Despite having very little foreign policy experience before Number 10, Cameron has shown a solid grasp of statecraft, ably supported by a very capable Foreign Secretary
From the driver’s small talk in the taxi from the airport, to watching the evening news, and to my first glass of beer with bright young Israeli policy makers, there was a palpable and growing sense of apprehension over Iran.
The country was divided over whether the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities to prevent, in his view, the Ayatollahs acquiring the capacity to build a nuclear weapon.
Every day newspapers were full of stories and quotes from leading Israeli politicians and generals, emphasising the IDF’s ability to carry out such a strike. As I commuted to work, I passed car parks being converted to impromptu bomb shelters. Stalls were set up in shopping centres where families could acquire gas masks. I received stark text messages on my phone informing me of the whereabouts of the nearest shelter.
All against the backdrop of increasingly heated political rhetoric in the media. One evening I shared a drink with an Israeli diplomatic correspondent. I asked him the likelihood of Netanyahu going for it. “Right now... 80%,” he said. Perhaps he was trying to scare me. It worked.
Israelis have a tremendous capacity for stoicism. I asked my Israeli colleagues at work if my apprehension was misplaced. “If it happens, it happens. It’ll be over quickly.”
Most people thought if war did break out, it would be over in a matter of weeks, even days. I couldn’t help reminding them that some of the worst wars in history were expected to be ‘over by Christmas’. Other colleagues maintained the very public vilification of Iran was an annual occurrence merely used by politicians to distract from domestic problems.
In the UK, ‘water-cooler chat’ consists of a review of the weekends Premier League games, or Gary Barlow’s outbursts on X Factor. On Israel, it’s whether ‘Bibi’, as most Israelis refer to their prime minister, will use special forces or not in a raid to prevent a tyrannical Iranian regime acquire nuclear weapons.
Political leaks to the media gradually made clear in September that a decision to attack or not would be made in the days before Netanyahu’s now infamous appearance at the UN General Assembly. At the same time, interventions from U.S. administration officials, namely Leon Panetta, made clear that Israel did not possess the military capability to successfully neuter Iran’s nuclear program.
Panetta argued any action would require American assistance to a succeed, and that such assistance would not be forthcoming. Panetta’s somewhat damning putdown poured coldwater of any expectation of an immediate strike. I and the rest of Tel Aviv could breath slightly more easy.
It was around this time that our Prime Minister intervened. As David Cameron explained in his recent UJIA speech, he made clear in conversation to Netanyahu that now was not the time to attack Iran, and instead Israel should hold fire and let the sanctions imposed by the West to do their work. It is a position in harmony with the United States, France and Germany.
It’s a good example of how Cameron, despite having very little foreign policy experience before Number 10, has shown a solid grasp of statecraft, ably supported by a very capable Foreign Secretary. His message on Iran has been consistent since opposition. He has communicated it often and clearly to the Israelis, and he has worked closely with his international partners to stick to one, coherent policy.
Cameron’s challenge is to second guess an Israeli Prime Minister at war with himself over Iran. Netanyahu fears, rightly, that Iran simply cannot be trusted to possess any nuclear material sufficiently enriched that it can be used in a nuclear weapon; the consequences for Israel would be catastrophic.
Yet, the position as espoused by William Hague, Cameron and their international partners is seems to be working. The Iranian economy is wilting. Oil exports have fallen by 45%, the value of the Iranian currency has plummeted and inflation is estimated at 50% and rising.
Netanyahu doesn’t want to be remembered as the Prime Minister who took Israel to war when there was no real need to. At the same time, he abhors the thought of being the Prime Minister who sat by and let Iran develop nuclear weapons unopposed. Wedged in the middle of this fine line is Cameron and the rest of the ‘carrot and stick’ club.
My Israeli friends tell me next Spring we will witness the cycle start anew. The rhetoric will begin to heat up, stories will appear with ever increasing regularity about Iran’s progress in developing nuclear weapons, and editorials will call for preemptive action. ‘Bibi’ will again draw a metaphorical line in the sand.
The challenge for Cameron is to continue to stay Israel’s hand and ensure sanctions enveloping Iran are tightened even further. He has to hope that Iran’s leaders realise that they simply cannot afford to continue their nuclear program.
If Netanyahu believes next year that the sanctions have failed to stop Iran’s ambitions, then the annual cycle will indeed come to the end. The rhetoric will no longer be empty. And I and the rest of Tel Aviv will have to find those bomb shelters.
Ross Cypher-Burley lives and works in Tel Aviv. He previously worked as an advisor to David Lidington MP in Parliament, and for a public affairs firm in Washington D.C.