About a year ago, Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett – then foreign minister and prime minister, respectively – formulated a very cautious approach regarding world powers’ nuclear talks with Iran.
Like everything else in Israeli politics, it can be pared down to “yes-Bibi, no-Bibi,” though, at least in this case, there is an actual policy difference and not just window dressing.
Unlike former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Bennett and Lapid were determined not to have an adversarial relationship with the US administration, which was negotiating indirectly with the Islamic Republic.
As such, Bennett, Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz often spoke of the weaknesses of the Iran nuclear deal, which has been negotiated mostly in Vienna over the past 16 months. They repeatedly said Israel would not be obligated to it, but they made sure not to openly criticize US President Joe Biden.
On Thursday, however, Lapid came very close to crossing that line.
“In our eyes, [the Iran deal] does not meet the standards set by President Biden himself: preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear state,” he said in a briefing to the foreign press.
In other words, if Biden agrees to rejoin the Iran deal as it stands, which all indications point to him doing, then he will be breaking a promise.
The White House would argue otherwise, of course. But Jerusalem has been saying all along that a return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is known, would bring along all of the weaknesses of seven years ago, and then some.
Iran's nuclear deal
To begin with, the Iran deal recognizes the Islamic Republic’s “right to enrich” uranium. Its sunset clauses guarantee that limits to that right fade away over time, which is now an even shorter time than originally intended.
One of the deal’s central restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, the manufacture of advanced centrifuges, expires in two years. The whole deal will be over with by 2030.
Plus, Iran has already enriched uranium to 60% purity, while weapons-grade uranium is 90%. Its violations of the JCPOA, which limited enrichment to 3.25%, mean it has gained knowledge of how to advance its nuclear program, which cannot be taken away even if centrifuges and uranium are sealed off when a new deal is implemented.
Lapid also said lifting sanctions, an immediate benefit to Iran from the deal, would net the Islamic Republic $100 billion annually. That would likely mean a cash influx to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which exports Iran’s violent extremism throughout the region, and to its terrorist proxies, including Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.
Lapid’s position is supported by most of Israel’s security establishment: If the US rejoins the Iran deal, it’s bad news for Israel.
It could also be bad news for Lapid, with an election just over two months away.
Netanyahu was just waiting for his moment to take up the mantle as the world’s biggest Iran deal opponent.
As a responsible opposition leader should do, Netanyahu has already tried to use his own skills and political sway to stop the Iran deal by speaking to international outlets, such as Fox News and Al-Arabiya, while not criticizing the government abroad.
But internally, it’s a different story. Netanyahu sharply criticized Lapid and Gantz in a press conference on Wednesday, saying their agreement not to campaign against the Iran deal has weakened Israel’s ability to delay or influence the final result.
No deal can stop Iran’s nuclear program, he argued, but Lapid and Gantz have talked about being open to a better deal.
Netanyahu offered an alternative plan: to launch an international public-diplomacy campaign against the Iran deal. He would also ensure Israel has “total freedom of action as a sovereign state, not a vassal of the US,” in contrast with Lapid agreeing to “no surprises.”
Lapid can easily point out that Netanyahu’s way, including angering former US president Barack Obama by speaking out against his policies before both houses of Congress, did not stop a deal either.
Yet Netanyahu has proven over the past decade to be an expert on campaigning on the Iranian threat, and he can probably do it again, with security being a primary concern for Israeli voters.
Iran talks may be buried behind an impending teachers’ strike and rising food and housing prices in the evening news these days, but a new nuclear agreement will surely bump it to the top of the hour – and that will be Netanyahu’s opportunity.
Unfortunately, it seems that neither playing nice with the White House nor being aggressive is enough to stop an administration determined to sign a deal with Iran, but it could play a pivotal role in Israel in November.