Analysis |

Ukraine War Stalls Iran Nuke Deal. That's Not Necessarily Good News for Israel

The more adamant the American rhetoric on Russia becomes, the more somber questions arise as to Israel's position and policy ■ At his weakest political moment, Bennett may have given the speech of his career

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Servicemen install a machine gun on their tank after fighting against Russian forces in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday.
Servicemen install a machine gun on their tank after fighting against Russian forces in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday.Credit: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Last December, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser to U.S. President Joe Biden, visited Israel. In interviews with local television stations, Sullivan set forth the desirable timetable from Washington’s point of view for a new nuclear agreement to be signed between Iran and the world powers. Within a few weeks, he said, we’ll know whether a new agreement is attainable. Other senior American officials projected optimism, which was not even very cautious, about the prospects for obtaining a new accord.

More than four months later, the situation has only growth more complicated. The main stumbling block, which now looms even larger, concerns the administration’s refusal to remove the Iranian Revolutionary Guards from the U.S. Treasury's sanctions list. Israel has invested considerable persuasive efforts in this regard. The Americans haven’t announced their position officially, but the hints are clear enough.

The American security establishment, by contrast, is now taking a more aggressive stance in regard to Iranian involvement in acts of terrorism and subversion across the Middle East. The State Department, on the other hand, is more invested in achieving an agreement. The Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are emphasizing additional reservations about the emerging accord: apprehension that it won’t be extended past 2031, the nature of the supervision of Iran’s nuclear facilities and the future of the open cases, namely three investigations that the International Atomic Energy Agency is conducting into allegations of earlier Iranian violations of the agreement.

The American establishment is currently focusing most of its interest on the more urgent international issue of the war in Ukraine, jus ahead of November's midterm elections for Congress. In the natural course of things, the administration's attention will shift to the domestic front in the coming months. Iran, too, does not appear hurried to sign an agreement. The war has sent the price of oil soaring, easing the economic situation for Tehran. In light of these developments, Bennett recently estimated the chances of an agreement being signed soon at 50-50. Other senior figures think the prospects remain higher, but no one knows for sure.

The new circumstances are enabling Iran to continue enriching uranium to high levels. Gantz told foreign ambassadors at the beginning of the month that Tehran is about a month away from manufacturing a sufficient quantity of enriched uranium to build one bomb, if it wants to. (Estimates are that more than a year will be needed to complete the fitting of the bomb to a military warhead on a ballistic missile.) It’s possible that without an agreement, and with a lengthening interim period, the international handling of the nuclear project is entering the marking-time stage.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Knesset's Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, Thursday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

However, failure to sign an agreement is not necessarily good news for Israel. First, the actual benefit or harm inherent in an accord is a disputed matter, with a wide range of views on the subject prevailing among political decision-makers and the defense establishment. And second, Israel is not actually ready with an alternative plan. The preparations for a military strike were halted for years and were only recently renewed. And of course, the question of a strike is also highly contentious.

Continuation of an interim stage will obligate Israel to take complex diplomatic steps, ranging from an attempt to coordinate positions with Washington, to tightening relations with the Gulf states, in the hope of reviving the diplomatic front against Iran. The question is who in Jerusalem has the attention span for this when the political house is shaking and the government is tottering along with it.

Surprising determination

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which entered its third month this week, is looking like a complete failure at this stage. The almost endless column of Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers that stretched from the border southward, all the way to the outskirts of Kyiv, turned tail long ago. Western intelligence organizations estimate that more than 20,000 Russian soldiers have been killed since the war began. Russian President Vladimir Putin has thrust his country into the most serious crisis it has known since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than 30 years ago. Russia is experiencing a growing world boycott, its economy has regressed by years and nothing remains of the prolonged pretense that a democratic regime exists in Moscow.

According to various appraisals, Russia is contemplating a renewed, broad offensive, this time in southeast Ukraine, which it will access from the regions that it tore from Ukraine eight years ago. One possibility being mentioned is the takeover if the entire northern coast of the Black Sea, which would give the Russians territorial continuity westward as far as Moldova. Many military experts doubt whether Putin’s army is capable of this in its present state. Morale among the troops is at a nadir, the supply lines are faltering and almost every day brings a report that another senior officer has been killed in the fighting.

Putin is said to want to rack up a resounding achievement ahead of May 9, when the victory over Nazi Germany (which Russian propaganda says is the spiritual mother of Ukraine) is celebrated. Senior figures in the Kremlin are even spreading rumors about Russia’s possible use of tactical nuclear weapons if the ground forces fail to make the necessary gains.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin this week organized a conference in Germany, inviting defense ministers and senior military officers from about 40 countries to discuss continued international aid to Ukraine. The determination of the Biden administration is surprising. Contrary to the earlier low expectations, the United States has succeeded in spearheading quite a broad sanctions campaign against Russia, provided critical intelligence that has aided the Ukrainians on the field of battle, and is now managing and coordinating an extensive effort to supply large shipments of arms and gear to the regime in Kyiv.

