JERUSALEM — In the corridors of Israel’s Foreign Ministry this week, diplomats worked at a furious pace to send messages to the country’s allies across the world: “Please, stand with us against a nuclear Iran.”
It was part of a larger media blitz prepared ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations next week, and came amid a flurry of activity hinting at warming ties between the U.S. and Iran
So on Tuesday, when a much-hyped potential handshake between President Barack Obama and Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, did not happen, it came as little surprise that some Israeli diplomats described the government as “relieved.”
“There is a great deal of concern that the entire world will swallow up whole the act that the Iranians are putting on at the U.N. this week,” said one Foreign Ministry official. “We believe in diplomacy, but we do not believe the Iranians are interested in diplomacy.”
Netanyahu said the same in a speech on Tuesday, urging that the world “should not be fooled” by signs of moderation from Tehran and that, “Iran thinks soothing words and token actions will enable it to continue on its path to the bomb.” He made it clear his delegation would not remain in the U.N. General Assembly to listen to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s speech, and that they thought very little of what they called a “smile offensive” by the Iranian regime.
Another Israeli Foreign Ministry official, who previously worked in the U.S., said that the Obama administration were “falling over themselves with glee” at the prospect that Obama would be able to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue through diplomacy.
“They want to avoid violence, and to solve this issue nonviolently would be a real coup for Obama personally. Unfortunately, he does not understand that the Iranians can’t be trusted,” he said.
The official said Israel “was relieved” once it emerged that the Iranians had turned down an opportunity for a small meeting between Obama and Rouhani on the sidelines of the UNGA.
“I wish I could be back in the U.S. right now to tell some of my American colleagues, ‘You see, we were right.’ We told them Rouhani was not interested in bold steps and even if he was, [Ayatollah] Khomeini would not let him take any dramatic initiatives this quickly,” he said. “We only hope that this throws cold water on the entire Iranian show that they have tried to stage at the U.N. this year.”
In his speech at the UNGA Tuesday morning, Obama struck a conciliatory tone, telling the assembly, “We are encouraged that President Rouhani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course. And given President Rouhani’s stated commitment to reach an agreement, I am directing John Kerry to pursue this effort with the Iranian government.” Speculation grew over a potential handshake, a gesture that would signify the thawing of U.S.–Iranian relations for the first time since before the 1979 Islamic revolution that ousted the U.S.-backed shah.
In Israel, officials listened to the news out of New York with growing anxiety.
Yuval Steinitz, an Israeli cabinet minister who is often dispatched to represent Netanyahu’s point of view and is particularly close to the prime minister did not mince words.
“I really hope that the whole world, and chiefly among them the United States, will say, ‘OK, it’s nice to hear the smiles, the new rhetoric, but as long as you don’t change the conduct, and as long as you don’t make a real concession in the nuclear project, the economic sanctions will continue and if there is need, will be joined by a military threat as well,” Steinitz said in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio.
“We are certainly warning the entire international community that Iran may want an agreement, but it is liable to be the Munich agreement,” said Steinitz, referring to the 1938 appeasement of Nazi Germany. “Rouhani wants to hoodwink, and some in the world want to be hoodwinked, and the role of little Israel is to explain the truth and to stand in the breach. And that is what we are doing to the best of our abilities. It is a long struggle.”
Earlier, Steinitz had told BuzzFeed: “We want to believe in the possibility of diplomacy, but Rouhani, and we must warn our friends of this, Rouhani is a sheep in wolf’s clothing.”
In Israel’s Washington, D.C., embassy, a less diplomatic line was taken. The embassy’s official Twitter account sent out a fake LinkedIn page it had put together for Rouhani, with skills such as “Deceptive Trade Practices,” “Nuclear Weapons,” “Twitter,” “Public Relations,” and “Illusion.”
The account added a biography, including the description of Rouhani’s current post: “Since my election as president of Iran in 2013, I have developed and executed an unprecedented PR campaign for the government of Iran. Through a series of statements, tweets, op-eds and smiles I have re-branded the human-rights-suppressing, Ayatollah-led regime as moderate and a source of hope among the international community.”
To drive their point home, Israeli officials also leaked documents to U.S. and Israeli papers that stated that the Israeli government was skeptical of Iran’s recent diplomatic outreach. Calling Iran’s strategy a “smile and enrich” campaign, Israeli officials argued that Iran was looking to divert attention from its nuclear program. In leaks to in leaks to several news outlets, Israeli ministers were quoted as saying that Iran was only six months away from a nuclear bomb, and that they were using diplomacy to “buy time” to build a nuclear arsenal.
This campaigning is due to set the stage for Netanyahu, who will address the UNGA next week.
“Netanyahu will bring a decisive message, as he did last year, to turn the world to the real threat that must be confronted,” said an aide to the prime minister. “Even if this week the Iranians conduct a ‘charm offensive’ next week Netanyahu will make sure to bring a ‘reality check.’”