One meeting was with an old friend. The other was with a critic. In both settings, Benny Gantz could essentially say, “I told you so.”
Israel’s defense minister was in Washington on Thursday for talks with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Gantz and Austin have been friendly since Gantz’s days in Washington as Israel’s defense attaché, while Austin helmed US Central Command, the combatant command with purview over America’s military activities in the Middle East. Blinken, meanwhile, chided Gantz mere weeks ago in a phone call regarding Gantz’s approval of the advancement of Israeli plans to build new homes in Judea & Samaria (the West Bank), contrary to the vocalized policy of the Biden administration. The call was tense, according to multiple Israeli officials.
Gantz came to the US with a checklist, and two of the boxes were seemingly ticked before he landed.
With American officials surprised at Iran’s recalcitrance in what seem like dead-end negotiations in Vienna surrounding the Iranian nuclear accord, the Biden administration appears, albeit slowly, to be coming around to Israel’s line of thinking all along: Better to waive the stick at Iran than the carrot.
A senior US official said this week that American and Israeli officials are discussing the possibility of military exercises to prepare for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, should diplomacy fail. The Biden administration has been looking to crawl back into the nuclear deal that former US President Donald Trump tossed into the trash. But, Iran has dragged out the discussions, backtracked on frameworks reached in previous rounds of talks and has been unrelenting in its demands that all sanctions – whether related to its nuclear program or not – be lifted immediately. In the meantime, Tehran has been enriching uranium at concerning levels as it speeds toward the capacity to weaponize its nuclear materials. It has also restricted monitors from the United Nations atomic watchdog from accessing its nuclear facilities, raising concerns about what the government is doing behind closed doors.
Israeli officials have prodded, pushed and practically begged the White House to establish a credible military threat to take down Iran’s nuclear program, and this week’s revelation of potential US-Israel military exercises is the first time Biden’s people have gone beyond the standard, “all options are on the table.”
In his remarks before meeting with Gantz at the Pentagon, Austin voiced his displeasure with the pace and tone of Tehran in the latest rounds of negotiations, adding “We share Israel’s deep concerns about the Iranian government’s destabilizing actions, including its support for terrorism and its missile program, and its alarming nuclear advances.”
Seated to Austin’s left was Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signifying the meeting’s importance and urgency.
Talks in Vienna on Thursday ended an hour after resuming following a few days’ pause, with tensions high after Tehran made demands that European countries strongly criticized. Last week’s session was the first in over five months, a gap caused by a new hardline government assuming power in Tehran.
Israeli officials have been pressing the Biden administration to ramp up sanctions on Iran, rather than concede to it in talks. Again, Gantz could check off a box, with reports emerging during his trip that a delegation of State Department and Treasury Department officials would travel in the coming days to the United Arab Emirates, with the goal of pressuring Tehran’s number two trade partner and reliable conduit for trade and financial transactions to play a greater role in helping its ally in Washington to enforce sanctions on Tehran already in place.
Biden “has asked his team to be prepared in the event diplomacy fails,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters during Gantz’s visit. If talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 agreement curbing Iran’s nuclear program fail, “we will have no choice but to take additional measures” to restrict Iran’s revenue, she said.
Gantz and Austin also discussed the possibilities that may come with expanded normalization between Israel and its Arab and Muslim neighbors.
“Only a strong, secure Israel can extend its hand in peace to its neighbors. Only a strong and secure Israel can expand the Abraham Accords and normalization, deepen our ties with Jordan and Egypt, and build confidence with our Palestinian neighbors,” Gantz said.
Ironically, the Palestinian issue has both won Gantz plaudits and caused him headaches at the State Department, where he met with Blinken. Largely out of domestic political considerations, the defense minister has taken a lead role in the current government in smoothing and improving relations with the Palestinian Authority, even as a diplomatic peace process seems at a dead-end. Gantz is the highest-level government official to meet with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister Essawi Frej hinted on Thursday that a second meeting may be in the works. Gantz has initiated or approved a number of other measures intended to improve the economic situation in the Palestinian-governed territories.
Yet, any proposed Israeli settlement expansion has drawn increasing wrath from the Biden administration, and Gantz has become Blinken’s punching bag on the matter, due to the defense ministry’s oversight of disputed territory where Jewish settlers live.
The minister said that Gantz “expressed his gratitude for the personal and professional contribution made by Secretary Blinken to the enduring US-Israel bond and to many years of friendship,” spoke of opportunities in the new Middle East and touched on ways to “advance confidence-building measures between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, including economic and civilian measures.”
Still, it’s the American secretary’s team at the table in Vienna. A promise by then-nominee Blinken to bargain for a “longer, stronger nuclear deal” turned into a recent pitch for a “less is less” model, which was frowned on by both Jerusalem and Tehran – a rare point of agreement between the two.
Israeli officials have proclaimed – loudly and behind closed doors – that Iran was never serious about re-entering the nuclear accord, and has simply been buying time, playing the Americans for suckers. Based on American rhetoric this week, it seems the US has finally come around and is ready to engage in discussions on a topic Israel has been pushing for months – a Plan B.