The last time the world powers and Iran were on the verge of signing a nuclear agreement was in the spring of 2015, and Israel’s reaction was thunderous fury.
Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu did the unthinkable: walked into the US Congress and – against then-president Barack Obama’s express wishes – delivered a speech against the deal. This was the culmination of a years-long Netanyahu campaign to shout from every microphone and television studio available, warning that the impending accord was an unmitigated disaster – for Israel, the region and the world.
Fast forward seven years, and the world powers and Iran are again on the verge of entering a nuclear agreement. This time, however, Israel’s reaction is barely registered muted opposition.
Yes, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said before Sunday’s cabinet meeting that the agreement will make it more difficult to tackle Iran’s nuclear program, and he did talk to US President Joe Biden about the deal in a phone call that evening – their first conversation in more than four months. But that’s pretty much it.
If Israel is opposed – which it is – nobody is hearing much about it.
And this matters on two counts.
First, it matters because absent a strong Israeli opposition to the deal, it will be more difficult inside the US for opponents of the deal to mobilize. Republican senators have sent a letter to Biden this week reminding him that he must submit any nuclear agreement to Congress for a review process that could hinder the implementation of any deal, and Democratic Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez expressed serious reservations about the deal during a speech on the Senate floor. But in contrast to 2015, this time around these opponents don’t have fiery rhetoric from Jerusalem to give them a strong back wind.
How much can anyone expect Menendez to buck his party’s president and oppose the deal if even Israel isn’t making that much of a fuss about it? Why should he be more Catholic in this regard than the pope?
And second, it matters because other countries in the Mideast, as concerned about a nuclear Iran as Israel is, are expecting at least a strong Israeli public position on the matter – but are not hearing one.
Former ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, a key architect behind Netanyahu’s address to Congress in 2015, said in an interview with Mishpacha magazine in December 2020, just before leaving his post, that Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was critical in forging relations with moderate Arab countries that culminated in the signing of the Abraham Accords five year later.
“Without that speech, I doubt that we’d have peace deals with the Arab states today,” he said.
In Dermer’s telling, the speech significantly raised Israel’s stature in the eyes of the Arab states as many concluded that if Israel’s premier was willing “to stand up for what he believes in,” even if it meant a frontal confrontation with the United States president, then Israel was no American “vassal state,” but rather is an “independent force” that could be relied upon.
“I can tell you as a fact that the speech dramatically accelerated contacts beneath the surface between Israel and many Arab states,” Dermer said.
Dermer said that at a time when the Arab states saw that the US was keen on leaving the Mideast, they looked at an Israel that was leading the charge against the Iranian nuclear deal – even against Obama’s wishes – and concluded that it was a country with which it was worth forging strong partnerships.
But if those were the conclusions some in the Arab world drew back then, when Israel was loudly at the forefront of the battle against the Iranian nuclear deal, what conclusions might they be drawing from Israel’s silence today? As Iran and the world powers are apparently entering the final phase of talks before reviving the deal, surely there are many in leadership positions around the region asking, “Where is Israel?”
So, indeed, where is Israel? Why hasn’t the Bennett-led government put up more of a public fight to the emerging nuclear deal.
Those who are charitable might say this is a calculated policy decision. Those who are charitable might say that those now in power in Jerusalem saw the harm Netanyahu’s battle with the Obama administration over Iran did to US-Israel ties, at least until Donald Trump came into power, and concluded that it just isn’t worth it, and that the costs of going toe-to-toe with a US president outweigh the benefits.
Those who are charitable might argue that the current government in Jerusalem prefers working behind the scenes with the Americans; that it prefers influencing them from behind closed doors. But this would be being very charitable, because by the looks of it, it doesn’t appear as if this “quiet diplomacy” has had much of an impact. Biden was determined to re-enter the deal, and it appears Biden is going to re-enter the deal.
For the Biden administration, having Israel weigh in against the deal in private meetings between the countries’ national security advisers and their top defense and diplomatic officials, is perfect. This enables Washington to say it is listening to Israel’s objections – then turn around and summarily ignore them. At the same time, American opponents to the deal no longer have loud Isareli opposition to support their own objections.
In this charitable telling, the post-Netanyahu, quiet diplomacy approach to the Iran nuclear deal was the result of a conscious decision, of watching what Netanyahu did in battling the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is formally known, and then deliberately doing the opposite after concluding that what Netanyahu did, did not work.
But that ignores one thing: Bennett is a politically weak prime minister in command of only six Knesset seats who is barely known around the world, and what he has to say on the matter hardly registers. If Bennett is finding it difficult to command the obedience of his own government on domestic issues, can he really be expected to galvanize those in the world opposed to the Iran nuclear deal?
Love him or hate him, Netanyahu had a long record on Iran and both a stature and presence on the world stage that compelled people to listen. People might not have agreed with him or liked what he had to say, but they heard him. Bennett, because he is a weak prime minister who will be out of power certainly by August 2023 – if not beforehand – has neither the track record on Iran nor his predecessor’s gravitas.
Even if Bennett wanted to speak up on the issue – and apparently he does not – would it even matter? So he, and his government, remain quiet as yet another nuclear accord with Iran – one which Jerusalem believes is a dangerous mistake – is just about to be concluded.