The public statements by Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are becoming sharper and more resolute. The two recently termed the Russian assault on Ukraine a failure and explained openly that they want to weaken Russia so it will not be able to mount similar actions in the future. Washington is unlikely to shed a tear if officials there wake up one morning to reports of a putsch in Moscow, in which a group of concerned generals decide to depose Putin to save Russia from the consequences of his behavior.

The administration’s unwavering line raises gloomy questions about Israel’s approach and policy. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the government in Jerusalem has been walking on eggshells. Bennett hasn’t been as groveling toward Putin as his predecessor, Benjamin (“a different league”) Netanyahu, but neither has he fallen into line with the Americans. Israel did not rush to join the sanctions against Russia, and it took a long time before hesitant condemnations began to be voiced about the war crimes the Russians are perpetrating.

Israel’s principal argument is that Russia is too strong and too important: to preserve freedom of action for Israel’s air force in Syria, Moscow must not be irked excessively. In practice, this approach looks like an exaggerated sanctification of the importance of the “campaign between the wars,” and an insistence on not understanding the gravity of the overall picture, morally and strategically alike.

Gantz, who was invited to the conference in Germany, preferred to send the head of the ministry’s political-security division, Brig. Gen. (res.) Dror Shalom. That was a mistake. Irrespective of Shalom’s multiple skills and experience, the time has come for Israel to project greater seriousness in regard to the world effort to restrain the Russian aggression. It would have been better if Gantz had attended the meeting, despite the tight schedule of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Bennett managed to put a finger in the dike for a time by purporting to mediate between the leaders of Russia and Ukraine at the beginning of the war. But any illusions that a cease-fire would be achieved in Jerusalem, of all places, have long since evaporated. The Americans, even if they’re not saying so explicitly at the moment, expect Israel to take a clearer stand.

Breath of fresh air

Just at a time when he’s at his weakest, Bennett delivered on Wednesday what in the future may come to be seen as the speech of his life, at the state ceremony marking the advent of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Before the glaring eyes of his predecessor, Bennett uttered words which radically departed from everything that Netanyahu voiced in the 12 previous years.

Many observers have already underscored, rightly so, that Bennett refrained from drawing the superficial, frequently made comparison between the Nazi death machine and the looming threat of Iran’s nuclear project – an analogy to which Netanyahu turned to hundreds of times, especially around Holocaust Remembrance Day every year. But that was not all. The lesson that Bennett sought to drive home was a double one, Jewish and universal, and not Jewish alone.

And, of course, Bennett avoided anything resembling the unbelievable comparison Netanyahu put forward last year: While congratulating himself for bringing the coronavirus vaccine to Israel speedily, the former prime minister then implicitly compared this to the failure of the Jewish leadership to extricate European Jewry from the danger of the Holocaust in World War II.

In these circumstances, we can even look forward to the torch-lighting ceremony on May 4, the eve of Independence Day. We can assume that this year, we will likely be spared the displays of royal sycophancy, and we can hope for the return of a stately atmosphere. Even if today’s political circumstances only enable one year of respite from Netanyahu’s cult of personality that marked his final years in office, that too would be a considerable achievement for Bennett.

On the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Bennett posted photos to social media of a meeting he held with survivors. Even that routine message was met with savage trashing by supporters of Netanyahu. To them, Bennett is a crook who stole Knesset seats from his right-wing voters, and therefore must resign. Bennett did indeed violate one of his two contradictory campaign promises (he is sitting with the United Arab List in the coalition, though he prevented a fifth election). But the allegation of fraud isn’t the heart of the matter for his opponents. Netanyahu, after all, did worse things, including his violation of written commitments to Gantz.

The real matter would seem to lie elsewhere. Namely, that in the eyes of Netanyahu’s supporters, Bennett is standing between him and his legitimate right, carved in stone, to rule here forever and ever. He, his sons and his sons’ sons. Hence the stubborn refusal of many Likud MKs to condemn the envelope containing a bullet sent to the Bennett family this week. We’re witnessing a phenomenon reminiscent of Netanyahu’s initial period in politics, as leader of the opposition: a persistent flirtation with incitement to violence, amid disingenuous denials to the effect that as a result, danger actually lurks for your political rival.

This week I found myself on the street where the prime minister lives, in Ra’anana. The Shin Bet has erected real fortifications there, and Bennett’s neighbors are suffering twice over: both from security restrictions (and lack of parking space) and frequent demonstrations by the prime minister’s detractors. Bennett was wrong to insist on continuing to live at home and not in the official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem. And the news that he was charging the state coffers thousands of shekels in food costs for his family did not do him any favors. But, as usual, Netanyahu and his blind followers are engaged in making baseless comparisons.

Bennett will need many more years of chutzpah and insensitivity to foment even a small fraction of the damage the Netanyahu family did to the rules of proper administration and state expenditures. And the former prime minister made matters worse by declaring war against law enforcement authorities as part of his efforts to halt the criminal proceedings against him.

Bennett may be on his way out. Some political commentators foresee the collapse of his government within a few months, now that the coalition has lost its Knesset majority. But already during his short time in office, less than a year, he has introduced a certain breath of fresh air, exuding proportionality and sanity, in one of the most difficult periods Israel has known.

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