the way Israel perceives the threat coming from Iran and its nuclear program. Because they see it as an existential threat, Israeli leaders simply cannot afford to give Iran – and the U.S., for that matter – anything resembling the benefit of the doubt.

And understandably so.

A country whose leader only a few year back had threatened to ‘wipe Israel from the face of the Earth’ and who had denied that the Holocaust ever took place, may indeed be seen as threatening the very existence of the Israeli state.

Threats we can live with

But things have changed. Ahmadinejad is gone, and so is most of the rhetoric that accompanied him in his 8 years as president. Isn’t it time to move on and see what the new leadership has to offer?

Israel may want to shift from defining Iran as an existential threat to viewing it as a threat that may be lived with, of course with important caveats that will need to be addressed.

Progress comes gradually. But it needs to start somewhere. One place it could start from may be for Israel to stop for a moment, take a deep breath and give Rouhani the chance to prove that everything that Ahmadinejad represented is really gone. And for good.

That would obviously entail Israel giving the diplomatic process a chance. That does not mean for Israel to give up on its legitimate security concerns. It simply means for its leaders to at least stop for a moment, look Iran in the eyes, and say: “Ok, we’re listening. What are we going to do about all this?”

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