There is never a dull moment in the Middle East, or so is the conventional wisdom about the region, but these days the pot is really boiling over one key issue, the issue which will determine the politics of the region in the foreseeable future. In one word it is about Iran. Israel and Iran are locked in a struggle of wills and abilities, as well as patience and priorities. It is a struggle over the eyes and ears of US President-elect Biden and his foreign policy team, and it is also a struggle over the patience and priorities of still-sitting US President Donald Trump. This piece is a mini-simulation exercise, trying to observe and predict the main interests, expectations and actions of these four actors.
Israel is clearly restive about the change of administrations in Washington, and it is not even trying to hide it. The concerns about a change with regards to the Palestinian issue are there, but they are not the ones which really deprive Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of precious sleeping time. Biden will definitely make gestures towards the Palestinians which will be condemned in Jerusalem, but will not lead to any fundamental changes, because, for example, even if financial assistance is restored to the Palestinian Authority, then most of the money will find its way to the bank accounts of the leadership as is customary over there. If the PLO office will be reopened in DC, then again, the question is so what? After all, the Democratic “squad” operates as the PLO/PA propaganda arm with or without a formal office. Reopening the consulate in east Jerusalem will be a compensation for the Palestinians for not moving the Embassy back to Tel Aviv. Not pleasant, but not an unmanageable problem either. So it is the Iran nuclear deal, which is uppermost on the agenda, and Netanyahu’s government knows that it is going to be reactivated in one way or another. Here is where the Israelis have their work cut out for them-putting pressure on Biden to do it in a way which will reduce the pitfalls of the Obama 2015 deal, and there are so many of them, and how to do it. The idea is to expose the dangers of a restoration without changes of the deal, while not doing things which will antagonize the Biden team, and also will lead to an open, all out confrontation with Iran. What is happening on the ground in Iran and Syria indicates that forces hostile to the regime are working diligently and effectively against vital targets in both countries. This is a risky course of action but an unavoidable one, and the ally of Israel here is the Trump administration. They are committed to the end to their anti-Iran deal position, and make no fuss about Israeli activities in Syria. That said, Netanyahu should be so careful not to be seen as if he is sub-contracting the current administration, because that in itself can and will motivate the Biden team to take action about Iran which will further aggravate Israel, and will weaken Israel’s ability to work with those Democrats who are Biden people but are known to be in the pro-Israel camp. One way in which Netanyahu can deal with it, is to evade any provocative move in the Palestinian front, instead to initiate steps designed to restore cooperation with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and doing this can have a positive impact on the Biden team. It can also help Israel in mobilizing Arab support to the anti-Iran deal coalition. See in this regard the Saudi maneuvers over the question of normalization with Israel, and how they are tied with the Palestinian question. As Israel needs the Saudis’ help in the struggle against the Iran deal, then it should refrain from steps which could undermine it, rather try to do whatever would help it. Altogether, It will be easier for Israel to confront Biden over Iran than over the Palestinian issue, so this is the challenge for Netanyahu. As for the Biden team themselves, as of now they are holding back their hand, evading formal, obliging foreign policy commitments, and so keep options open. Can it be that behind closed doors there are those in his team who quietly celebrate whenever they hear about another explosion or targeted killing in Iran, because they may think that it is weakening the Iranian position in another round of talks? We do not know, but in the world of covert diplomacy and intelligence activities, the very question posed here is not at all misplaced.With that in mind, we can turn now to the other main actor, maybe the most important one, surely the most secretive one, and that is Iran. These are difficult days for the Iranian regime, but also days with some hope, and this is exactly where their challenge is, and this is a matter of priorities. Put in a nutshell, it is to take action now against their enemies or wait for Biden. On the one hand, they suffer from the devastating effects of COVID-19, the number of fatalities which is vastly higher than the official stats as well as the economic damage. They are under pressure in Iraq and Syria, where their efforts to create the Shi’ite crescent are under effective attack from internal and external forces, and in Iran itself they sustain humiliating attacks on personalities and installations connected with their nuclear project. These attacks show their amazing exposure to the successful intelligence penetration of hostile forces, and also to the dramatic extent of the activities of their domestic enemies, and there are so many of those. They have to take into account consideration like prestige and deterrence, but also capabilities and yes, the Biden factor. They must realize that Israel and the Trump administration may want them to react in a way which will lead to strong, unbearable military retaliation against them. They must realize also, that any attack on US targets leading to American casualties, in particular, prior to January 20, will put pressure on Biden rather than on Trump. They can be worried also about a direct attack on Saudi Arabia, as they may push the Saudis into full cooperation with Israel in putting effective pressure on the Biden administration, and surely they cannot dismiss the risks involved with a direct provocation against Israel itself. On the other hand, they have their credibility to sustain and save. How many times can they threaten the US and Israel and not make good on their threats? I, for one, as a matter of principle, take threats seriously, so January 3, the first anniversary of the assassination of Iran’s top military commander, Qasem Soleimani, is a day to watch, as is January 19, Trump’s last day in office.Then there is something else. Can it be that the Iranians are holding their hand because they do have a secret message from the Biden team to the effect, that they should keep quiet, because a big bonanza is coming their way? This is as relevant a question as the one we asked before.So coming back to where we started. Boiling pot? Well, a real pressure cooker, a ticking time bomb, and when dealing with time bombs, the idea is to find the right time when and how to discharge them, but then this is one of those easier-said-than-done situations.■The writer is a Middle East expert who has taught at Tel Aviv University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Bar-Ilan University, Cornell University, City College of New York and York University (Canada). He is currently at the University of South Carolina, where he was chosen as best professor for 2019 by the student newspaper