In the many speeches and greetings this week during German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Israel, one remark for some reason escaped notice, perhaps because it had no direct connection to the visit. But it was very telling as to where the Israeli government stands on one of its most crucial policies.
The remark came at the cabinet meeting in Chancellor Merkel’s presence at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, in Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s opening statement.
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“These days, the world is waiting for a decision in Tehran on whether or not to return to the negotiating table in Vienna and to reenter the nuclear agreement, the JCPOA,” Bennett said.
“In the last three years, to our regret, the Iranians have made a great jump forward in their uranium enrichment capability. The Iranian nuclear program is at its most advanced point ever. The world is waiting and the Iranians are taking their time and the centrifuges are spinning.”
Bennett didn’t say anything directly about the JCPOA – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – or as it’s more commonly known, the Iran deal. But it was clear from what he did say, as well as from what he left out, that Israel no longer sees the 2015 nuclear agreement signed between Iran and the world powers, including Germany, as a “historic mistake,” as Benjamin Netanyahu called it at the time.
In fact, Bennett made it clear that Israel, or at least its current government, is no longer pleased that former U.S. President Donald Trump, at Netanyahu’s urging, withdrew from the Iran deal in 2018. By framing the “last three years” since the withdrawal as the time frame in which Iran made its “great jump forward,” Bennett left no room for doubt. The Iran deal, which is still excoriated by Netanyahu, is the lesser of evils and at present the best guarantee against Iran pushing ahead toward a nuclear-weapons capability.
It’s hard to exaggerate how significant that change in Israel’s foreign policy is. In fact, it’s probably the new government's most major policy change.
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And yet Bennett can’t quite bring himself to spell it out, though in off-the-record conversations, officials who are close to his way of thinking will say so more explicitly. Indeed, in recent weeks they’ve been briefing journalists that Netanyahu’s policy against the Iran deal is what has fostered Iran’s nuclear progress.
It’s not the first time that more positive tones have been heard in Israel about the Iran deal. People said similar things, almost always on deep background, six years ago when the agreement had just been signed. They tended to be senior officers in the Israel Defense Forces and others in the security establishment.
They were very aware of the flaws in the Iran deal; it let Tehran keep all its nuclear infrastructure intact, it lacked any limits on missile research and Iran’s dealings in the region, and its “sunset clauses” made it unclear what restrictions, if any, would remain once the accord expired. But these observers still believed that it was a decent arms control agreement that would give Israel a decade for focusing on other intelligence and security matters while Iran’s enrichment activities were held in check.
Those cautious Israeli endorsers of the Iran deal were less certain, after the U.S. withdrew, that the “maximum pressure” sanctions of the Trump administration would have a similar effect. And they have turned out to be right, as nearly three and a half years later, the Iranian leadership has proved that, at least for now, it can get away with causing its own citizens more misery and suffering while increasing its nuclear activities, unfettered by the nuclear deal.
What has changed is that it’s not just discreet security sources saying it, fearful of Netanyahu’s retribution if it’s traced to them. It has virtually become official government policy. So why not come out with it more openly and give the Biden administration more explicit backing?
While a more overtly positive attitude from the Israeli government toward the Iran deal may conceivably buy it some more goodwill from the administration, this concession could probably be better timed.
For now, it probably makes more sense for Israel to remain a “bad cop” in these negotiations. But there’s a more significant reason why Bennett and his people can’t come out and just say that the JCPOA isn’t such a bad deal after all – and that’s the still looming shadow of Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has so relentlessly portrayed the Iran deal as the second coming of the Munich Agreement that to change that perception in the minds of the Israeli public seems beyond this government.
This is especially the case for Bennett himself, who back when he still yearned for Netanyahu’s acceptance, eagerly joined in the anti-JCPOA crusade. In February 2015, when Netanyahu made his speech in Congress against the deal, Bennett, then the leader of the Habayit Hayehudi party, flew to Washington as well in a craven display of support. He called on other party leaders to “join the prime minister’s national mission in the United States. On Iran there is no right and no left.”
Bennett may have finally summoned the strength to defy Netanyahu and replace him as prime minister, but he’s still finding it difficult to jettison all his policy baggage.