Bennett’s juggling act: Iran nuclear deal in one hand, Russia-Ukraine in the other - analysis

Is accidental prime minister Naftali Bennett, whom many Israelis still do not take seriously, a diplomatic superman?

 Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Minister of Public Security Omer Barlev, Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai and Head of the Northern Command Police District Shimon Lavie seen during a ceremony after the largest ever police operation against illegal gun dealers, in Tel Aviv, November 9, 2021.  (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Minister of Public Security Omer Barlev, Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai and Head of the Northern Command Police District Shimon Lavie seen during a ceremony after the largest ever police operation against illegal gun dealers, in Tel Aviv, November 9, 2021.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

One day Prime Minister Naftali Bennett flies on Shabbat to Moscow, apparently trying to mediate between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. That night he flies from Moscow to Berlin to brief new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on his efforts.

On another day his office announces that he will be going to India in early April. Two days later he shows up in Egypt for a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which is then expanded to an unprecedented tripartite meeting with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the power behind the throne in the United Arab Emirates.

And even as Bennett is in Egypt meeting with the Arab leaders, negotiations are underway for him to fly to Kyiv in the coming days for a meeting with Zelensky.

Naftali Bennett, diplomatic superman.

The accidental prime minister, whom many Israelis still do not take seriously – believing that only by a fluke is he in his job and that when he gives the reins of his office to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid as part of the rotation agreement next August, he will ride into the political sunset – is all of a sudden starring on the international scene.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett meets German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Jerusalem last week. A few days later, they met in Berlin. (credit: Gil Cohen-Magen/Reuters) PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett meets German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Jerusalem last week. A few days later, they met in Berlin. (credit: Gil Cohen-Magen/Reuters)

Is this because he is, indeed, a diplomatic superman? An Israeli Henry Kissinger with a kippah? Or is it because a confluence of events is thrusting Israel into the forefront?

With all due respect to Bennett and his diplomatic abilities, it is more the later than the former.

Bennett is near the center of mediation efforts between Russia and Ukraine because Israel under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu developed close relations with Russia and also a good working relationship with Ukraine.

However, unlike the impression Netanyahu liked to create, the relationship was not between him and Putin or between him and the Ukrainian government, but rather between Putin and Israel and the Ukrainian government and Israel. The relationship outlasted Netanyahu.

Putin and Zelensky are turning to Israel, not necessarily Bennett. If Lapid were the prime minister today, he would be the one they would be turning to. It’s the country, not the man.

The same is true of the tripartite summit in Egypt, a landmark meeting driven by events – this one being the impending signing of a new Iranian nuclear agreement.

Just as the first Iranian nuclear agreement in 2015 – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – brought Israel and the Gulf countries together, united by the common enemy of Iran, so, too, what appears to be the imminent signing of a new deal is bringing Israel closer to regional countries that are as concerned about Iran’s regional designs as is Israel, and both the UAE and Egypt fall into that category.

It is ironic that to the same degree that the US and the European powers are keen on entering a new nuclear agreement with Iran, Israel and the moderate Sunni Arab states in the region are afraid of it. Monday’s summit is an indication and a public signal that they will be working together in close cooperation to deal with the fallout.

The most significant immediate fallout will be the lifting of sanctions and the billions of dollars that will once again start flowing into Iran. Israel, Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region have little doubt that part of this cash windfall will go to fund organizations firing rockets and missiles into Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

It is for this reason that both Jerusalem and Dubai are stunned that the US is considering removing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from its list of terrorist organizations.

In fact, Israel seems more immediately afraid of the US removing the IRGC from its list, and the dangerous message that it sends, than it is of a new Iranian nuclear deal.

Otherwise, how else to explain that in recent days Bennett and Lapid were willing to publicly criticize the Biden administration over its apparent willingness to delist the IRGC, using words and a tone that they have so far refrained from using when expressing opposition to the US reentering the Iranian nuclear deal.

“We believe that the United State will not abandon its closest allies in exchange for empty promises from terrorists,” the sharply worded statement read.

Bennett followed up on the issue on Sunday, saying at the outset of the weekly cabinet meeting that “unfortunately there is determination to sign a nuclear agreement with Iran at almost any price, including saying that the world’s largest terrorist organization is not a terrorist organization.” On Monday, he called the move “delusional.”

The tone and tenor of these statements recall a bygone age: the Obama-Netanyahu era, when the two sides often engaged in megaphone diplomacy, taking issue with one another’s policy not behind closed doors, but rather through  press briefings, media communiqués and anonymous leaks.

That practice, however, ended when then US president Barack Obama left office in January 2017. From then on, spanning two administrations – the Republican Trump administration and the first year of the Democratic Biden administration – there seemed to be consent that disagreements will be hashed out privately, not publicly.

That Bennett and Lapid chose to take a different approach now demonstrates two things. First, they genuinely believe the US decision to remove the terrorist designation from the IRGC is utterly foolish and dangerous, being that it not only engages in acts of terrorism itself, but funds, trains and provides weapons to Iran’s proxies, who do so as well: Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis and militias in Iraq.

But there is something else at work behind these statements: They believe there is considerable domestic opposition to the declassification move in the US, and that strong comments by Israel’s leadership against this move could give a tailwind to those opposing it in the US.

If that is the case, then the question could be asked: Why didn’t the Israeli leadership duo speak out as forcefully against Washington’s moving full speed ahead with the nuclear deal itself?

The answer: Apparently they don’t believe that adding Israel’s voice to those in the US against the deal would make a difference with an administration dead set on reentering it. They do, however, believe there is a chance to move the administration on the issue of removing IRGC as a terrorist organization.