Israel’s silence on Iran illustrates Bennett’s political weakness - comment

With no domestic political support and international prestige to lean on, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett can't do very much about the Iran deal.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Knesset plenum, February 7, 2022. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Knesset plenum, February 7, 2022.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In Vienna, the world is on its way to signing a disastrous deal with Iran – and in Jerusalem, there is a deafening silence.

The few words of protest that are heard occasionally from Israel’s leaders are too little and too late to have real impact on a deal that is far from being the “longer and stronger” one the Jewish state originally demanded.

The deal that is coming will rather be shorter and weaker. It is almost a complete capitulation to Iran and, as the Islamic Republic shortens its breakout time to just a handful of months, it is Israel that will ultimately pay the price.

In Israel, on the face of it, the quiet is surprising. Back in 2015, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett – then a minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet − was one of the greatest opponents of the JCPOA.

What people don’t always remember is that when Netanyahu flew to Washington in March 2015 to speak to Congress against the deal, Bennett was also in the US capital running between TV studios to speak against president Barack Obama’s flagship diplomatic achievement.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is seen looking out of his office window. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is seen looking out of his office window. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI)

Bennett was in Washington that same day for two reasons. He genuinely opposed the deal and he was facing an election two weeks later back home. If Netanyahu was in DC speaking against the deal, Bennett needed to be there trying to outflank him on the Right.

In other words, Bennett had at the time an ideological motivation and a political one, too.

Today, the equation has changed. While Bennett still genuinely opposes the deal, he no longer has the political interest to go up against it. In fact, the political interest today is just the opposite – don’t publicly fight the Americans and stay on good terms with President Joe Biden.

The reason this is politically expedient is because Bennett doesn’t really have an alternative. When Netanyahu went to DC and spoke against the deal – a move I believe was wrong due to the damage it caused bipartisan support for Israel – he could do so for two reasons: Netanyahu had international stature and prestige and he also had political support back home.

Bennett lacks both. He does not have international prestige – he is far from being a household name in the US – and he has no political support at home. Even if he wanted to go up against Biden, who would he take with him to the battle? His five fellow Yamina MKs? Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid won’t support it and neither will Labor’s Merav Michaeli or Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz.

SO WITH no domestic political support and no international prestige to lean on, he cannot do very much.

And that is a problem. It is a problem since in the end it is Israel that will be left to face an emboldened Iran in an already volatile region.

It is also a problem because, while the Republicans can oppose the deal, it is hard to do so when the Israeli leadership is silent on the matter. The little that Israeli leaders do say against the Vienna talks sounds mostly like lip service. Between the lines you can hear the resignation in their voices. They know they cannot do much and therefore they speak about it as little as possible.

Republicans are privately wondering where Israel has disappeared to. If it would want Kevin McCarthy to go to battle against the deal in the House of Representatives or for Mitch McConnell to do the same in the Senate, they need to hear something in Jerusalem.

Bennett and Lapid will argue that they are doing the right thing. They are avoiding a public fight with the Biden administration, which they anyway know they cannot stop from making a bad deal with Iran. In the end, they will argue, Israel will only be able to rely on itself anyway, and by avoiding a public fight with Biden they will have more maneuverability moving forward.

Bennett speaks about fighting Iran on multiple fronts and as “death by 1,000 cuts.” While there is legitimacy to that strategy, what it really illustrates is the resignation that on the nuclear front the battle might already be lost.

Bennett and Lapid are not the only ones responsible for this situation. They are right that Netanyahu’s strategy against Iran failed. When he convinced President Donald Trump to withdraw from the JCPOA in 2018, he neglected to prepare an alternative for the vacuum that was created.

The former prime minister should correctly be judged by the end result – Iran has moved closer to a bomb – and is now also closer to returning to the original bad deal.

But the same will be true about Bennett and Lapid. They, too, will be judged by the end result. A bad deal with Iran, if reached, is now also going to become part of their legacy.