The Israeli call for action against Iran is coming from inside the house

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Jerusalem has been playing nice with Washington over Iran talks for a year now, starting with when Naftali Bennett was prime minister and Lapid was foreign minister.

 PRIME MINISTER Yair Lapid briefs Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu on the state of the Iran talks on Monday.   (photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Yair Lapid briefs Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu on the state of the Iran talks on Monday.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO)

Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Iran strategy has seen better days.

Jerusalem has been playing nice with Washington over Iran talks for a year now, starting with when Naftali Bennett was prime minister and Lapid was foreign minister.

The idea was not to launch a public campaign against the Biden administration’s effort to return to a nuclear deal with Iran, even though there is consensus in the government and among the leaders of Israel’s defense establishment that the deal is bad. Rather, they would try to work with the White House behind the scenes to try to mitigate the damage or even convince the administration to change tack, without damaging the US-Israel relationship.

That idea has faced criticism throughout the past year, but with Washington and Tehran seemingly very close to sealing a deal and a congressional vote on lifting Iran sanctions likely on the way – even if the chance of getting a veto-proof two-thirds majority is extremely slim – the calls to do more to push back against the Biden administration have only grown.

In a surprising turn of events, the call for more aggressive action against an Iran deal is coming from inside the house, or at least the Prime Minister’s Office.

 Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaking to US President Joe Biden, August 31, 2022.  (credit: Courtesy)
Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaking to US President Joe Biden, August 31, 2022. (credit: Courtesy)

Lapid briefed foreign journalists last Thursday that Israel successfully convinced the US to insist on certain points in the Iran deal, contributing to Washington’s “no” response to much of Tehran’s latest demands.

But hours later, several Israeli outlets, including The Jerusalem Post, reported on Mossad chief David Barnea’s remarks in meetings with Lapid and other figures in the government, and the Mossad chief sounded far more circumspect about the latest developments.

Contrary to Lapid, Barnea said: “Maybe [the US] toughened certain stances, but how does that help us?”

The deal will still be bad, even if the US insists on certain details, and Barnea expressed hope it will not be reached at all.

Barnea said the US was accepting a deal “that will be based on lies,” which will “increase the danger” for Israel.

“The US can get up and leave [the Middle East] one day; we cannot leave,” Barnea said, in what can be seen as a hint at one of the Biden administration’s greatest blunders in Afghanistan.

A source close to Lapid pushed back against the narrative that Barnea contradicted him or was more extreme than the prime minister knew he would be. The two spoke on the phone after that narrative reverberated in several newspapers and other outlets, the source said, and they laughed about it and tried to figure out how they got that idea.

Maybe Lapid was totally fine with what Barnea said. Maybe they even planned it that way, for Barnea to go farther than Lapid would. But the prime minister doth protest too much, methinks, in acting as though Barnea’s remarks are no different from his. Lapid has not criticized the US directly, only the deal itself, and the closest he’s gotten was to say that the latest draft of the Iran deal contradicts what the US president promised to Israel.

Netanyahu chimes in 

FOUR DAYS later, on Monday, the criticism came from a much less surprising source, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

The former prime minister considers his battle against the original Iran deal, in 2015, as a crowning achievement of his foreign policy – even if it didn’t actually stop the deal from being signed. Netanyahu’s speech before both houses of Congress, and Israel’s broader political and public relations campaign against an Iran deal, helped turn US public opinion against the deal and bring Gulf states that view Iran as an adversary closer to Israel, as he tells it.

And sustaining that criticism in the ensuing years, along with the daring Mossad operation to smuggle Iran’s nuclear archive to Israel, brought former US president Donald Trump to leave the deal in 2018, Netanyahu says. Though Iran’s nuclear advances came in the aftermath of that decision, they mostly came after Trump lost the election and Joe Biden, who promised to try to return to the deal and abandon Trump’s “maximum sanctions” policy, won.

The opposition leader already laid out this argument last week, with a classic Netanyahu PowerPoint presentation aired live on his Facebook page.

On Monday, Netanyahu went to the Prime Minister’s Office for a briefing from Lapid and his military secretary, Maj.-Gen. Avi Gil, about the latest developments in Iran nuclear talks.

“On matters of national security, there is no opposition and coalition in Israel,” Lapid said in a statement released as their meeting began, along with a photo of him and Netanyahu staring intently at each other across a desk. “Israel is strong and will act together to protect its security interests from those who try to harm us.”

That was at 5 p.m. About an hour later, Netanyahu held court outside the Prime Minister’s Office, in front of a press gaggle that his spokesman had invited.

“Unfortunately, I left more concerned than when I entered,” Netanyahu said. “We will support every public, assertive stance against the nuclear deal, but I don’t see such a public approach. It’s the opposite; I think that Lapid and [Defense Minister Benny] Gantz fell asleep on the job.”

Netanyahu paraphrased some of Barnea’s remarks, referring specifically to the Mossad chief when saying that “the deal is even worse than its predecessor and is a strategic disaster for the State of Israel.”

Lapid and his emissaries “should meet dozens of senators, hundreds of members of Congress right now in the US to pressure the Biden administration not to do this,” Netanyahu lamented. “Every hour spent not doing that is an hour wasted.”

Then Netanyahu ended with “a clear message to the ayatollahs in Iran,” which serves double duty as a message to Israeli voters.

“On November 1, we will establish a strong, assertive leadership here that, with or without an agreement, will ensure that you will never have a nuclear weapon. That is our commitment,” he said.

The following hour, Lapid waved Netanyahu off.

“I will not get into this melee, because it harms Israel’s security. There is a great importance to a united Israeli stance against the Iranians’ attempt to attain nuclear weapons. I call on the opposition leader and everyone not to let political considerations harm our national security,” he said.

Netanyahu did not continue the back-and-forth at that point, but he would have likely argued that his consideration is national security, not politics.

The unusual results of the latest polling on Israelis’ priority issues in the upcoming election would support that. Contrary to most past elections, in which security was a top concern for voters, an Israel Democracy Institute survey from early August found that only 11% of Israelis said foreign policy and security strongly influence their party preference. The economy and cost of living (44%), identity of the party leader (24%) and religion and state matters (14%) came before that.

In addition, Lapid actually criticized Netanyahu in a similar fashion in 2015. Contrary to what Netanyahu has been saying, Lapid did not support the Iran deal back then. However, Lapid was vocally critical of Netanyahu’s speech before Congress that was not coordinated with then-president Barack Obama, as the prime minister continues to be, arguing that it caused lasting damage to the US-Israel relationship.

Putting things in perspective 

IT’S EASY for Lapid to dismiss Netanyahu’s remarks as political when it’s two months before an election. What is less easy is to get people to disregard how much farther Barnea went in his remarks.

Two weeks after National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata went to Washington to meet with American counterpart Jake Sullivan and, according to Lapid, convince him to take up a firmer stance with Iran, the Mossad chief will be on Capitol Hill to address the House and Senate Intelligence committees.

Diplomatic sources in Washington said this week that the White House is aware of Barnea’s trip, and therefore it is not comparable to Netanyahu speaking before Congress.

But if, when talking to journalists, Barnea couldn’t hold back his ire over the Biden administration’s likely acceptance of a “fraudulent” agreement that will “increase the danger” to Israel, chances are that he will have some choice words in Washington, as well.