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For a Seat at Biden's Iran Table, Israel May Need a New Prime Minister

With negotiations underway in Vienna, Israel should strengthen its ties with the United States instead of picking fights. But under Netanyahu, Israel, not Iran, has become isolated on the nuclear issue

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Alon Pinkas
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with Education Minister Yoav Gallant, left, and Mayor Moshe Leon in Jerusalem on Sunday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with Education Minister Yoav Gallant, left, and Mayor Moshe Leon in Jerusalem on Sunday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

Two pieces of conventional wisdom seem to underline the attempt to resume the Iranian nuclear deal and Israel’s policy on it.

The conventional wisdom in Vienna, where the United States (indirectly), Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia are negotiating with Iran a framework for a mutual return to the agreement, is that the most likely outcome is an interim accord.

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The debate centers around the precise sequencing and phasing of two major elements: Iranian compliance, particularly uranium enrichment that has gone forward alarmingly, and a U.S. lifting of the heavy sanctions imposed by then-President Donald Trump after the United States withdrew from the agreement in May 2018.

To win time ahead of Iran’s presidential election in June, and prevent the status quo from festering, the idea of an interim agreement was developed. Iran would freeze uranium enrichment and suspend all work that clearly violates the agreement, while the United States would unfreeze Iranian assets – supposedly a win-win for both sides, but only temporarily.

The exact contours of such an interim deal have not yet been crafted, and in fact Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi has denied its existence, claiming that “a final agreement is being formed .... Differences have not been completely resolved [but] negotiations have reached a stage where working on a final text is feasible.” No disrespect to this statement, but an interim agreement based on mutual and immediate confidence-building measures is far more likely at this stage than a full agreement.

The second piece of conventional wisdom pertains to Israel. The assumption in Israel is that an interim agreement will shape the final deal, but that this is a pretty long process and Israel will be able to influence it. A report from a security cabinet meeting Sunday described Israel’s assessment that “the U.S. is sprinting to an agreement at any cost.”

That, of course, is sheer nonsense. Had the United States wanted a quick agreement, it could have simply stated weeks ago that the original deal should be reinstated immediately with the lifting of all sanctions. It has not done this because the Biden administration knows that modifications and an expansion are needed.

After being admonished by the United States for bellicose chatter and broad statements against any kind of deal, Israel is apparently recalibrating. If the motive behind Israel’s actions and proclamations has been to lure Iran into intransigence and harder stances, the strategy backfired.

U.S. President Joe Biden at meeting in the Oval Office on Monday.Credit: Andrew Harnik / AP

Credibility deficit

So now, Israel is belatedly set to engage in a dialogue with the U.S. administration. The military chief, Aviv Kochavi, Military Intelligence chief Tamir Hayman and Mossad head Yossi Cohen are all scheduled to fly to Washington for talks.

However important these encounters are, and however robust and salient Israeli reservations about dealing with Iran are, these visits can’t replace an intimate, trust-based and serious dialogue between the president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel. That’s not likely to happen while Benjamin Netanyahu is in power. He suffers an insurmountable credibility deficit with the administration and his public-diplomacy efforts haven’t helped his cause or made the United States more attentive to his arguments.

This is so much the case that some Israeli defense and intelligence leaders are arguing that Israel must accept an inconvenient truth: Iran will be a “nuclear threshold state” and Israel must therefore focus its deterrence and diplomacy on the next decade, while Iran is under an agreement. This means strengthening Israel’s ties with the United States instead of picking fights for political expediency.

Furthermore, ever since the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, a move that was very unpopular with the other signatories but was hailed by Netanyahu, Israel has effectively lost its central political standing on the issue. With Saudi Arabia reportedly holding quiet talks with Iran and the United Arab Emirates conducting a permanent dialogue with Tehran, there is no “anti-Iran” coalition.

The failure of Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy to bring Iran to its knees, Iran’s decision to retaliate by breaching the agreement through renewed enrichment, and Joe Biden’s decision to renew talks all produced an uncomfortable and paradoxical result: Israel, not Iran, became isolated on the issue. Israel’s conspicuous refraining from engaging the new U.S. administration further exacerbated this.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei attending a meeting in Tehran last week. Credit: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP

Maybe he doesn’t want to be consulted

The belligerent Israeli rhetoric of recent weeks, often garnished with a touch of inexplicable arrogance, was evidence that Israel was not consulted on the drafting and shaping of Biden’s policy. Israel’s inputs were not solicited and its reservations had no impact. Still, there’s a case to be made that Netanyahu preferred not to be consulted at all.

First, being consulted and then seeing your advice, concerns and warnings ignored is a sure recipe for confrontation with Biden. The new president is not Trump, and Netanyahu’s tendency to see involvement as a veto right isn’t acceptable.

Second, involvement in the American policy-making process would, in Netanyahu’s view, constrict Israel’s maneuver room to disrupt and undermine the process – ergo his Holocaust Remembrance Day speech in which he proclaimed that “Israel will not be bound by any agreement that facilitates Iran’s nuclear ambitions.” The agreement does the exact opposite, and Netanyahu was grandstanding, as he habitually does, but that’s another matter.

Third, in a repeat of his March 2015 antics, when he came to Congress to give a speech behind the backs of Barack Obama and then-Vice President Biden, not being consulted allows him to lobby Congress against a developing agreement using the argument that “we weren’t even consulted.” Until now, Netanyahu assumed he could act without U.S. retribution, since there are bipartisan concerns and uneasiness about the crystallizing agreement. Cooperating with the administration would deprive him of the congressional lever.

Close consultations with the United States would conceivably be bad politically for Netanyahu as he’s trying to form a government. He has a vested interest in magnifying a national security crisis with Iran, so any cooperation with the United States on the details of a new deal would be antithetical to Iran’s status as his defining issue as prime minister. Conversely, a dialogue with Washington that he enters but then withdraws from because “it’s a bad and dangerous deal” would portray him as inept and unsuccessful in managing relations with an American president.

But with an interim agreement on the table, coupled with a failure to derail the talks, Israel now sees an opportunity to have some effect on crafting a final deal. But that will only happen if there is also a comprehensive change of attitude, practices, discretion and credibility from the Israeli side – a change that may require a new prime minister working with President Biden.

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