JERUSALEM -- At a cafe in Jerusalem, Giora Shamis greeted the announcement that Iran has begun rolling back its nuclear program with a shake of his head.
“I feel deep anxiety,” said Shamis, who runs a hawkish news analysis website. “I don't believe a word they say. Iran's influence is on the march and Israel's strategic position is shrinking. I ask myself now, ‘Who is calling the shots in the Middle East?’”
While much of the world watched with cautious optimism as an interim deal designed to limit Iran’s enrichment of uranium went into effect Monday, the tone in Israel was one of resigned skepticism.
Politicians took to the airwaves to highlight the deal’s flaws and a newspaper released a poll that found 1 in 5 Israelis doesn’t believe President Obama will prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms.
Speaking at the parliament, or Knesset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the agreement reached in November between Iran and six world powers for not exacting enough concessions. The deal, he said, keeps Iran’s nuclear train “on the tracks” by allowing low-grade enrichment to continue. A final accord, which under the November agreement is to be negotiated over the next six months, must go much farther, he warned.
Netanyahu’s comments were more subdued than in November, when he condemned the nuclear deal as “a historic mistake” and threatened to attack Iran’s nuclear sites.
In recent months, as the international community has made it clear that it wants a diplomatic solution in Iran, the chances of Israel launching a unilateral strike any time soon have faded, analysts say. For now, Israel's approach is “wait and see,” said Meir Javedanfar, an expert on Iranian-Israeli relations at the Interdisciplinary Center in the city of Herzliya.
According to news reports, Netanyahu has ordered Israeli intelligence officials to look for evidence that Iran is breaking the terms of the agreement, which, among other things, calls on Iran to suspend enrichment of uranium to 20% purity, a few steps short of weapons-grade. Israel probably would use that intelligence to try to influence the final accord, even though it isn’t a part of the coalition brokering the deal, experts say.
Israel has found itself on the sidelines of other major political developments in its neighborhood in recent years. It has mostly steered clear of the strife in Egypt and has sat out the Syrian civil war.
Although some in the country have embraced the remaking of the region’s political landscape as a positive development for Israel because it pits some of Israel’s longtime foes against each another, many regard the changes warily.
“I think Israel preferred to work vis-a-vis the known tyrants than with this thing that is called the ‘Arab Spring,’” said Ronen Bergman, a journalist who writes about Israeli security. “We are witnessing a process that has just started. We don't know where it ends.”
Iran, on the other hand, is a known menace. For years its leaders have waged a proxy war against Israel, financing militant groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Israel, which is believed to have an arsenal of nuclear warheads, has long maintained that a nuclear-equipped Iran would pose an existential threat. Iran has said it wants only civil nuclear capability, which requires uranium enriched to lower levels of purity. Israel wants it to stop enriching uranium altogether.
Netanyahu has made keeping Iran from obtaining nuclear capabilities a key focus, bringing up what he calls the Iranian threat in public comments nearly every day.
Some in Israel have accused him and other Israeli leaders of overemphasizing the Iran issue in order to draw attention from other political matters.
“I think that there is a bit of exaggeration,” said Nathan Cherniakvok, a 25-year-old architecture student. “It's easier to talk about Iran than it is about Palestine.”
A poll released last year before Israel’s national elections found that respondents were far more worried about the economy than they were Iran. The poll, commissioned by the Times of Israel, found that 12% of those surveyed thought that Iran was the biggest issue facing the incoming government, compared with 43% who said it was the economy.
[Updated 9:25 a.m. PST Jan. 21: A new poll released this week shows that split has become more pronounced, with only 6% of those surveyed saying that Iran is the most important issue facing the government compared with 50% citing the economy.]
Emily Landau, director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Project at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said the Iranian threat cannot be underestimated. She pointed to a statement from Iran’s top nuclear negotiator that the country’s reduced capabilities under the agreement could be quickly reversed.
“You have take those words seriously because this is a true indication of how Iran is viewing this,” she said.
Ultimately, Landau said, it’s not up to Israel but to the powers negotiating with Iran -- the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany -- to push back on such issues.
“It's not Israel’s role or responsibility to deal with Iran’s nuclear program,” she said, noting the irony.
“Israel finds itself in the position where it will suffer the most from the consequences of the failure of the international community to deal successfully with Iran through negotiations,” she said. “And those states that are negotiating are the ones that are going to suffer the least.”
Batsheva Sobelman of The Times' Jerusalem bureau contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times