Thebig New York Times story over the weekendsaid that Israeli officials told the Times that they knew and approved of nascent bilateral talks between Iran and U.S. But then something happened: the Israelis changed course, and Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren told the paper, “We do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks.” Today, the Timescarried a meta-story noting how that reversal had blossomed into a direct order from Netanyahu to the entire Israeli government – even in person to his cabinet ministers, and by cable to every diplomatic installation – to not discuss possible bilateral talks between Israel and Iran. The paper even laid out a timeline of the above flap with Oren:
Around 8 p.m. Israeli time on Saturday, a senior Israeli official, demanding anonymity, told a Times reporter that the Israelis were aware of the effort toward bilateral talks and were open to it, so long as Washington’s demands were clear: Tehran must stop enriching uranium, export its enriched-uranium stockpile and forfeit any effort to weaponize the material. Iran insists that its program is only for civilian use.
Two hours later, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, called the reporter with an official response he said was authorized by a high-ranking person in Jerusalem. The White House had not informed Israel of the agreement with Tehran, he said, and “we do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks.”
The Times also reported that before Netanyahu’s cable and statement, “Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon, who is the head of strategic affairs and is well briefed on Iran, encouraged ‘any negotiation that will lead to the end of the nuclear program.’” A former Israeli official, retired IDF intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, wrotethat any talks with Iran would be a “positive development.”
Two thoughts on this, both of which I’ve hinted at before. First, Israel clearly does not want there to be fruitful talks with Iran. Second, this still strengthens the case to me that, despite denials from the White House (and President Obama himself during the debate) and Iran, these nascent talks might actually be real. Given Israeli opposition to the talks, their making sure everyone stays shut up about it could just be that, as an Israeli told the Times, “most people who react don’t know anything and just speak as if they know.” Or it could be that Netanyahu wants to control the message and keep officials like Yaalon from going off the reservation because these talks are very, very real.