Analysis |

Israel Goes on the Offensive as World Powers, Iran Nearing a Nuclear Deal

Bennett's government views Netanyahu's 2015 speech as a strategic failure, and therefore sees no reason to repeat the mistake ■ An attack on Iranian drones last week and increased coordination with Gulf states reveal Israel's new strategy

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Prime Minister Naftali Bennet arriving at the cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennet arriving at the cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday.Credit: Maya Alleruzzo /AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel believes that a new nuclear agreement between Iran and the powers is a done deal that will be signed within a few weeks, if not days. The impression in the political and defense establishment is that the Biden administration is anxious to sign the deal and end the nuclear saga, at least as far as America is concerned, both to stop Iran’s uranium-enrichment activities and in order to focus on more important and urgent issues, chiefly competition with China and the war in Ukraine.

Israeli officials admit that their ability to influence Washington’s positions in the negotiations has been negligible in light of President Joe Biden’s desire to reach a deal quickly. The White House paid little attention to Israeli reservations, and U.S. negotiators declined to harden their positions in response to Israeli arguments.

The Americans have claimed in discussions with the Israeli government that they were only seeking to restore the status quo of the original nuclear deal signed in 2015. The aim is to fix the damage caused by former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal three years later under the influenced by then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing Congress in 2015.Credit: AFP

The main remaining obstacle to an agreement to emerge in the Vienna talks in recent weeks involved reservations by Russia, which at the last minute demanded that lifting of sanctions on Iran not be affected by the sanctions imposed on Russia following the war in Ukraine. Moscow, which in the past did considerable trade with Iran, feared that it would not benefit from the easing of sanctions on Iran. But it seems that this problem is close to being solved.

Israel’s critique holds of the new deal is that it does not restore the status quo, because in the intervening years many things have happened. First, Iran has acquired considerable technical knowledge, installed new centrifuges and amassed a large quantity of enriched uranium (which will mostly be sent abroad under the new deal). Second, the date under which the sanctions imposed on Iran begin to be gradually reduced is drawing near. This sunset process is due to begin as early as 2025 (less than two years from now) and end in 2031. Among the first restrictions to be lifted is the ban on operating new centrifuges.

Last Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid published an unusual announcement criticizing what seems to be Washington’s plan to remove Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the administration’s list of terrorist organizations. Bennett followed that up on Sunday at the weekly cabinet meeting by saying that the IRGC is “the largest and most murderous terror organization in the world” that is not merely an Israeli problem, but one shared by all of America’s allies.

In practice, sanctions will continue to apply to the Revolutionary Guards due to U.S. Commerce Department regulations. But Israel believes that nullifying the 2019 decision by the Trump administration putting the IRGC on the terrorist list is a worrying symbolic move, indicating Washington’s anxiousness to rid itself of the Iran problem at whatever cost. On the other hand, Israel is still hoping the deal will not include dropping the International Atomic Energy Agency’s “open cases” of suspected violations at several sites around Iran. Bennett has had several talks on the matter with IAEA Director Rafael Grossi. Israel believes that keeping the investigations alive can serve in the future as leverage with the international community to impose more demands on Iran.

Israel is not happy about the impending deal, but diplomatic officials are emphasizing the need to refrain from reacting hysterically. Unlike Netanyahu, Bennett has chosen not publicly confront Washington over the deal. Netanyahu and his supporters still hark back longingly to his speech before Congress in March 2015, where he directly attacked then-President Barack Obama and tried to foil passage of the deal in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Those close to the current prime minister contend that Netanyahu’s move was desperate and hopeless, and that its failure made Israel look weak. In addition, they assert that Netanyahu caused incalculable damage to the relations with the U.S. Democratic Party and to bipartisan support for Israel in America. Bennett and other senior government figures don’t see any point in making the same mistakes.

Bennett and Netanyahu have recently squabbled publicly about Israel’s policy in the years after the deal. Bennett claims that not only did Netanyahu convince Trump to back out of the nuclear deal but failed to prepare the Israel Defense Forces for the possibility that sanctions would not bring Tehran to its knees, but instead cause it to violate the agreement and advance its nuclear program. Aiming to avoid that error, Bennett is undertaking major steps toward preparing the army for the day after the deal.

This buildup, now underway by the IDF, Mossad and the other arms of the security establishment, is directed at a scenario whereby the nuclear deal collapses and Israel is forced to reconsider military action to stop the Iranian nuclear program (as Netanyahu considered during the years 2009 to 2012, before finally being dissuaded by the defense establishment). Concurrently, Israel is taking a more aggressive approach towards Iran, in line with Bennett’s avowed position back when he was in Netanyahu’s government four years ago. This approach directs more fire – with a not inconsiderable risk of entanglement – directly at Iran rather than at its proxies on Israel’s borders.

Last week Haaretz reported an unusual attack attributed to Israel, in which Iranian drones were destroyed at a base in the Kermanshah region in western Iran. The attack in early February, which destroyed several hundred drones, occurred a day after Iran attempted to send two attack drones into Israeli airspace. The drones were intercepted by American fighter jets over a third country. Retaliation against Israel came March 13, when Iran fired missiles at an installation in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, that Tehran says was used by Israeli intelligence.

According to foreign media reports, Israeli activity against Iran extends over a broad array of targets – sabotaging nuclear facilities, attacking drone and missile sites, destroying military facilities and munitions held by Iran and its Shia militias in Syria, as well as cyberattacks.

Another area in which there has been much progress, hitherto occurring almost entirely under the radar, pertains to the tightening of cooperation between Israel and Arab countries in the region, to establish a joint warning and interception system for Iranian missiles and drones. It is even possible that the matter has already been discussed seriously between Israel and Gulf countries. In the future, Israel hopes that Saudi Arabia, which despite improved relations still avoids open ties with Israel, will join these understandings as well. The plan is to deploy radars in these countries, which are closer to Iran’s borders, so as to greatly increase the warning time the home front command has to prepare in the event of an Iranian missile being launched at Tel Aviv.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaking to Bahraini Industry Minister Zayed Rashid Alzayani last month in Manama.Credit: Ilan Ben Zion /AP

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