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Ash Carter Visits Israel To Ease Concerns Over Iran Nuclear Deal

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Defense Secretary Ash Carter is in Israel. The focus of his trip is the nuclear deal the U.S. and other world powers signed last week with Iran. That deal is not going over well in Israel at all, but among Israelis, there's some division about exactly what message to send their high-ranking American guest. Daniel Estrin has this report.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: At a cafe at a mall in Tel Aviv yesterday, a group of Israelis was passing around a newspaper. The front-page headline was in big Hebrew letters.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: "Death to America and Israel." That's what Iran's supreme leader said in a recent speech after the nuclear deal was reached. Everyone at the table thought it was a bad deal, but most of them agreed with their friend Sammy Akirov, a 71-year-old real estate developer.

SAMMY AKIROV: If you can't beat them, join them. Israel should take advantage of this situation now and not make disagreement with the United States.

ESTRIN: But Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to go head-to-head with the Obama administration, and he hints that he'll try to push Congress to block the deal. Most Israeli politicians across the board don't like the deal. But among former Israeli defense officials, reaction has been a bit more nuanced, according to retired Israeli General Israel Ziv.

ISRAEL ZIV: The voices that I hear are much more, I would say, calm.

ESTRIN: He says they're calm because while the deal isn't optimal, it's not so bad. He says it delays an Iranian bomb longer than a military strike could. What concerns him most is not a bomb in the future, but what Iran is doing right now - supporting Israel's enemies. He says Israel needs America's help to tackle that threat.

ZIV: If Obama is not here with us on that, we are losing many things for the sake of how good could be the agreement 10 years from now. So I think that, in the end of the day, there are many people here that hopes that Netanyahu will climb down from this ladder, at least a little bit.

ESTRIN: Defense Secretary Ash Carter said today he's not trying to change Israeli leaders' minds about the deal, but he's trying to assure them it won't weaken America's commitment to Israel's security. In fact, the Obama administration says it's willing to upgrade its security coordination with Israel, but both sides avoid calling anything a compensation package. Here's Netanyahu yesterday in an interview with ABC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: You know, everybody talks about compensating Israel. I guess the question you have to ask yourself is, if this deal is supposed to make Israel and our Arab neighbors safer, why should we be compensated with anything? And furthermore, you know, how can you compensate a country - my country - against a terrorist regime that is sworn to our destruction and is going to get a path to nuclear bombs and billions of dollars to boot for its terror activities against us, against you, against everyone else? I think the right thing is not to do this bad deal.

ESTRIN: Commentators here say Israel won't talk compensation now because it doesn't want to be seen as tacitly accepting the deal. Netanyahu meets with Defense Secretary Carter tomorrow, and Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli expert on Iran, says Iran will be watching closely how Netanyahu will act.

MEIR JAVEDANFAR: The Iranians would love to see Prime Minister Netanyahu react in a negative manner towards Carter and to continue the crisis with President Obama.

ESTRIN: What he's saying is that Netanyahu's spat with the U.S. is only playing into Iran's hands. But if you look at a recent poll of Israelis, it shows them pretty evenly divided over Netanyahu's campaign to oppose the deal. For NPR News, I'm Daniel Estrin in Israel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.