The talks between Iran and the world powers that signed the nuclear agreement in 2015 (the JCPOA) entered the final stretch in Vienna this week. While even at this point it is impossible to predict whether the talks will succeed and the United States will return to the deal, one thing is already striking: the near-silence from Jerusalem at the prospect.
Seven years ago, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign to try to prevent the Americans from signing the nuclear deal reached its peak with his invitation from GOP House Speaker John Boehner to address Congress – effectively challenging President Barack Obama on his main foreign policy achievement. A little noticed fact about Netanyahu’s Congress speech (his third, equaling Winston Churchill’s record for a foreign leader) was that another Israeli politician was also in Washington at the time.
Naftali Bennett, then-economy minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet, was ostensibly there to “support and strengthen the prime minister” – though Netanyahu didn’t even take him on his plane. About to fight his second election as leader of Habayit Hayehudi, Bennett had to prove that on every matter he was to the right of Netanyahu, and so as an election stunt he also flew to Washington.
Those days are long gone. The official position of the Israeli government is that a return to the JCPOA is a bad idea. In the three-and-a-half years since then-President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran deal, Tehran has made unfettered and significant progress toward nuclear capabilities. Just going back to the old deal won’t reverse that. But Bennett has no plans to fly to Washington to press that argument.
Instead, his national security adviser, Eyal Hulata, has flown there for low-key meetings with his U.S. counterpart, Jake Sullivan. Bennett had a phone call Sunday with President Joe Biden – the first time they have spoken directly since Bennett saw him briefly at the COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow three months ago. Iran featured in the official readouts of their call, but only as one item among several.
There is a sense of resignation in Jerusalem that while the Americans – as well as the other countries in the talks with Iran – are listening to Israel’s input, there is little the Bennett government can do to influence the outcome. Biden came to power 13 months ago with the express intention of rejoining the JCPOA, and the main obstacle to that happening is the Iranian position. If the leadership in Tehran decides it is in its interests, the United States will be back on board.
As a result of that realization, there is an all-round policy in the Israeli government to lower its profile. Briefings to journalists are all being made off-the-record and on deep background. Bennett met with the diplomatic correspondents of the main Israeli news organizations this week, but the emphasis was not on Vienna.
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The message is that the current deal is bad, and that the Americans should insist on a “longer and stronger” agreement with Iran. But the implied message is that Biden is doing what he has to do in order to fulfill his election promise.
The only public expression of this was in Bennett’s speech at the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies last week, when he said that “the United States has been, and will always be, our best friend. But Washington has its own set of interests, which we must honestly admit do not always overlap with ours.” U.S. ambassador to Israel Tom Nides was sitting in the front row and everyone was all smiles.
Bennett and his government are in a bind. They can’t say what they really think – not just because they want to keep things calm with the Biden administration, but because their real criticism is for the previous president, Trump, who withdrew from the JCPOA without a coherent plan, save for “maximum pressure” sanctions that achieved little, and of course for Netanyahu, who pressured Trump to take that step without preparing his own plan for Israel.
As the former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said in an interview with Maariv last month, Netanyahu had not informed the defense establishment that Trump was about to withdraw in May 2018. While they had their own criticism of the JCPOA, they also saw the agreement as an opportunity to divert resources to priorities other than the Iranian nuclear program, and Trump’s announcement disrupted the IDF’s long-term plans. “We weren’t warned about it, we weren’t prepared for it,” Eisenkot said. “It was like thunder on a clear day.”
Eisenkot is currently a civilian and can speak his mind. The opinion of most senior members of the current cabinet is not that different, but they can’t say anything. For starters, they are still hoping that somehow the Americans – and the French and British – can get something out of the Iranians in Vienna, so they’re not going to accept publicly that leaving the JCPOA was a mistake.
They are also fully aware that the Republicans in Washington are still militantly opposed to Obama’s Iran deal and may be back in control of Congress next January, and of the White House two years after that. No point angering them.
But beyond any other factor, it seems that the biggest fear of the government, especially Bennett, is the torrent of toxic criticism in store from Netanyahu if the Biden administration does rejoin the JCPOA.
It will be aimed – with the full force of the Netanyahu media machine – directly at Bennett, who at this point still looks more afraid of his old boss than the Iranian bomb. This is why he is already trying to lower both profile and expectations, and change the Israeli narrative on Iran.
Here’s what Israel’s Iran narrative is going to like going forward.
The government has already been emphasizing that it is a mistake to focus only on the Iranian nuclear threat. There are more immediate threats in the shape of Iran’s proxies on Israel’s borders, and that’s why Bennett in public has been talking about the “tentacles and head of the Iranian octopus.” He wants the public to focus on what Israel is doing, especially in the regular attacks on various Iran-related targets in Syria, to fight Iran on multiple fronts and not just the nuclear one.
The other emphasis will be on Israel’s alliances – chiefly with the United States, but also with the Gulf states with which Israel now has diplomatic relations. The message is that, unlike Netanyahu, this government is not alienating a Democratic administration in Washington, despite disagreements. Also, while Netanyahu tried to portray the Abraham Accords as his personal achievement, the alliance with the moderate Arab regimes is now based on clear shared interests with Israel and is not tied to the identity of whoever sits in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Bennett is also trying to convince Israelis that the Iranian nuclear program is actually a liability for the regime in Tehran, as the Islamic republic is spending billions on it rather than helping its own suffering population.
According to this new narrative, Israel’s most potent weapon against Iran’s plans is its strong, flourishing post-COVID economy, which will enable it to outspend Iran on military technology, such as the missile defense laser system that is expected to be deployed within a year near the Gaza Strip and then on Israel’s northern border. Israel will ultimately bankrupt the regime into submission, just as President Ronald Reagan did to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, or so Bennett likes to describe it.
Whether or not this new Iran narrative can be translated into reality remains to be seen, but for now it’s better than having a public row with the Americans. And it may even help blunt Netanyahu’s barbs.