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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd L), EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (C), and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (2nd R) attend the third day of closed-door nuclear talks at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva November 9, 2013. France warned of serious stumbling blocks to a long-sought deal on Iran's nuclear programme as foreign ministers from Tehran and six world powers extended high-stakes negotiations into a third day on Saturday to end a decade-old standoff. REUTERS/Jean-Christophe Bott/Pool (SWITZERLAND - Tags: POLITICS ENERGY)
Image: Reuters/Jean-Christophe Bott

Tense times

Kate Shuttleworth, Jerusalem
November 11, 2013

There are growing tensions between Israel and its longtime ally, the United States, over how to best deal with growing threats in the Middle East after no deal was reached over Tehran's nuclear programme.


For many observers in Israel, the current strain on ties goes beyond the issue of how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions. Jonathan Rynhold, senior lecturer in political studies at Bar-Ilan University, said the lens needed to be cast wider when looking at Israel's objection to Iran's planned nuclear programme.

"This crisis of trust isn't just between Israel and the United States but most countries in the Middle East. If Iran becomes a nuclear threshold state Saudi Arabia will seek to obtain nuclear weapons from Pakistan. Egypt has been looking to Russia to supply it with conventional weapons and it could also seek to obtain nuclear capability. The US strategy has been to work as closely with Israel to constrain it - like a beer hug," said Rynhold.

A deal breaks down

On Sunday in Geneva six foreign ministers known as the P5+1 led by EU foreign policy chief Lady Ashton failed to reach a deal on Iran. Senior diplomats from the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China, who have led the nuclear negotiations since 2006 met over three days, however talks broke down after France objected to Iran's planned heavy-water reactor Arak, which would produce plutonium as a byproduct of its spent fuel.

Arak, IRAN: A general view of a heavy water plant in Arak, 320 kms south of Tehran, 26 August 2006. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad opened a heavy water plant today that will feed a new research reactor, just five days before a UN Security Council deadline to suspend sensitive nuclear fuel cycle work. Inaugurating the facility along with the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, and his deputy, Mohammad Saeedi, Ahmadinejad vowed the Iranian people would defend their rights to nuclear technology 'with force'. AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
The Arak heavy water plant could play a key role in any dealImage: Getty Images/AFP/Atta Kenare

Israel, which is not party to the talks, played a major role in swaying the negotiations from the outside. After a phone call from US President Barack Obama urging him to support the deal, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu showed he could influence the talks by phoning key European leaders and asking them not to support the deal. The Geneva framework agreement was reportedly to be used to buy time for further negotiations as Arak is thought to be just one year away from opening.

The failed interim Iranian deal is the latest issue in terse relations between Israel and the US, combined with a US decision to tackle Syria's chemical weapons with diplomacy and Obama's view that the Israeli-Palestinian standoff presents an ongoing problem for the wider Middle East.

For its part, Israel maintains that a nuclear bomb in the hands of Iran, the spread of Islamist ideology in Egypt and elsewhere and a radicalized Syria are the real problems in the Middle East.

Kerry at loggerheads with Netanyahu

US Secretary of State John Kerry left on a sour note after an unscheduled meeting with Netanyahu on Friday at Ben Gurion Airport. The US decided they did not want to take part in a joint press conference in order to avoid confrontation. Netanyahu went ahead with a statement of his own slamming a potential deal with Iran, saying Israel would not be bound by any deal reached between the P5+1 and Iran.

US President Barack Obama (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Not the best of friends right nowImage: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Kerry was confronted by Netanyahu after a grueling week of meetings as part of reignited Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Netanyahu lashed out saying a bad deal would be one that left Iran with the capacity to make enriched uranium.

On Monday Kerry told reporters in Abu Dhabi that Netanyahu's opposition was premature and "the time to oppose the deal is when you see what it is." Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Chemi Shalev compared the current crisis to a storm brewing on the horizon. "If there was a synoptic map for diplomatic storms, the national weather service would be putting out a hurricane warning right now. The winds are blowing cold, tensions are on the rise and tempers are beginning to flare in the Bermuda triangle of relations between Israel, the US and the America Jewish community. Given that the turbulence is being caused by an issue long deemed to be critical to Israel's very existence, we may actually be facing a rare category 5, flare up, a 'super-storm' of US-Israeli relations," he said.

Whatever the current status of US-Israeli relations, Netanyahu's performance doesn't seem to have done him much harm. A poll carried out in by the Dialog Institute showed Netanyahu's tough stance on foreign affairs, including on Iran and negotiations with the Palestinians, had been working in his favour. When respondents were asked "how would you rate Netanyahu's recent performance in the global arena vis-a-vis Iran?," 58 percent responded with good or very good.

Another question saw 63 percent of Israelis in favour of Netanyahu as prime minister, compared with 56 percent in an earlier survey in July.

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