Bennett quietly expresses discontent with US overtures to Iran - analysis

PM Naftali Bennett protested Rob Malley's approach to Iran by refusing to meet on Monday.

 Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett 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 during a ceremony after the largest ever police operation against illegal gun dealers, in Tel Aviv, November 9, 2021.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett isn’t trying to snub US Envoy for Iran Rob Malley, who was in Israel on Monday. He just doesn’t want to send a positive message about what Malley is doing by meeting him.

If that sounds contradictory to you, well, you’re not the only one.

Sources close to Bennett insisted on pointing to protocol in response to reports of a snub. After all, they said, the US special representative for Iran is not at the same diplomatic level as Israel’s leader – Bennett also did not meet with Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo, who was in Israel this week.

However, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz flouted protocol and met with Malley. Plus, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not pull rank when he made sure to meet with Malley’s predecessors, Elliott Abrams and Brian Hook.

That the previous Iran envoys were Hook and Abrams, staunch opponents of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and the current one is Malley, the nuclear deal’s biggest booster in the Biden administration, makes all the difference. Malley’s advocacy for engagement is especially relevant at this point because indirect talks between the US and Iran are supposed to restart in two weeks.

Iranian flag flies in front of the UN office building, housing IAEA headquarters, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Vienna, Austria, May 24, 2021. (credit: LISI NIESNER/ REUTERS)Iranian flag flies in front of the UN office building, housing IAEA headquarters, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Vienna, Austria, May 24, 2021. (credit: LISI NIESNER/ REUTERS)

Bennett did not want to send a message that he supports Malley’s efforts by meeting with him, and that message came through loud and clear, even if his office is unhappy with reporters using words like “snub” and “boycott.”

“We have no desire to legitimize a process that is very, very wrong,” said a senior diplomatic source. “We really don’t want the Americans to think that Israel is comfortable with what is happening. We’re not.”

At the same time, Israel remains in constant contact with the US at the highest levels to express its discontent.

Unlike Bennett, Lapid saw a meeting with Malley as an appropriate venue to air those concerns, since he is foreign minister and Malley is a representative of the State Department, the equivalent US agency, on a matter as important as Iran. Lapid reiterated Israel’s opposition to the JCPOA, and the view that Iran is using the negotiations to draw out more time as it continues to advance its nuclear program toward breakout.

A source in the meeting said it went well, with Malley mostly listening to Lapid’s point of view.

Though there was nothing new in the meeting – both sides’ views were known and did not change – “It’s important that they’re listening to us because they used to not do that,” the source posited.

More than one Israeli senior diplomatic source said that, at this point, the Biden administration is pursuing a return to the JCPOA, but even Washington realizes that it’s a longshot.

The Iranians continue to present their agreement to return to talks as only a sanctions relief move.

“The talks will not be about the nuclear issue,” said top negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani, according to Iranian state media Press TV on Friday. “The main purpose of these talks from the Islamic Republic of Iran’s standpoint is to remove the illegal sanctions imposed on the Iranian nation by the US government” after the US left the Iran Deal in 2018.

If Iran sticks to that model for the negotiations, the only option for the US to exit with a deal is what’s called “less for less.” The US would lift sanctions in exchange for Iran not continuing to advance its nuclear deal, but not rolling back the immense progress it has made in recent years beyond the original limits of the JCPOA.

For Israel, that option is even worse than the JCPOA, giving Iran massive funds to do what it did last time it got economic relief – ignite proxy warfare throughout the region – and remain closer to the threshold of a nuclear weapon than ever before. It is relieving pressure on Iran without receiving almost anything in return.

“Less for less” did not come up in the Malley-Lapid meeting, but it has been mentioned between Israeli and American officials, with the Israeli side making clear its unequivocal opposition, a diplomatic source said.

Israel remains disappointed and worried about the direction that the US is taking, and its hard push toward a return to the JCPOA, even when any benefit of such an agreement with Iran becomes more and more elusive as time goes on.

Yet Bennett and Lapid still maintain that while the gaps on the Iran deal are significant, they chose the right strategy by not making a big public campaign against the Biden administration on this front. They continue to cooperate whenever possible, maintaining the strategic asset of close US-Israel relations, and Jerusalem speaks out when it’s most important – which they view as opposing the JCPOA, and opening a consulate for the Palestinians in Jerusalem.

In that way, Bennett’s calculation not to meet with Malley is his way of sending a message within the narrow confines of opposing the Biden administration’s overtures to Iran while not picking a fight in public. He doesn’t have to meet with Malley because of protocol, and he’s not going to do it because of its potential content.