Wary of war, Israeli public gives Iran deal a chance

JERUSALEM Mon Nov 25, 2013 8:05pm GMT

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement at his office in Jerusalem November 24, 2013. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement at his office in Jerusalem November 24, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Going about their business on Monday, Israelis seemed more accepting than their leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, of a nuclear deal with Iran that he rejected as a historic mistake.

On the streets of Israeli cities, people questioned about Sunday's interim accord between global powers and the Islamic Republic voiced doubts about an agreement that Netanyahu said would leave arch-foe Iran within reach of an atomic bomb.

But they also said the deal, which allows a six-month period of limits to Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for up to $7 billion worth of sanctions relief, was preferable to war.

"I am leaning more to the side that it's worth the effort - the six months - to see if there's a chance there can be a diplomatic solution," said Sharon Bar-Lev, 49, from the central Israeli town of Kfar Saba, north of Tel Aviv.

"We all want to avoid war in the long run," Bar-Lev, who works in marketing, told Reuters.

Netanyahu, who had sought a dismantling of Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities, shifted tack on Monday toward working with U.S. President Barack Obama to promote a tough final deal with Iran. He announced that his top security adviser would go to the United States soon to discuss it with U.S. officials.

Netanyahu's veiled threats to attack Iran to prevent it being able to make nuclear weapons have long set off alarms in Washington and other Western capitals.

But he has held his fire in the face of U.S. pressure and doubts that former Israeli security chiefs have been voicing for years over the armed forces' ability to put a permanent stop to Iran's nuclear drive. Their concerns have resonated deeply with Israelis.

Such anti-war sentiment has echoed on Tel Aviv's stock exchange, which hit a record high on Sunday after news an agreement had been reached in Geneva.

"The market believes the military option is off the table," said Zach Herzog, head of international sales at Psagot Securities.

"Nobody wants to see a Middle East war break out and see missiles falling on Tel Aviv. Therefore, regardless of Netanyahu's pulpit sermon, the market forces will prefer to judge the agreement on reality," he said.

ISOLATION

With an internationally backed interim deal now in place, any unilateral military move by Israel - assumed to be the Middle East's only nuclear power - could deepen its isolation.

"There is no way Israel, which is an ally of the United States and Europe and likes to view itself as the good guy in a difficult region, can attack Iran for six months after this agreement is signed," Herzog added.

Iran says its nuclear programme is solely for peaceful purposes. Netanyahu, who won a new five-year term after an election in January, says it threatens Israel's very existence.

"I'm in favour of dialogue over war," said Ora Cohen, 61, a physical education teacher from Jerusalem. But she was nonetheless wary of trusting Iran's leaders. "Nobody wins a war," she said. "But on the other hand, I don't believe them."

At the same time, however, Cohen voiced a commonly held sentiment among Israelis that the moment has passed when Israel might have been able to use force to nip Iran's nuclear programme in the bud: "I think it's too late," she said. "At some point we should have acted. But that was a few years ago."

Joshua Scherer, an 80-year-old former English teacher originally from New York, was sceptical of Obama, despite the president's assurance last year that Washington "will always have Israel's back".

"This president, Obama, won't use force for anything," Scherer said. "In any confrontation, we would be on our own."

Dvorah Levine, 66, a retired school principal from Jerusalem, also felt the Geneva deal has left Israel standing alone: "The fact we are isolated in the world - it's frightening and unpleasant," she said. "This isn't anything new, really though. We already knew the world doesn't like us."

Halil Alian, a garage owner, said Washington's re-engagement with Iran, despite Netanyahu's objections, showed that Washington was focusing on its own wider interests in the Middle East at the expense of its traditional ally.

"We are simply chess pieces on a board and the Americans are the ones moving us around according to their strategic whims," said Alian, 61.

For some in Israel, more widespread Israeli mistrust of Washington may also bring benefits - by making it less likely U.S.-brokered talks can reach a deal with the Palestinians.

Dani Dayan, a leader of the settler movement committed to expanding Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, said: "In Geneva, the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations came to an end - because Netanyahu will not move an inch based on American, international, guarantees that are essential to reach a deal."

The peace talks, which resumed in July after a three-year break, have shown little sign of progress.

(Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Steven Scheer, Tova Cohen and Ori Lewis; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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