What Worries Israel About Biden and Iran

Much of the world reacted to Biden's inauguration with a sigh of relief. In the Mideast, it was met with mixed feelings

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Biden family photos are displayed around a bust of activist Cesar Chavez, as U.S. President Joe Biden prepares to sign executive orders at the Resolute Desk inside the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2021. Picture taken January 20, 2021
Biden family photos are displayed around a bust of activist Cesar Chavez, as U.S. President Joe Biden prepares to sign executive orders at the Resolute Desk inside the Oval Office of the White House iCredit: Tom Brenner/Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Donald Trump abandoned Washington on Wednesday a few hours before the inauguration of his successor, Joe Biden. Scowling, he boarded a helicopter on the White House lawn and started back to his estate in Florida, like a spoiled kid who breaks up a ball game and takes the ball home because he’s incapable of accepting the result. The true final note of his presidency came two weeks earlier, with the unrestrainedly violent storming of Capitol Hill by hundreds of his supporters, minutes after they heard an inflammatory speech by the outgoing president of the United States.

Already on the day after that bloody day in the Congress, a welcome quiet descended as Trump was barred from most social media platforms and hardly appeared in public. He had apparently started to digest the fact that he had no chance of tilting the results of the election which gave his rival a clear victory. On Wednesday the old Democratic guard celebrated in Washington. Their joy was understandable.

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America, in the words of President Gerald Ford after Richard Nixon’s resignation, looks like a country waking up after a national nightmare, parting from the person who was perhaps the worst-ever of its leaders. But at the same time, the inaugural ceremony and the reactions to it underscored many of the phenomena that left many voters disgruntled at the Democrats to begin with: self-righteousness, self-adulation, a deep conviction in the validity of the old order. This is the way we used to do things, this is how we’ll do them again from now on. 

The enthusiasm with which singers and movie stars took part in the ceremony left no room for doubt. The celebrity A Team is back in Washington. Unlike his predecessor, Biden won’t have to make do with the company of a few white athletes and some dubious billionaires who support the tenets of white supremacy.

At the heart of the to-do is a fellow of 78, the oldest American president ever to be sworn in. Viewers of the ceremony on Wednesday could take heart in what’s encouraging about Joe Biden. Above all, he’s not Donald Trump. That was evident in every word of his articulate, restrained and at times inspiring speech. But it was hard to ignore his advanced age, the immense challenges that he will have to confront (particularly in view of the horrific mess Trump left behind) and the trenchant question of whether the health of the incoming president – which seems good for the present – will be sustained in the four years ahead.

The international sigh of relief, clearly audible from one end of the world to the other, was more restrained in the Middle East. In this sense, the Israeli leadership resembles its new partners in the Persian Gulf and its veteran associates in Egypt. As a person, Barack Obama outshines Trump by every criterion, but in the Middle East he left a cracked legacy.

The Obama administration, in which Biden was the vice president, at first encouraged the civil uprising in Arab countries, but chose to barely respond to the appalling slaughter that Syrian President Bashar Assad inflicted on his citizens.

As to Iran, Obama arrived at a full nuclear agreement with good intentions but one that was replete with gaps and flaws. His primary achievement in the region was the tardy curbing of the spread of Islamist terrorism fomented by ISIS and Al-Qaida. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like his corrupt ruler friends in the Gulf, felt a lot more comfortable with Trump.

In May 2018, Trump, with Netanyahu’s ardent urging, declared the United States’ withdrawal from the nuclear agreement. The “maximum pressure” campaign he spearheaded against Iran made a shambles of its economy but did not persuade the Tehran leadership to throw in the towel and return to the negotiating table, under tougher conditions from their point of view. Paradoxically, the past two years also revealed the agreement’s defects. In this period Iran was able to shorten its “breakthrough time” to the manufacture of a bomb. Those flaws will be exacerbated in the present decade, as the restrictions imposed on Iran gradually expire.

Biden’s challenge will be to achieve a new agreement, but to include in it better terms that will restrict the Iranians. As a second priority, issues that were neglected in the original agreement will have to be dealt with: curbing the Iranian missile program, and Tehran’s involvement in the perpetration of terrorism and subversion across the Middle East. The intention will be to generate a first breakthrough before the Iranian presidential election this June. After that event, the Americans hope to proceed to a new permanent agreement, with the flexibility evinced by Iran being a function of both the external pressure that will be wielded against it, and the outcome of the internal power struggles between the regime’s extremist camp and the more moderate wing.

