'Iranian Blackmail'? Israel Knows Biden Isn't Buying Its Threats

With Vienna talks at a standstill, a convoy of Israeli officials are heading to Washington to make their stand

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Demonstrators stand in front of a wall of the former U.S. embassy with anti-U.S. murals during the 42nd anniversary of the U.S. expulsion from Iran, in Tehran, last month.
Demonstrators stand in front of a wall of the former U.S. embassy with anti-U.S. murals during the 42nd anniversary of the U.S. expulsion from Iran, in Tehran, last month.Credit: via REUTERS
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

This time prior Israeli intelligence forecasts have actually panned out. The latest round of talks between Iran and the major powers in Vienna on the revival of the Iranian nuclear accord has for the time being been deadlocked. According to Western accounts, the Iranians took a hard line when they returned to the talks last week, and at the moment, the prospects for a breakthrough in the negotiations don’t appear great.

Biden administration officials who have spoken to reporters have confirmed the Israeli view when it comes to the lack of progress in the talks. Nevertheless, they have been quick to make it clear that while the delegation of Israeli officials visiting Washington this week will be respectfully received, the key to the situation lies in Tehran, not Jerusalem. If the Iranian regime softens its positions, an agreement will be signed, despite Israeli warnings.

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Strangely, the Israeli coalition government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has nearly found itself in the shoes of the prior Israeli government. And that’s despite the finger-pointing between Bennett and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At first, a number of senior Israeli officials issued explicit threats over Iran. Then the air shuttle to Washington began: The head of the Mossad, David Barnea, is already there. Defense Minister Benny Gantz will arrive later in the week. The conduct of the Israeli government has come in for criticism, in part from another former prime minister, Ehud Barak. He, like other retired senior figures, believes that threats at the present time to harm Iran are not helpful. Furthermore, Barak is concerned about a possible crisis between Israel and the United States against the backdrop of the nuclear talks.

Bennett himself seems to regret the combative tone of some of the public statements. It appears that in the coming days, he will make an effort to forge a common front within his complex government and among the military brass to ensure a more uniform official message. But the prime minister doesn’t think he needs to spare the Americans his criticism and isn’t enamored of Israelis whom he believes are automatically taking the U.S. administration’s side when it comes to any disagreement. To the contrary; from his standpoint, this is precisely the window of time that Israel has to express its opinion – and as clearly and explicitly as possible.

That was the tenor of the conversation between Bennett and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last Thursday. The prime minister expressed concern over the Biden administration’s inclination to make do with a partial agreement – less for less, as it has been described – for a limited lifting of sanctions in exchange for Iran’s renewed compliance with some of its commitments.

Naftali Bennett at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on Sunday.Credit: Emil Salman

Bennett believes that such an agreement would be worse than a return to the original agreement of 2015 (which is also flawed in his view). In his opinion, Iran would earn billions of dollars from a lifting of the sanctions, which would come in addition to the benefits it has garnered from a rise in oil prices.

Some of the money would be directed to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ terrorist and subversive activity across the region. And the Iranians would take advantage of the time to continue to advance through clandestine means toward a nuclear capacity, without appropriate oversight. He warned Blinken of surrendering to Tehran’s “nuclear blackmail.”

In addition to the direct messaging, Israel and the United States are exchanging signals via leaks to the media. A series of reports – in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and the Israeli Walla news website – appear to be attempts by both sides to influence public opinion. In practice, however, it’s an exercise in futility. It’s doubtful that the Israeli citizen or American voter would be interested in the twists and turns of the Vienna talks.

In the meantime, the delegations in Vienna have flown home and the Americans have conducted briefings about their disappointment over the negotiations. The Iranians, who had previously taken a hawkish stance, were quick to calm the passions. Now they’re talking about resuming the talks, perhaps even in less than a week.

Antony Blinken at the NATO Foreign Ministers summit in Riga, Latvia last week.Credit: Ints Kalnis / Reuters

The dynamics in the talks are quick and unstable. A lot is at stake and Israel will try to exert its influence to the extent it can. In his meetings in Washington, Gantz will seek to urge the Americans to consider stepping up the pressure of the sanctions on the Iranians, precisely now.

In Israel, there are those recommending that the United States mount a show of regional force, for example, in a punitive attack against Iranian militias across the Middle East. But the prospects of the Americans taking such advice appear slim.

In any event, the intensive discussions over the possibilities for an Israeli military attack against the nuclear sites appear superfluous at the moment. It’s doubtful that Israel had such practical capability to carry out a bombing that would set the Iranian nuclear program back years, even when it prepared for it with utmost seriousness between 2009 and 2013.

After the 2015 agreement, as Bennett frequently hints, the military option was entirely neglected (and Bennett, Gantz and Avigdor Lieberman, as defense minister, should have been aware of that). More years will pass until the Israeli military option against Iran is realistic, if ever.

And even at the moment, when it comes to major procurement lists worth billions of dollars, part of the list – helicopters, interceptor missiles for Iron Dome – aren’t really relevant to an attack.

Palais Coburg, the site of the Iran nuclear talks, in Vienna.Credit: Lisi Niesner / Reuters

Little fires everywhere

Tensions between the U.S. and Israel are not limited to Iran; there are several fires burning between Israel and the Biden administration in regard to the Palestinian arena. In a recent conversation between Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the latter expressed America's opposition to Israeli construction plans beyond the 1967 Green Line in Atarot in northern Jerusalem.

Then in Monday’s Haaretz, Nir Hasson reported on plans for the construction of another Jerusalem neighborhood, Givat Shaked, in the south of the city: an area also beyond the 1967 border. And then there’s the question of a permanent solution to the West Bank outpost of Evyatar, the former residents of which are demanding the right to return to their homes, which were built without permission.

In deliberations at the political level, Defense Minister Benny Gantz is advising Bennett to demonstrate maximum sensitivity to American reservations about these questions. Iran, he said, has to be at the top of Israel’s priorities in the coming months. Therefore, Israel needs to try and extinguish any other fire, including a possible escalation in the Gaza Strip.

Defense officials are also somewhat bothered by the Biden administration's delay in getting Congressional approval for additional security assistance for Iron Dome missiles and other munitions. The promise of an additional billion dollars has been held up since May due to obstacles the House of Representatives, and now in the Senate, have placed in its way.

The latest revelations that Pegasus spyware, built by the Israeli firm NSO Group, was used to monitor American diplomats in Uganda isn’t contributing to a positive atmosphere between Israel and the United States, either. On that issue, contrary to some of the media analyses, the constellation of forces between the two sides is far from equal. Even if indirectly, Israel has been caught wronging the Americans. The United States is angry, and it’s reasonable to assume that it will be able to exploit that to its advantage.

Bennett is trying to apply the brakes, but gently. It’s reasonable to assume that the Atarot plan in Jerusalem will encounter bureaucratic delays, but even the prime minister’s own small political faction has its constraints. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for his part, has called on his supporters to show up at Tel Aviv’s Habima Square on Tuesday for a demonstration against the government. His video clip borders on pathetic, but it still makes the members of Bennett’s Yamina party rather nervous.

Such protests have a tendency to end opposite the homes of Yamina's Knesset members. They claim that an overly resounding surrender to the Americans on the issues of construction in Jerusalem and West Bank settlements would cause them trouble on their own turf.

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