United States President Joe Biden’s expected signature on an amended nuclear agreement with Iran puts Israel’s new government before a strategic dilemma. It essentially has two options: to adhere to the policy of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who ruled out any deal with Iran that would include even a partial lifting of sanctions, or to adopt a “if you cannot beat them, join them” approach by cooperating with the Biden administration and trying to plug the holes it identifies in the emerging deal.
On his first meeting with his American counterpart Antony Blinken on June 27, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid hinted at what direction the new government may take. “We believe the way to discuss those disagreements is through direct and professional conversation, not a press conference,” Lapid said. This would be the exact opposite of the aggressive campaign mounted by Netanyahu against the 2015 deal, when he declined the Obama administration’s offer to take part in consultations prior to the sealing of the agreement.
The agreement, which had limits of 10 to 15 years on some of its provisions, was not perfect. However, some senior Israeli defence officials insisted that it was far better than no agreement at all, as it forced Tehran to give up enriched uranium it had stockpiled and accept a regime of unprecedented inspections of its facilities.
Netanyahu went behind Obama’s back to mobilise Congress against the 2015 agreement, but failed. The deal was signed. Netanyahu took advantage of the close relationship he subsequently forged with President Donald Trump and the Republicans, playing an influential role in the 2018 US withdrawal from the agreement. And what did Israel get out of this, other than the anger and frustration of the other signatories – Russia, China, the UK, and France?
President-elect Biden provided an answer to this question in December 2020, just weeks before moving into the White House, declaring that opposition to the deal with Iran yielded the opposite result to the one its opponents desired. “[Iran] increased the ability for them to have nuclear material. They’re moving closer to the ability to be able to have enough material for a nuclear weapon,” he said.
Biden’s January 2020 criticism of Trump for pulling the US out of the Iran agreement can also be read as criticism of Netanyahu. Biden said at a rally in Nevada that “everything that has happened in Iran and Iraq in recent weeks was brought on by Trump walking away from a nuclear deal in 2018 that enjoyed strong international support”.
Netanyahu obviously does not recognise his resounding failure in an area that was for years his claim to fame as “Mr Security”. From the opposition benches of the Knesset, he continues to incite against US efforts to renew the nuclear agreement with Iran. He is breathing down the necks of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Lapid, whom he accused of damaging Israel’s security interests by pledging to give the US advance warning of any military action against Iran.
“If there were no surprises, we wouldn’t have been able to destroy the reactor in Iraq,” Netanyahu said, referring to the 1981 Israeli bombing of an unfinished nuclear reactor near Baghdad. He also suggested that the US had repeatedly asked him for such a commitment but he had refused.
On his first day in office, Lapid said one of his first tasks would be to rehabilitate Israel’s ties with the Democrats. He followed this up with Blinken at their June 27 meeting in Rome. “In the past few years, mistakes were made,” Lapid told Blinken. “Israel’s bipartisan standing was hurt. We will fix those mistakes together.”
A breakthrough in US-Iran negotiations would force Bennett to adopt a decision on whether to “go with the flow” or risk double trouble – with the US and other world powers, and with Lapid and the government’s centre-left partners at home. The Biden administration has made no secret of its attempts to nurture relations with Israel’s new government.
Israel’s prime ministers have always insisted that when it comes to Iran’s nuclear programme, “all options are on the table”. In other words, Israel does not rule out an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations. However, when the occupant of the Oval Office is a rational leader seeking to resolve conflicts peacefully, rather than a loose cannon, such an option is not really an option.
On the other hand, if negotiations fall through, not due to Israel’s opposition, and Iran succeeds one of these days in obtaining nuclear weapons, an Israeli air force attack squadron will head for the nuclear facilities under a supportive international umbrella.
Netanyahu’s dual failure – the acceleration of Iran’s nuclear programme and the crisis in relations with the Democrats – should teach Bennett an important lesson. Israel cannot defeat the US. Even when it wins, it ends up losing.