Amid the inauguration ceremony, the Israel media were already quoting declarations by anonymous senior figures promising that Netanyahu is determined to struggle against Biden and prevent the signing of a new agreement that will be dangerous. The response among a large section of the professional personnel has been more moderate. Biden is not the enemy and he has no plans to abandon Israel. He is deeply committed to the country’s security. Still, these officials are aware of, and somewhat worried by, the deep attachment of senior members of the new administration to the heritage of the agreement cobbled together by Obama, under whom most of them served in various capacities. It’s also hard to forget that the Democrats had a bellyful of Netanyahu, not least due to his overbearing attitude toward Obama and above all his insistence on addressing the Congress in the summer of 2015 in a failed attempt to derail the nuclear agreement.

What’s most likely is that, in view of the vast array of domestic problems faced by the United States, headed by the spread of the coronavirus and the brutal economic crisis in its wake, American attention to the Middle East will be relatively muted. Furthermore, in the international arena the struggles with China for influence are more important to the Americans. As for the Palestinians, Trump’s “deal of the century” died a natural death. Biden can be expected to renew some of the pressure on Israel to return to negotiations, but it’s not likely that we’ll see a clash of the sort that occurred between Obama and Netanyahu in 2009, in their first months in office, with the Cairo speech, the Bar-Ilan University speech and the American diktat to freeze building in the settlements.

A senior figure in Israel’s defense establishment told Haaretz that above all, what happened in Washington was a transition from a president to an administration. Trump, he noted, was a one-man show, frenetic and incoherent. Now both banks of the Potomac – the State Department and the Pentagon – will get back to work, amid the internal competition between them.

There was also something illuminating in the last steps taken by the outgoing president and the first decisions of his successor. Trump pardoned corrupt businesspeople and confidants, rappers who became entangled with the law and even an Israeli spy handler (retired colonel Aviem Sela, who ran Jonathan Pollard). Finally, he advanced the sale of F-35 warplanes to the United Arab Emirates. Biden signed off immediately on 17 executive orders that overturned his predecessor’s policy in matters including the climate and the treatment of immigrants, two areas in which the outgoing administration pursued a scandalous approach.
The pistol in the first act

A poster depicting Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, during a 24-hour curfew to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Bint Jbeil, Lebanon, January 18, 2021Credit: Aziz Taher/Reuters

Trump’s final weeks in office were exploited by Israel, according to foreign reports, for a relatively extensive assault on Iran’s military interests in Syria. In the last of these attacks, last week, in eastern Syria near the border with Iraq, bases and depots of the Shi’ite militias that are under the tutelage of the Revolutionary Guards were hit. That’s a region very distant from Israel and it’s likely that access to it required deep operational and intelligence coordination with the United States.

In contrast, concerns about a resounding Iranian operation against an Israeli or American target on the eve of the change of administrations proved ungrounded. The Israel Defense Forces, by the way, remain on high alert despite the reasonable assumption that the Iranians have no interest in heating things as the Biden administration takes the reins of power in Washington. The recent reports in the American media about the new Iranian deployment in Yemen were reliable. With the aid of the Houthi rebels, long-distance drones, capable of reaching the Eilat region, were positioned in Yemen. Similar infrastructure, including ballistic missiles, was placed in Iraq and eastern Syria. The Iranians have already demonstrated similar capability in the form of joint attacks with the Houthis in Saudi Arabia.

As this column has previously noted, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah wants no part of the Iranian revenge plans and is not volunteering his people for the mission. Surprisingly, though, Israeli intelligence hasn’t yet completely lifted the warning about a revenge attack by Hezbollah itself, over the death of one its men in an Israeli bombing raid against an Iranian military facility in Damascus last July. Hezbollah tried to avenge his death twice, in attacks along the Lebanon border, which were thwarted. The organization has apparently not abandoned its efforts completely.

In the longer term, the crux of the discussion in Israel is about Hezbollah’s “precision project” in Lebanon. According to updated estimates, the organization already has more than dozens of precision rockets. Some of them, reports say, have been outfitted with “precision kits” that were brought over in suitcases by Iranian smuggling networks. Until recently, the defense establishment spoke about a few dozen precision rockets and maintained that Hezbollah’s effort had effectively failed. It turns out that the effort is still on. Its big test will come with the attempt to put the project on an industrial footing by establishing subterranean manufacturing sites in Lebanon.

Netanyahu revealed some of these sites in his speech at the United Nations a year and a half ago. As far as is known, they have not yet been activated. Israel will continue to act against the project by diplomatic means, a mixture of threats and public diplomacy, this year as well. But the growing impression is that Hezbollah, with persistence and determination, is striving to achieve its goal: the creation of a relatively large arsenal of precision rockets that will be able to strike targets across Israel more effectively. 

Nasrallah has no interest in a military confrontation with Israel at this time. Lebanon is mired in a deep political and economic crisis, and Hezbollah cannot allow itself to be blamed for additional woes that will befall the hard-pressed country. Still, the precision project is a pistol that appears in the first act; sooner or later, it is liable to be at the center of a new armed clash between Israel and Lebanon.

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